Afghan vs Ukrainian Refugees: a Double Standard

Today marks the anniversary of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. One year ago, as the Taliban took over the country once again, hundreds of thousands of Afghans were evacuated or fled the country to avoid the terrorist regime. This week also saw the six-month mark for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – another conflict that has displaced millions of refugees.

But refugee advocacy groups have been concerned for a while now that Afghan and Ukrainian asylum seekers are treated unequally.


In the UK, advocates like the Harbour Project charity have condemned the disparity between the Home Office’s treatment of refugees of different origin. The Swindon-based organisation claims many Ukrainians receive immediate refugee status and are able to live in people’s homes, while Afghan refugees are left in hotels for months.

In its response, the Home Office has assured it helps all asylum seekers equally, stating it is “wrong to set these vulnerable groups against each other”. In the second quarter of this year alone, government data shows over 105,000 Ukrainian asylum seekers received visas to enter the UK under ‘bespoke’ schemes created for them.

As of February this year only about 6,500 Afghan refugees were granted protection under one of the UK’s two Afghan refuge schemes. Data released last week also shows the UK now has a backlog of 118,000 people in processing asylum claims.

Many Westerners responded to the Ukrainian war in a way that revealed a ‘racialised empathy gap’.

In Germany, some Afghans have been evicted from refugee housing to ‘make room’ for newly-arriving Ukrainians as early as April. And Belgian authorities rejected hundreds of Afghan refugee applications back in April, on the grounds that living in Afghanistan is no longer dangerous enough to warrant seeking asylum.

“We analyzed the safety situation in Afghanistan over the past months. There is still violence, but no longer random or arbitrary violence,” said CGRS Commissioner General Dirk Van Den Bulck.

The US

In America, say observers like Matt Zeller – adviser to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America – “there are clearly two refugee systems – one for Ukrainians and one for Afghans.”

Afghan refugees trying to enter the USA must show proof of vaccination and undergo an in-person interview with an American representative, as part of the ‘humanitarian parole’ scheme.

They also have to pay a $575 administrative fee – a requirement that is “almost impossible” to satisfy for many Afghans, who earn around $400 per year on average, says Adam Bates of the International Refugee Assistance Project.

Ukrainians are not beholden to any of these requirements.

The humanitarian parole scheme that most Afghans use to seek asylum in the US is a temporary measure, and does not provide a path to permanent residence in the country.

Over 100,000 Ukrainians have arrived in the US due to the war. This is only 20,000 less refugees than have fled from Afghanistan, despite the Taliban takeover happening twice as long ago. Only a few hundred Afghan refugees have been approved for humanitarian parole, compared to 27,500 Ukrainians.

“It’s working the way we wanted an Afghan parole program to,” says Jennifer Quigley, senior director of government affairs at Human Rights First.

There are several factors contributing to the disparity between the accessibility of asylum to Afghans vs Ukrainians. Most obviously, Afghans are racialised, while Ukrainians are not. The public has become desensitised to suffering in Afghanistan over the decades of conflict there, while the Russian invasion has hit many much harder. And more Ukrainians than Afghans have family in Western countries to make entry easier.

It’s a complex picture, and as the CEO of the Harbour Project says, there should be no “hierarchy of worthiness”. But the differences in the treatment of Afghan and Ukrainian refugees are stark.

Cover by USACE Afghanistan Engineer District-South, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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