CSSW Responds to the Afghan Refugee Crisis

November 15 @ 4:28 pm
By Janet Young and Eleni Vlachos

Social work leaders working with refugees and displaced persons offer key takeaways for moving forward.

The withdrawal of United States troops from Afghanistan, which concluded on August 30 after 20 years of war, forced hundreds of thousands of Afghans to leave the country or attempt to leave. Already, Social Work faculty are working with the University’s Committee on Forced Migration to respond to the crisis, beginning with the placement of Afghan students and scholars. We reached out to them and others working in the region to hear their observations, recommendations, and the implications for the field of social work. Here is what we learned.


Mashura Akilova (bio)
Lecturer in Discipline of Social Work
Dr. Akilova is co-editor of a forthcoming book on integrative social work practice with refugees, asylum seekers, and forcibly displaced persons.

“When we consider social work practice with displaced persons, we are mostly responding to the consequences of the actions that led to displacement, which mostly focuses on services provided to refugees and asylum seekers. Social workers within this field rarely have an opportunity to question why certain events came to be, nor do they have a say and power to challenge the global systems of oppression. One of the guiding principles of social work is social justice, and we have a responsibility to address injustice, including the conditions and interventions that lead to disruption of peace and livelihoods.

“Years of intervention and political power play in Afghanistan since 1838 by the British, Soviet, and U.S. governments have led to generations of people experiencing life in conflict. Under the current Taliban government, human rights, especially the rights of women and girls, have been severely eroded. More than 550,000 Afghan people were newly displaced in 2021 due to violence and fear of the new government, and the global community is entertaining the idea of negotiating with extremists that have closely cooperated with and harbored international terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda. The European Union parliament has committed 250 million euros to Afghanistan’s neighbors to keep the refugees within their borders and prevent them reaching Europe, a similar exclusionary approach that has kept the Syrian refugees in Turkey. The burden as usual falls on the countries of the Global South, where 86% of the displaced persons are hosted, to address the fallout of the military interventions of the Global North. Afghanistan’s neighbor Tajikistan currently hosts 15,000 Afghans and is expecting to accept up to 50,000 by the end of 2021. Uzbekistan, another neighboring country, hosts up to 7,000 refugees.

“Social work should find more places at the decision-making tables. If we are going to train social workers to practice with displaced persons, we need to emphasize their roles in challenging oppression and systems of privilege, rather than only contributing to addressing the consequences, which would include holding the U.S. government accountable for its actions and their consequences as well as advocating for protection of human rights. We should also focus more on internationalizing our curricula, so that diverse perspectives can break through our informational, intellectual, and methodological silos.”


Anindita Dasgupta (bio)
Director, Advancing Solutions in Policy, Implementation, Research and Engagement for Refugees (ASPIRE)
Through ASPIRE, Dr. Dasgupta and the ASPIRE team have led global research efforts focusing on the health of Syrian refugee women.

“As the United States and specifically New York State prepare to welcome thousands of Afghan refugees, it is vitally important to understand the context from which they will come. Forced migrants demonstrate incredible strength and resiliency in the face of extreme trauma. This is particularly true for those coming from Afghanistan, where the country has suffered from over 40 years of conflict resulting in the displacement of over 6 million Afghans. Violence has increased in Afghanistan since January, and women and children account for over 80 percent of those displaced within Afghanistan since May 2021. Women and girls from Afghanistan face further vulnerabilities given the growing threats to safety and autonomy under Taliban control.

“Refugee resettlement agencies and non-profit agencies working closely with Afghan refugees must be prepared to provide care that is trauma-informed and tailored to gender and culture. In our work with Syrian refugee women in Jordan and the providers who give direct services to refugees in Turkey, we see many parallels in what social service agencies in the United States may face. This work has shown the importance of integration of mental health services and programs to support survivors of gender-based violence. It has also highlighted the need to support providers who dedicate their lives to supporting forced migrants to ensure a healthy environment for both practitioners and forced migrants.

“We hope to expand ASPIRE’s reach to support agencies focused on supporting refugees from Afghanistan in the coming months through advocacy, intervention programming support, research, and education.”


Assel Terlikbayeva (bio)
Regional Director, Global Health Research Center of Central Asia (GHRCCA)
GHRCCA develops and advances evidence-based, sustainable solutions to emerging public health and social issues in the Central Asia region.
“Currently, Uzbekistan is the only Central Asian country that has a temporary camp for a small number of Afghan refugees before further evacuation by the US military. Around 65,000 Afghans were evacuated to military camps in the United States. Kazakhstan has no border with Afghanistan and has not agreed to the US military request for a temporary placement of Afghan refugees who previously worked with the US administration.

“Experts expect that most new Afghan refugees will flee to neighboring Iran and Pakistan, the countries that hosted Afghans before the Taliban’s takeover. In the past, tens of thousands of Afghans have journeyed from Iran on foot to reach Turkey, where millions of migrants either stay or transit to Europe. Though Central Asia has not experienced a flow of Afghan refugees yet, the region has its own permanent internal migration crisis.

“GHRCCA has a long history of projects assessing the risks of HIV and TB among migrants and developing interventions to address their needs. Given that Central Asia and Afghanistan are regions with a very high rate of multidrug-resistant TB, heavy drug use, and rising rates of HIV driven by drug use, the US should consider developing comprehensive HIV and TB screening, prevention, and treatment programs for Afghan refugees.”


Both ASPIRE and GHRCCA are part of Columbia’s Social Intervention Group, led by University Professor and Willma and Albert Musher Professor of Social Work Nabila El-Bassel. To learn more about opportunities to contribute to the Social Intervention Group’s work, visit their Get Involved page.

To learn more about helping Afghan scholars and students, visit the Global Centers response page.