By Assunta Nicolini
September 15, 2013
Little was known of Afghans and Afghanistan before the anti-Soviet jihad. Since then, thanks to the media, a growing number of regional experts and humanitarians, many westerners can now locate Afghanistan on the world map. The knowledge of its people, however, has remained a more elusive endeavour: tribal, remote, and conservative and of course, refugees, or more precisely, asylum seekers. For the less knowledgeable, or a more distracted eye, 2012 represents the year when Afghan asylum seekers flooded Europe in thousands, more precisely 26,000. Australia, too, has emerged as one of the most affected destinations, with over 13,000 Afghan refugees reaching its shores.
A more attentive look, however, tells us that millions of Afghans have been displaced in the region for decades; resulting in the largest refugee crisis the UNHCR has ever dealt with in history (Syria is contending that primate nowadays). For over 30 years, about three million Afghans resided in Pakistan and a further three in Iran.
Historically, the Afghans’ displacement has been linked to a cycle of armed conflicts and environmental calamities. Still, crossing borders seeking seasonal jobs has also been, for centuries, as I have noted elsewhere, a coping mechanism adopted by a large proportion of Afghans in order to deal with structural economic hardship and recurrent crises. In a land marred by poverty and insecurity, in fact, mobility and migration often were, and still are, the coping mechanism of choice, or rather, of necessity. As a consequence, a ‘culture of migration’ has become a defining feature of the Afghan society, to such an extent that in some areas, depriving Afghans of their mobility is tantamount to condemning them to a hopeless future.
The post 2001 scenario, defined by a western quest for security at all costs, has seen a shift in the policies governing the lives of most Afghan refugees, in particular, those living in Pakistan and Iran. More in detail after 2001, the UNHCR adopted ‘voluntary return’ as durable solution to the refugee crisis and since then more than 5.7 million returned to Afghanistan. Despite the fact that ‘sustainability’ was the key word in the return and reintegration policy, in practice, Afghanistan has been unable to absorb such a large number of people. Reintegrating these refugees did not prove to be a straightforward task: returnees who had lived abroad for decades, upon repatriation often did not return to their place of origin, as expected. With no land in their areas of origin and little local connections left, most Afghans headed instead to the capital hoping to benefit from the advantages an urban boom would offer. As a result, the population of Kabul grew from two million in 2001 to 4.5 million in 2010, with almost 70 per cent living in informal settlements. Add to the influx of returnees almost 500,000 internally displaced people, of which over 50,000 live in camps, in and around the capital, and the word ‘sustainability’ becomes meaningless.
In such circumstances, it is not surprising that so many returnees packed up and left again: returning to their plagued homeland did not imply the end of their migration story. Almost in a cyclical way, many Afghans head where their resources can take them: $15,000 to $20,000 can buy a passage into Europe, while reaching Australia requires the additional, deadly risk of travelling by boat.
With such dynamics at work, a complex mix of motivations and push factors governs the flow of people leaving, making it difficult to discern between refugees and economic migrants. Classical legal categories, adopted to define migration statuses, have become increasingly blurred, thus highlighting the need to recognise that today’s outflow from Afghanistan is defined by a mixed nature, reflecting the broader paradigm of ‘mixed migration’. Many Afghans who had started their journey as refugees, in the last decade as before, have rebuilt their lives by becoming economic migrants. The thousands, who were able to overcome the hurdles of asylum applications in the West, became soon capable of standing on their feet and build a life that, more often than not, would have been inconceivable in their home country. The stoical resilience of Afghans, their determination and ambition must have all contributed to the creation of thriving communities scattered mostly throughout Europe, Australia and the US.
Take London for example, in the last 10 years most stalls in the capital’s vast network of street markets are either manned or owned by Afghans. Amidst the difficulty of sustaining themselves in a very expensive city, a large majority of these Afghans send home, more or less regularly, considerable amounts of money, mostly through the Hawala system. Although exact data on the current volume of remittances in Afghanistan are not available, in 2006, the figure was estimated to be around $2.5 billion. The impact of such a flow of money, on Afghans and the Afghan economy, cannot not be overlooked, while it is worth remembering that migration and development go hand in hand.
One can easily foresee that the volume of Afghan migration is destined to grow in the near future. With the departure of coalition forces from Afghanistan and alarming ‘insecurity trends’, Afghans will continue to look abroad for protection, better education and to improve their economic status. A diffused fear of the resurgent Taliban and the specter of a new civil war make many Afghans wary that the fragile achievements of the last 10 years might be lost and they look at the future with uncertainty.
Demographics, too, are likely to become a major determinant for the future of migration from Afghanistan. With about 60 per cent of the population below the age of 20 — the new generations nourish aspirations that are likely to push them abroad, since they have little to lose leaving home. Despite growing numbers of youths getting education, the fact that employment opportunities are so scarce — approximately 500.000 jobs would be required to fulfil the current demand means many are left with limited alternatives, other than to leave.
Besides, it is important to consider that the ongoing withdrawal of NATO forces and the closure of hundreds of aid and reconstruction projects have already impacted on today’s unemployment figures. In Bagram, where the US maintains the largest military base in the country, 2,000 people have lost their jobs in the first six months of 2013. If this represents the trend for the near future, needless to say, the effect of NATO’s drawdown will be devastating.
Solutions are not easy to find: the Afghan government seems still far from being able to provide for the needs of Afghanistan’s growing and rapidly changing population. However, a few alarm bells should have rung already among policymakers, both in the West and within Afghanistan itself. The Afghan ministries of Labour and Social Affairs, the Ministry of Finance and the less resourced but nonetheless vital Ministry of Refugee and Repatriation, need to develop an effective policy aimed at protecting Afghans who migrate, and this can only happen with the support of international partners. This is to say that it has become imperative to move away from a paradigm protecting exclusively refugees, towards one that is capable of protecting economic migrants too. By doing so, many Afghans will not risk being left to linger in a western legal limbo where their immigration status is concerned; besides supporting economic migrants this will also help to increase and formalise a source of revenues — remittances — crucial to help the Afghan economy stand on its own feet.
Assunta Nicolini is a London-based independent researcher and analyst focusing on migration issues and the nexus between forced migration and security, principally in Afghanistan and Pakistan.