North Africa, West Asia: Analysis

The truth is most Afghans don’t head west to Europe

Many in the West fear a potential influx of Afghan refugees – but they misunderstand the survival strategies of families in Afghanistan

Aziz A. Hakimi
20 August 2021, 10.22am
Many young Afghan men have strong ties to their families and do not want to migrate to Europe
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ton koene / Alamy Stock Photo

The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban has triggered global concerns about a new wave of refugees, with shocking scenes of desperate people trying to escape from Kabul airport reinforcing the idea of a migration crisis.

The moral panic over migration generates a politics of crisis, which in turn legitimizes the intensification of ‘exceptional’ measures aimed at securing Europe’s borders. The militarized response by Western states to the human misery unfolding at Kabul airport should be understood in this broader context of crisis and policing. This state of exception has generated a perverse, orientalist representation of the country, centred around the idea that only the US military and its NATO allies stand between Afghan civilians and Taliban barbarity.

This crisis-based reading of mobility through emergency is based on a historically inaccurate understanding of migration patterns in the region, which predates war and Western military intervention – or the ‘return’ of Taliban to power. A different political imagination is needed in this moment of ‘emergency’, one that offers the possibility of thinking about migration beyond the limits of humanitarian crisis. Although the present reality is grim enough, it is important to remember that Afghans migrate for reasons other than war or Taliban repression. The Taliban say that the war has ended and, as the security situation hopefully stabilizes, it is possible that Afghans will resume the regional patterns of migration that have long been key to life and livelihoods in rural households throughout Afghanistan.

My research shows that, until recently, many Afghans, especially young men, did not necessarily head to Europe to become refugees. Many of the young men I worked with in Afghanistan and Turkey in 2017 and 2018 had other, more mundane motivations for migration. These young Turkmen-speaking men from northern Afghanistan embarked on dangerous journeys through Pakistan and Iran to reach Turkey. There, they found jobs in the country’s construction and service industries, or as cooks, waiters, and cleaners. A few worked in a garment factory, and the clothes they made were exported to markets in the Middle East and Europe.

These men had strong social ties to their communities back home in Afghanistan, meaning hardly any were interested in migrating to Europe. Instead, they worked illegally in Turkey, under exploitative conditions and in constant fear of deportation. They aspired to masculine ideals – wanting to be the breadwinner, to provide for their families, and to achieve the social status and prestige that comes with marriage. An arranged marriage, in which the bride is chosen by the groom’s parents, is still considered the most prestigious route to matrimony and household formation in Afghanistan.

And so they sent remittances home to support their families and saved some money on the side towards a bride price. The marriage market has changed, and Afghan rural household resources, based on land and agriculture, are no longer sufficient – cash is instead required to pay a hefty bride price. Large, expensive weddings have also increasingly become the norm. After five to six years, the men would return to their villages to get married and start families. This circulatory mode of itinerant existence – working in Turkey and providing for families back home in Afghanistan – has come under intense pressure due to the pandemic, closed borders in the region, and armed conflict in Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s return to power might allow the return of Afghans’ circulatory mode of migrant existence

The other pattern of Afghan migration in the recent past was driven by war and conflict. In recent years, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that between 750,000 and one million Afghans migrated from Afghanistan to Europe annually, often passing through Turkey. During the rural phase of the conflict, before the Taliban overran Afghanistan’s major cities, the IOM recorded a 30-40% increase in the number of Afghans fleeing the country, with an estimated 20-30,000 people headed ‘westward’ every week. This has been attributed to the withdrawal of international troops and the subsequent deterioration in the security situation across the country.

The war will lose significance as a migration push factor but that does not necessarily mean the end of migration from Afghanistan. Older patterns of migration, disrupted by war and COVID-19, are likely to resume because of deep-rooted poverty in rural households and the intertwined nature of young Afghan men’s migratory and marital strategies. For now, with borders still closed, only a small number of Afghans leaving their country will eventually make it to regional labour markets such as Turkey. Pakistan, where millions of Afghans sought refuge during the conflicts of the 1980s and 1990s, has reportedly completed 90% of the fencing on the Durand Line, the British colonial border it shares with Afghanistan. Turkey is also busy building a wall along its border with Iran to stem the tide of Afghan migrants and refugees.

There is no denying that young Afghans leave their homes in search of safety and economic security. But the motivations and paths of Afghans are varied and complex. Before the Taliban took Kabul and reinstated their Islamic Emirate, this complexity could not be reduced to the neat scenario of a unidirectional ‘flight’ from Afghanistan.

For a start, not everyone is able to leave Afghanistan. While those with foreign connections are being evacuated, the vast majority of Afghans are stuck inside their country – with many too poor or lacking the resources to travel elsewhere. The number of internally displaced people is likely to be greater than those able to leave. This is particularly true in light of the unwelcome attitude of neighbouring states and heavily policed borders.

Even Afghans’ circulatory migration to Turkey and back, facilitated by networks of human trafficking, is affected by the criminalization of the circuit, as well as increased security across international borders. War and displacement in the north of Afghanistan undoubtedly affected this fragile cycle. With the loss of social networks and family connections in their villages, the young Afghan migrant men who were the subject of my ethnographic work in Istanbul were temporarily forced to look further west, to Europe. However, the end of conflict, with the Taliban returning to power in Kabul, might allow the return of Afghans’ circulatory mode of migrant existence.

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Prolonged periods of conflict, poverty, drought or unemployment, as in Afghanistan, have been push factors for migration outside the country. In fact, Afghanistan’s seasonal rural economy, which is based on agriculture and sharecropping, could only ever provide paid work to a small number of working-class men. This meant that many poor, rural men had to seek work in provincial centres or regional economic hubs, such as Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, Herat in the west, Kandahar in the south, Nangarhar in the east and Kabul in central Afghanistan. Those with greater resources and ambitions travelled abroad, heading to regional markets such as Turkey, especially if they were Turkmen-speaking workers from northern Afghanistan.

According to estimates, as many as 200,000 Afghan migrants currently live in Turkey, which remains an attractive destination despite attempts by the authorities to deport Afghans. Istanbul is the favourite destination for Afghan migrant workers, and the cost of travelling there, from southern Afghanistan through Pakistan and Iran, is not prohibitively high, coming in at anywhere between $800 and $1,000. Afghan migrants choose from many different ways to pay for the journey. They could mortgage family land in Afghanistan to secure a cash advance, or turn to friends and family already in Turkey. Some may spend a few years working in Iran, earning and saving enough to travel on to Turkey.

Afghan migrant workers were once welcome in Turkey as cheap labour. As illegal workers, they typically accepted lower wages and long shifts, of up to 12 hours, without insurance or social security benefits. But things have changed and the Turkish authorities started to deport Afghans in large numbers from 2018, with more than 200,000 Afghans arrested while entering Turkey in 2019, many of whom were deported. This has created another cycle of desperation.

Consider the case of two brothers that I interviewed. Deported in 2018, they made it back to Istanbul a few months later, but by that time were even more heavily indebted. Deportation imposes an additional financial burden on migrant workers because not only do they have to send remittances to the family back home and try to save for the bride price, they also now have to pay for their return journey to Turkey. The deported brothers had to borrow from relatives and friends to get back to Istanbul. For some men, it can take five or six years to save up enough to pay the bride price, which could be anything from $12,000 to $15,000. Those unfortunate enough to be deported have to work abroad for even longer before they can return to their homes in Afghanistan and get married.

In Istanbul in 2017 and 2018, it was clear to me that the hopes and expectations of the Afghans I encountered were out of sync with the political currents of the time. Anti-immigrant sentiments had hardened, both in the region and beyond. Now, with the fall of Kabul to the Taliban and expectations of a new wave of Afghan refugees, anti-immigrant sentiments in Europe and North America are likely to grow. But the mode of itinerant existence described above, in which young Afghan men work in Turkey to provide for their families back home, remains key to the survival of many rural households. Unfortunately, this itinerant pattern also continues to be threatened in multiple ways, not least by the pandemic.

That said, it may yet have a chance, now that active conflict in Afghanistan has ended. Once there is security in both rural parts and cities in Afghanistan, it is possible that the customary pattern of itinerant existence may stabilise. At a time of heightened anxiety in Europe about a likely influx of Afghan refugees, it is important to document a distinctive way of life and a unique migratory culture that does not look to Western countries. This essay is dedicated to my Turkmen-speaking interviewees from northern Afghanistan.

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