Insights and Analysis

Uncertainty Drives Afghan Migrants to the West

May 3, 2017

By Sayed Masood Sadat

After Syrians, Afghans form the largest group of refugees in the European Union (EU), with over 360,000 asylum applications lodged in 2015 and 2016, according to official EU figures. Afghan migrants risk their lives during the months-long journey to reach Europe, which crosses thousands of kilometers in the Middle East and the Balkans. To embark on this perilous journey, the migrants pay human smugglers at least $5,000 per person, which they usually raise by selling their properties or borrowing from friends and families. Once they reach the EU, they face a 40 percent chance of asylum rejection, sometimes waiting in refugee camps for years until their case is decided. Even if they are successful and are let into an EU country, Afghan refugees still struggle to settle in Europe following the recent rise of populism and anti-immigration sentiments across the continent.

Afghan refugees

After Syrians, Afghans form the largest group of refugees in the EU, with over 360,000 asylum applications lodged in 2015 and 2016. Photo/ via Flickr Natalia Tsoukala/ Caritas International

The question then is: what drives Afghans to migrate to Europe despite these challenges? Certainly, Europe’s high standard of living, freedom, and safety are strong pull factors for migrants. However, 2015 saw an enormous, unexpected surge in Afghan migration to the EU, driven largely by new, different push and pull factors that have emerged.

According to Nematullah Bizhan, Afghanistan’s former deputy minister of Youth Affairs at the Ministry of Information and Culture, significant transitions in security, the economy, and politics have pushed many Afghans to leave their country since 2014. These transitions include the near-complete withdrawal of international security forces, a sharp decline in the inflow of aid, a subsequent increase in unemployment, poor economic growth, and a contentious 2014 presidential election.

These factors all contributed to the rise in migration numbers reflected in The Asia Foundation’s 2015 annual Survey of the Afghan People, which were the highest since the survey started asking this question in 2011. While 2016 asylum requests by Afghans in the EU remained at nearly the same level as 2015, interestingly, the 2016 survey results indicate a 10 percentage point decline in Afghans’ willingness to leave Afghanistan—the largest decrease measured by the survey on this topic (see fig. 1). This could be due to many reasons—an increased awareness of the risks of traveling to Europe, circulation of news about the EU-Turkey deal to deport refugees, news of violent backlashes against refugees in Europe, the EU-Afghan deal to deport Afghans refugees from Europe to Kabul, and the effect of anti-migration information campaigns by many European countries.

Fig 1: Percent of Afghans who reported willingness to leave the country (Survey of the Afghan People)

The 2015 and 2016 surveys also provide a better understanding of the demographic characteristics of those who report more willingness to leave the country. Afghan men who are single, educated, and living in an urban area reveal more willingness to leave the country. EU data on asylum seekers also show that more than two-thirds of recent asylum seekers are young men under the age of 35.

Survey respondents who expressed a willingness to leave their country cited insecurity and unemployment as two main motivating reasons. Investigating the relationship between the willingness to leave and various socio-economic and political factors also reveals that those who perceive corruption and bad governance as major problems likewise report a higher willingness to leave the country. Household economic conditions appear to have a less salient association with the willingness to leave the country—however, overall optimism levels do.

The 2016 survey results suggest the lowest level of optimism (29.3 percent) in the direction the country is moving since 2006 (see figure 2). Again, the common themes of insecurity, unemployment, and corruption are echoed as the top three reasons why respondents say Afghanistan is headed in the wrong direction. Moreover, the survey results reveal Afghans currently have the lowest confidence in their government, public institutions, the Afghan army, and the police recorded since 2006. Corruption and fear for personal safety reached record heights in 2015 and 2016, according to survey results. These indicators have resulted in lowering the national mood which plays a decisive role in shaping Afghans’ decision-making and willingness to leave the country.

Fig 2: Percent of Afghans who think their country is heading in the right direction or wrong direction (Survey of the Afghan People)

The current policy in the EU regarding Afghan refugees appears to be a combination of deterrence and exploring options to deport those who were rejected for refugee status inside the EU. According to a new study by Liza Schuster and Nassim Majidi, this approach might lead to additional problems. The study presents evidence that for returnees, deportation results in “deepening economic opportunity losses and the impossibility of repaying debts incurred by the initial departure, the social existence of transnational and local ties and responsibilities, and socio-cultural shame of failure and suspicions of the community.” These issues are compounded by the staggering numbers of Afghan refugees now returning from Pakistan and Iran, home to approximately three million Afghan refugees (In 2016, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 500 Afghans a day returned from Pakistan alone). This has increased in recent months as both countries have begun deporting Afghans in even larger numbers. The Afghan government is unable to accommodate the needs of such large number of returnees without addressing the root causes of the problem and developing appropriate reintegration mechanisms. This is likely to be a major blow to rehabilitation efforts in Afghanistan which Europe and the international community have heavily invested in for the past 15 years.

Evidence shows Afghans are greatly concerned about their security and employment now, but uncertainty and pessimism about the future of their country appears to be their intrinsic motivation to seek refuge abroad. Interventions must aim at providing Afghans with credible optimism about their future in Afghanistan, providing security and employment opportunities, and fighting corruption more effectively so that they are willing and able to stay and build their country.

Sayed Masood Sadat is a data analyst in the policy and research department for The Asia Foundation in Afghanistan. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funder.

Related locations: Afghanistan
Related programs: Economic Opportunity, Strengthen Governance, Survey of the Afghan People
Related topics: Migration


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