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From Forced Migration to Forced Returns in Afghanistan: Policy and Program Implications

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Afghanistan has long been a source of migration, both within the region and further afield. Yet as the nature of these movements continues to change, little information is available about the numbers of Afghans who have experienced migration, displacement, and return to the country. One commonly referenced figure, drawn from a 2009 report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, estimates that three out of four Afghans had at some point in their lives experienced displacement. A key feature of Afghan migration today—beyond outward migration and displacement—is return to Afghanistan, at times voluntarily but often forced. These returns, which include both migrants who only recently left Afghanistan and others who have lived abroad for decades, have significant implications for individuals, the society to which they return, and the dynamics of the migration system more broadly.

Initially, most returnees were refugees. The refugee repatriation program that followed the fall of the Taliban in 2002 was the largest run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to date. Returns were voluntary and driven primarily by refugees’ desire to return home and aid in the reconstruction of the country. A resurgence of violence in recent years and continued low economic growth have, however, brought spontaneous returns to a standstill. Instead, a rising number of Afghans continue to seek protection and a better life within and outside the region, including in European countries—a new Afghan exodus.

But forced movements out of Afghanistan and the experiences of destination countries is only one side of the migration picture. The other, less frequently discussed reality is one of forced returns, driven by restrictive policies in the countries where migrants and refugees have sought refuge. In the case of Afghanistan, these are returns from Iran, Pakistan, and now Europe. In 2016 alone, forced returns are estimated to have affected 1 million Afghans. This report draws on extensive field research, conducted between 2008 and 2017, to explore the dynamics of forced return through the lens of the Afghan experience.

At present, Afghanistan is faced with the difficult task of reintegrating unprecedented numbers of returning civilians while facing ongoing conflict and humanitarian crises. In parallel, the growing number of Afghan and other nationals seeking protection in Europe has motivated destination-country governments to look for ways to forestall further arrivals. European policymakers have favored two approaches: (1) attempting to address the root causes of migration through development and humanitarian assistance, and (2) facilitating repatriation through return and reintegration programs for those who are judged not to have legitimate protection needs. At the same time, neighboring Iran and Pakistan, which host the largest number of Afghan refugees and migrants, have increased pressure on Afghans to return. Returns have thus come to dominate Afghan migration patterns at one of the most insecure and unstable times in its recent history. This has created tensions for individuals, households, and entire communities across Afghanistan, with implications that are not only economic, but social and psychosocial as well.

By forcibly returning migrants and failed asylum seekers, with or without reintegration assistance upon arrival, policymakers hope to encourage returned migrants to remain in their country of origin and to deter others from undertaking the same journey. Yet migration from Afghanistan has remained high, and many returnees choose to leave again—a trend that suggests such policies are not achieving their goals. Several features of Afghan migration and return contribute to the limited effectiveness of these policies:

  • Migration is a key survival strategy and economic lifeline. For many Afghan individuals and families, migration remains a crucial strategy for mitigating the economic and security risks they face in Afghanistan. Without improved safety and livelihood prospects upon return, many will again turn to migration, creating a migration-return-remigration cycle as Afghans continue to move in search of protection and opportunities.

  • Returning migrants are increasingly diverse and have complex protection needs. While earlier voluntary returns consisted primarily of adult men, children and families make up a growing share of those returned. Many experience a need for psychosocial support, and families are frequently split across borders with little hope of reuniting legally. Age, mentalhealth concerns, and emotional strain make it difficult for many who return to (re)build a life in Afghanistan.

  • For many of those returned, Afghanistan is not “home.” This is particularly the case among youth, many of whom have never lived in Afghanistan and have instead spent most of their lives in Pakistan or Iran. Others have spent their formative years in European countries, arriving as minors and later being forcibly removed once they hit adulthood. They have no personal networks in or connections to Afghanistan, with loved ones and friends more likely to be in the countries where they grew up. For these young returnees, “home” is not synonymous with the homeland or country of citizenship, and cultural, social, and economic integration will not be easy.

European governments engaged in forced or assisted returns generally offer assistance in an attempt to mitigate some reintegration challenges. Yet such efforts face numerous limitations, including:

  • Thinking beyond economic integration. The support provided is often narrowly focused on economic integration and does not address more complex needs such as health care, psychological support, housing, or education.

  • Addressing the information gap. Stakeholders assisting returnees need reliable information about postreturn realities if they are to develop strong, effective strategies. For example, few return programs base the support they offer on a mapping of the local context (e.g., of labor market needs). As a result, initiatives are often insufficiently targeted or tailored to help returnees integrate locally.

  • Planning for reintegration before return. Support is provided only after return, despite evidence of more successful reintegration outcomes among returnees who are assisted in planning for their return prior to departure. Developing a reintegration plan before return can increase the commitment, confidence, and capacity of returnees to handle the high and low points of their postreturn lives to Afghanistan.

  • Coordinating between internal and international stakeholders. A lack of coordination both within the Afghan government and with international partners has limited the effectiveness of reintegration initiatives. Government authorities and partners on the ground are not always aware of when or where returns are happening, thus limiting their ability to prepare for, identify, and reach out to new returnees with supports.

  • Engaging migrants and communities in the process of designing supports for returnees. There is no broader dialogue on what being returned to Afghanistan means to individuals and families; returnees are not included in the process of defining pre- or postreturn support needs, have limited access to information that would help them plan for return, and are often unable to mobilize the resources needed to make return a viable long-term strategy.

Policymakers in countries initiating returns could address some of these limitations by first improving coordination with partners in Afghanistan, linking predeparture with postreturn counseling and assistance. A more comprehensive mapping of returnee needs and local contexts would make tailored reintegration programs more effective, as would enabling returnees to prepare for their departure before they are returned. Monitoring and evaluation of returnee outcomes is also needed to better understand what is working and in which contexts. Where monitoring is not feasible due to conflict and insecurity, returns should not be occurring.

Finally, policymakers should bear in mind the development benefits migration can hold for Afghan families as well as for the nation as a whole. Further research on this dynamic in the Afghan context is needed to provide the evidence required to support policy decisions. Governments could consider ways to open legal migration channels for Afghans who lack opportunities to find security and economic selfsufficiency at home. The national labor migration strategy adopted by the Afghan government in 2016 could provide a basis for managing such a legal migration program. Efforts that fail to recognize the importance of movement as a survival strategy may find their ability to reduce unauthorized migration severely limited, leading to a lose-lose situation for governments and individual Afghans alike.