Migration and movement have characterised Afghanistan and its people for decades, if not centuries. From internal displacement due to conflict and natural disasters; to cross-border migration to Iran, Pakistan, and Europe; to relocation from rural areas to urban communities, Afghans have generations of experience with picking up and restarting their lives, elsewhere. With this experience comes unique skills, capacities and mindsets that have the potential to contribute to and build up the communities in which migrants settle. While many research studies commendably seek to evaluate and address the needs of migrants and communities, fewer studies examine the ways migrants could contribute to the communities where they reside and identify ways to support them. This contribution— and in particular economic participation—is critical to facilitate returnees long-term and sustainable reintegration in Afghanistan.
In early 2020, MAGENTA and UNDP undertook two studies that touched on both topics. One consisted of mapping the journey that Afghans take in their return from Pakistan, and the services they need or access along the way, with the aim of identifying gaps in service provision. The full findings from this study are presented in an accompanying report, The Return Journey,1 and are mentioned where relevant in the conclusion of this document. The second study, which is presented here, documents the perspectives, skills, capacities, and livelihood aspirations of Afghans who have returned from Pakistan in the last three years, with the aim of identifying opportunities for these returnees to contribute to and participate in their communities in Afghanistan. Acknowledging that the most likely—and, indeed, desired—way for returnees to contribute locally is through livelihoods, the study has focused on returnees’ potential to participate in local economies. Together, these studies seek to identify approaches to promote the sustainable and community-based reintegration of Afghan returnees, which is critical for the long-term development of Afghanistan.
The results from this research show that returnees have a desire to re-integrate and contribute to their communities (especially economically), but face barriers in doing so that make integration more difficult. The vast majority of returnees had high hopes for their future when they first returned to Afghanistan, but by the time of the survey—which took place between three years and a few months after participants returned—their initially positive expectations had given way to a more realistic understanding of the challenges of return and the difficulty of making a living. What’s more, there is a gap between returnees’ expectations and economic realities: those who returned because they believed their economic prospects would be better in Afghanistan were more likely to have negative feelings about being in Afghanistan at the time of the survey. Economic integration also takes time—more recent returnees were more likely to be unemployed than those who had been back longer— and many more respondents were unemployed in Afghanistan than had been in Pakistan, both of which likely contributed to feelings of disappointment and frustration among returnees.
That said, there is a desire and potential for respondents to improve both their own economic situation in Afghanistan, and that of their local community. The fact that 97% of respondents had been employed in Pakistan suggests that they have both the skills and interest in maintaining a productive livelihood in Afghanistan as well.
What’s more, about half of respondents (including those who were unemployed) said they wanted to change their occupation in Afghanistan, including— importantly—35% of women. A shop owner or a tailor were the most desirable jobs overall, and over half of women wanted to be a tailor.
Over 60% of respondents who wanted a different occupation thought this change was realistic in the next two years. For those who didn’t think this was feasible, almost half said market conditions would be a barrier. Respondents generally had strong self-efficacy, and over half believed that they had the ability to change their own economic situation, with the other half reporting lack of skills to be the main barrier. Nevertheless, only 10% of respondents said that they themselves were the most suitable to improve their own situation, instead mentioning that the Afghan government, the UN, NGOs, and other entities would be best positioned. Two-thirds of respondents also said that financial support would be most helpful in changing their livelihood (despite also saying that lack of skills was the biggest barrier).
This optimism about improving their personal economic situation also extended to the community at large: about half of respondents said that they could play a role in improving the economic situation of their community, and most said that getting a job was the best way to contribute. Returnees said that they have skills in agriculture, teaching, and construction that could be used to support their local economies.
The results from this research suggest that Afghans who have returned from Pakistan in recent years have notable self-efficacy and determination to improve the economic situation of their family and their community. At the same time, findings from the complementary study conducted by MAGENTA and UNDP on the services available to returnees demonstrate that there are many gaps in service provision, in nearly all sectors, including the most basic services at border crossings to longer term support once returnees have reached their destination. These gaps, not surprisingly, also apply to livelihood support.
The findings of this study further highlight the relevance of the findings from the complementary research study on the services available to and access by returnees. Given that formal service provision is insufficient, it is all the more important to focus the services that do exist on supporting returnees to make their own contribution to the community, and assisting not only themselves, but also those around them. In particular, returnees’ economic participation is critical to ensure their successful re-integration in Afghanistan, and the long-term development of the country.
This study aligns with UNDP’s vision that national development must be tackled with a long-term approach that integrates migration and displacement, both of which will present a challenge for Afghans for the foreseeable future. The research forms part of UNDP’s ongoing efforts to work with local, national, and international partners to address migration and displacement though a lens of development, as outlined in the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, the Global Compact for Migration, the Global Compact on Refugees, the Global Forum for Migration and Development, the Platform on Disaster Displacement, the Plan of Action for the Guiding Principles for Internal Displacement (GP20), and other fora on migration and development.
UNDP is working with IOM and UNHCR to support people affected by displacement and their host communities by supporting multiple levels of government to mainstream migration into their development plans; address the root causes of displacement and migration; promote resiliencebased development that is sustainable and localised for each community