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Return, Reintegration and Political Restructuring in Afghanistan: Survey of Return Migration to Kabul and Kandahar, 2022

Necla Acik, Janroj Yilmaz Keles, Abida Kakar and Quhramaana Kakar | Published on August 29, 2023

Project: Return, Reintegration and Political Restructuring

Overview

*This report is dedicated to all of our Afghan research participants and colleagues who have once again been compelled to flee their homes, families, and loved ones since this data was gathered.

While there has been an assumption in media and political discourses that migrants, refugees and displaced people intend to stay in the countries to which they go, recent years have seen increasing transnational and gendered return mobilities to conflict and post-conflict countries. In this context, the phenomenon of “return” migration has not only become a crucial component of the sociology of migration but is also an emerging issue of economic and political importance in many developing and post-conflict countries and regions.

This report presents the preliminary findings of our survey (n= 198)  and semi-structured interviews (n=28)  that were carried out with returnees in Kabul and Kandahar in 2020/21, to better understand the reasons why the conflict-induced Afghan diaspora (men and women) from the neighbouring countries,  Europe and North America have returned to a politically and economically unstable Afghanistan since 2001.

Key Findings

  • For most returnees, conflict was the reason for leaving Afghanistan in the first place. One of the key drivers for their return was the improved political situation in Afghanistan and family and caring responsibilities, particularly for women.
  • Male returnees were influenced by push factors such as completing their education abroad, deportation, and visa expiration, revealing gendered emigration and return patterns.
  • The study reveals that before the Taliban seized control, around two third of returnees were working, with those in full-time employment accounting for 25%, in part-time employment 15%, and self-employed accounting for 18%.
  • Students made up 15% of the sample, a sizeable portion that showed the expanding student population in Kabul and Kandahar. Yet, 15% of individuals in the sample were without jobs, with the majority of them actively looking for work. Women were more likely than men to work part-time, allowing them to balance family caring responsibilities and pursue further education at the same time. They were predominantly employed in the third sector working for NGOs, and educational institutions, taking up public service jobs, and working in-home services and domestic work.
  • Both men and women experienced high levels of social mobility in Afghanistan with a relatively high proportion of returnees employed in jobs that either correspond fully with their level of education or which require higher levels of education. This is in contrast with newly arrived migrants in Western countries who are often employed in jobs far below their levels of education and skills.
  • Educational qualifications, social contacts and skills and knowledge acquired abroad were seen as useful in resettling in Afghanistan. However, being away for a longer period impacts returnees’ ability to build crucial social capital in Afghanistan which sets them back in the job market.
  • Household poverty was more common among female returnees with one-fifth stating that they can’t even afford basic food.
  • For the overwhelming majority of returnees, COVID worsened their household financial situation and decreased their overall life satisfaction, especially for women.
  • The perception of safety was highly gendered with almost all women stating that they feel unsafe or extremely unsafe walking in their local area or neighbourhood after dark. They also reported experiencing verbal and physical harassment when travelling on their own.
  • Ethnicity and language were listed as the most common type of perceived group discrimination. Afghanistan is not only a multi-ethnic but also a multi-lingual society. The literature on Afghanistan documents well the racial prejudice faced by the Tajik and Hazara minorities. Other group-based discriminations reported by the returnees were gender, religion, political views, lifestyle and to a lesser extent age, sexuality and disability. 
  • Women were more likely to point out gender and language as a problem and men are more likely to emphasize discrimination based on ethnicity and political views. This points to gendered challenges of integration.

Recommendations

Following the takeover of the Taliban regime, many of Afghanistan’s most skilled and educated people such as medical doctors, journalists, politicians, artists, human-rights activists, humanitarian aid workers, former government officials, high-profile civil-society figures, women, and members of ethnic minorities, have been forced to flee again and others who stayed are no longer permitted to use their skills and qualifications to carry out their professions. The hostile and oppressive environment alongside economic and political uncertainties in Afghanistan is causing a devastating brain drain to an already fragile society and economy. The majority of the Taliban lack the political and economic knowledge and skills required to govern a population of 40 million people and meet their fundamental needs.

  • To support Afghans in their homeland and the region, the intergovernmental organisations including the UN, as well as the countries hosting Afghan refugees and Afghan diaspora organisations, need to develop policies to identify Afghan experts and determine how to best capitalise on their social, and human, cultural, and economic capital.
  • The international community needs to use whatever leverage it has over the Taliban to pressure them to begin the stalled peace process and reconciliation with all facets of the society, especially with women and highly qualified individuals. 
  • The decision of returnees to stay in Afghanistan, leave Afghanistan, or re-return to Afghanistan will be influenced by the governments’ and international organisations’ recognition and acknowledgement of the contribution of returnees to the country’s economy, development, and reconstruction.
  • In the event that the Taliban regime is prepared to re-start the peace process and start utilising the human capital of returnees, it is imperative to ensure a safe and dignified return and reintegration process in Afghanistan as well as the protection of the rights of the diverse Afghan population (gender, ethnicity, and religion, access to education, and employment).