Afghanistan Analysts Network – English


Deciding To Leave Afghanistan (1): Motives for migration

Lenny Linke 15 min

AAN has done a series of twelve in-depth interviews with families of Afghans who recently travelled to Europe. The conversations provided a fascinating insight into the practicalities of both the decision making processes and the journey, the complex interplay between economic and security considerations and the mixed feelings families often have once their loved ones have finally, safely, reached Europe. In this first instalment, AAN’s Lenny Linke takes a closer look at the reasons families gave for either sending or allowing their sons or brothers to leave for Europe.

This series of three dispatches is based on twelve interviews done for a joint project with (and funded by) the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FESand resulted in a joint study titled “’We Knew They Had No Future in Kabul’: Why and How Afghan Families Decide to Leave” published on 27 April 2016.  The data collection was conducted in the spring of 2016 with selected Afghan households to explore the decision-making processes at the family level of a small number of migrants. (1) The three dispatches present the main findings and place them in a wider context. The second dispatch will focus on the details of the journey, the routes taken and practical preparations. The third dispatch will take a closer look at what has happened since the migrants arrived in Europe and lays out the hopes and concerns their families have now that they are there.

The decision-making process

The demographic of the migrants in the sample was relatively young (all under 30) and predominantly male. (1) Many family members reported that it was their sons or brothers themselves who had initiated the discussion about going to Europe.

When my son told me he was thinking of going to Europe, I approved; we decided that if my son continued living in Afghanistan, there would not be an improvement in his or our current situation, so it was better for him to go to Europe… We all agreed and there was no reason to disagree. (Father of a 19-year old migrant from Kabul)

To be honest, we thought he was joking when he said he wanted to leave, but once he got his Iranian visa, we started believing him. He himself brought up the issue of going to Europe. He used Facebook on a daily basis to read about the situation along the route and he read that the border between Turkey and Greece was open. He might have been motivated by this… (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

In several cases, family members, including wives and fiancées, were initially opposed to the migrants leaving, but several of the migrants subsequently persuaded their relatives to give their blessing and to support them, even if some were still reluctant.

…finally their father agreed to send them, because many times the boys had planned to leave without letting us know. Their father was compelled to send them with his blessings, rather than sending them off to deal with unreliable people. (Mother of a 15-year and an 18-year old migrant from Kabul)

One migrant from Maidan Wardak, whose father was interviewed, had left without telling his family or talking about possibly leaving beforehand: “I was not at home when my son left for Europe… When he reached Turkey, he called and said he was in Turkey and would leave for Europe.”

In some cases, however, families remained antagonistic towards the idea of their relative going to Europe, even after son or brother had left. The brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar said, “Well, we all opposed his leaving,” while the brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand said “To leave was his personal decision after the economic crisis hit Afghanistan. His wife and children begged him not to leave.”

In other families, the decision to leave for Europe had been a joint decision, where family members had decided to send the migrants away or had urged them to go to Europe. In these cases, worsening security had often been the main, or at least an important, driver for leaving Afghanistan.

It was a family decision to send my brother abroad. We all agreed because we wanted him to live longer and to not die in the war… When security began to deteriorate, we started discussing whether he should go to Europe. We discussed this for a month, and after a month we decided he should go to Europe. We also talked about what he might do in Afghanistan if he didn’t go to Europe.  (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

Due to the fact that his employment as a driver with an organisation brought him threats, my father persuaded my brother to leave the country for a safer place. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Kunduz).

In fact, we had never thought about such words as ‘going to Europe’ nor did my brother evoke them. In the end, though, we said, “Where should he go?” We thought, “Should he go to Pakistan or Iran?” The media were broadcasting reports of people leaving for Europe. We said, “Let’s trust God. You will arrive somewhere.” (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

After the insurgents killed our brother and set our house on fire, the decision was made to send our brother away…. All the family decided together that we would send our brother to Europe so he could help out the whole family financially once he made it … We expected that our brother would be accepted as an asylum seeker in Germany and that he would be able to bring the whole family to Germany, because there is nothing left for us in Afghanistan. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Takhar)

It was decided by my family that I should leave after I received threatening letters from the Taleban because of my work with NGOs and also because I had worked for the US forces as a translator and project facilitator in rural Kandahar… My mother, my sisters and my wife were the driving force for me and also my brother leaving for Germany, as there was an imminent threat against the entire family as long as we stayed in Kandahar. (27-year old migrant from Kandahar, who was interviewed in Kabul after he was forcibly returned)

In several cases, where deteriorating security had been a main concern, there was a longer period of contemplating going ‘somewhere.’ For example, the brother of the migrant from Herat said:

He [the migrant] was feeling unsafe. I said “You can come to Kabul.” He said “Even there, they will reach me.”… He’d had threats from some Taleban. He’d also had threats from some unknown people. The threats had increased. He had been thinking for a while and talking about what he should do. For a long time, I tried to persuade him to stay, but in the end, as the threats against him increased, he said, “I have to go.”

While most migrants travel alone, some leaving wives and children behind, there was one case where a whole family left together.

It’s very difficult [for a father] to keep a family in Herat, both financially and morally, when you are not there. He decided that if they would face any difficulties, they would face them together. (Brother of a 29-year old migrant from Herat)

Motivations for leaving

People’s motivations for going to Europe, as reflected in the twelve interviews, were often a combination of frustration felt over the lack of jobs and/or educational opportunities as well as concerns over the deteriorating security situation. Even in cases where the lack of opportunities for employment and education were mentioned as the primary reason for migration, these were usually followed by explicit and implicit references to the security situation. None of the respondents cited the lack of opportunity as the exclusive reason for leaving.

What also emerged from the interviews was that in at least four cases, migrants had either come under threat because of their past employment and/or could no longer find or take on work due to direct insurgent threats or the fear of being exposed to insecurity because of their work.

A lack of economic and educational opportunities

Many of the migrants’ relatives mentioned the lack of economic and educational opportunities as an important factor in the decision to leave. Several of the migrants had just finished high school or university and were unable to find employment or to continue their education.

His main motivation [for leaving] was his failure to get into university. If he had succeeded in the exam, other factors wouldn’t have played an important role. (Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

…we thought he should go to Germany, continue his education there and then help us to get there too. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant fom Kunduz)

[Advice I gave to my brother:]…you are a medical student in the 6th semester and you can’t finish your education here, [but] you can keep your education up there. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

When my son finished high school, we thought since there are no jobs and the situation is getting worse day by day, it would be good if he went to Europe, where he could find a good job and have a good future. (Father of a 19-year old migrant from Kabul)

When the boys were studying in school, I could not afford to send them to a private school for better quality education. … My husband is disabled and I am the only breadwinner in the family. Due to financial and family problems, my eldest son could not continue his education. He studied until the 8th grade and then started to work and earn money for the family. … He was working during the day and therefore could not go to regular school. I managed to find a job and my eldest son returned to school. He went to evening school so that he could continue working during the day as well. He was looking for a better paid job but could not find one… (Mother of two migrants, aged 15 and 18, from Kabul)

He said he had studied for almost 18 years, but could not find a job and nobody would hire him. He thought it would be better for him to go to Europe and maybe try to find a job there. It seemed a relatively new decision to leave, which he made after he had sent his CV off to several organisations and not received any positive responses. He only seemed to have decided to leave once his frustration in Afghanistan became too much. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Maidan Wardak)

He was jobless and it was difficult to feed 15 people with the money he earned as a bus conductor. (Father of a 23-year old migrant from Kabul/Wardak)

The main motive was economic. Because his work situation [ability to find a well-paying job] had not been good in recent years, he thought it would be better to leave Afghanistan. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

Everyone agreed that because of our family’s bad economic situation there was nothing to do about it except send him away. (Brother of migrant from Takhar)

In one case, the mother of an 18-year old migrant explained that while the general lack of income opportunities had been one factor, the need to earn money in order to get married had also featured in her son’s decision to leave:

Her father asked for 240,000 Afghanis [just over €3,000] as the bride price but my eldest son could not earn that money in Afghanistan and get married quickly. (Mother of two migrants from Kabul) 

Others who did not cite the lack of economic or education opportunities as a primary factor for leaving often brought it up as a secondary factor behind the more dominant security considerations.

The second most important reason was his future, his education and the financial support [he could give] to the family. We wanted him to live in a peaceful place, pursue his education and help his family in Afghanistan. (Brother of a 20-year old migrant form Baghlan)

But there were also migrants for whom life in terms of economic opportunities and professional satisfaction had been good and who, according to their families, would have been better off staying in Afghanistan—had that been possible.

There are many advantages in Europe, but people can’t count on them. For traditional people, people who have jobs, journalists with credibility in this country, who have a salary, [for them] life is good. But then, when it comes to safety, there is no choice… If there had not been any threats, he would have stayed…For an Afghan man, this might be the biggest adventure he can have: having a salary, a car, a wife, kids. What more do you want? (Brother of a 29-year old migrant from Herat)

Security threats

About half of all interviewees stated that their family members had gone to Europe because of reasons related, at least in part, to security. While some seemed mainly threatened by the overall deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and did not have any direct exposure to threats or violence, others left because of direct threats or exposure to violence, as experienced by themselves or their immediate family members.

He’d had threats from some Taleban. He’d also had threats from some unknown people. The threats had increased. … With no clear idea of the future and of what might happen in Herat – he thought there was no better future in Herat because of the increasing threats and the insurgency in the western region. (Brother of a 29-year old migrant from Herat)

My brother began talking about [leaving], but we did not agree with him. When security began to deteriorate, the family agreed to send him abroad. …The deteriorating security situation was the main reason for my family finally agreeing to send my brother to Europe. (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

As he’d worked as an interpreter for two weeks, the insurgents told him that because he had been an interpreter for the Americans, he had become an infidel. He could neither come to Sar-e Pul, nor go anywhere else. He was just stuck in Mazar, trapped. As security got worse each day, the obstacles he faced amplified. If he had stayed here, he might have been killed. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

After the insurgents killed our brother and set our house on fire, the decision was made to send our brother away. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Takhar)

Interestingly, while some respondents initially only mentioned the lack of economic opportunities as a primary motive for leaving, during the course of the interview it often became apparent that the migrant of the family had in the past been directly exposed to traumatic events. Even though these events were not given as a reason to leave, they did seem to have contributed to the overall decision.

One day (in late 2014) we had gone for a feast in Logar with relatives there. A boy’s car was attacked; he was taken out of his car and dragged along behind a motorbike. Someone had told the insurgents that the boy was working in a government office. At the time, we were close to where the incident took place. After that incident, we were more frightened. Also, when the explosion happened in the Police Academy [in August 2015], the boys were on their way to Qargha Lake [just west of Kabul]. At the time of the explosion, the boys were in the car in the area and witnessed the incident. They saw the dead bodies of police lying on the ground. After the incident, for three nights, my boys could not sleep. (Mother of two migrants, aged 15 and 18, from Kabul)

Another reason behind his decision was security. We are from Maidan Wardak, the situation there has not been good and so we chose to move to Kabul. My brother could not go back to Maidan Wardak either, as security there is still bad. People told him that as he was an engineer, it was not good for him to go to Maidan Wardak because the insurgents would try to kill him…. He didn’t feel safe even in Kabul, because once when my father went to the mosque in Kabul, someone threw a hand grenade at him. It only injured him and did not kill him, but this had a bad effect on my brother. He had never previously had any thoughts about going to Europe, but the situation got very bad in Karzai’s final years and it is even worse under the new government. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Maidan Wardak)

Beyond direct threats, the deteriorating security situation has clearly been concerning enough, or has affected people’s lives enough to warrant sending a family member abroad. Sometimes even rumours were all it took to make the decision.

…there were rumours that, if there are two young men in a family, the Taleban would take one as a fighter – that’s how we came to the decision. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Kunduz)

The insecurity and lack of income/educational opportunities nexus

The lack of security and economic and educational opportunities were the two main reasons given by the respondents for why family members left. But some interviewees clearly struggled to just name one, or to determine which one had been the most important.

 He left because of insecurity and joblessness… at the same time, we see the security situation getting worse and worse. (Father of a 23-year old migrant from Kabul/Wardak)

Several interviewees highlighted the connection between declining security and rising economic pressures on migrants’ families.

Well, in a way the worsening economic situation is an outcome of the bad security situation. He would say that [even] if we were rich in Afghanistan, we would be threatened and if we were poor, again we would be in a bad condition. He was also threatened by insurgents because he used to work with international organisations. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

From the interviews, it is apparent that because of their jobs, migrants faced increasing insecurity and threats. In some scenarios, these threats forced migrants to give up their employment or prevented them from seeking new jobs.

My brother was an intelligent guy, he was top of his class throughout high school. He completed a two-year English course and learnt English fluently. Later, he applied for a job as an interpreter in Sar-e Pul. The US forces sent him to Mazar and then they [the US forces] wanted him to work in Helmand province, but because of the risk my father told him not to take the job and never go to Helmand or to other places. Hence, after two weeks working as an interpreter in Mazar, he didn’t go back to work. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

 Being associated with certain activities deemed as inappropriate by the insurgency, for example, put people at risk:

…he was working as a driver and taking female colleagues home from the office … we thought it was becoming more dangerous for him. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Kunduz)

His wife is a teacher and a social activist; he would take his wife to participate in programs organised by these international organisations. People thought badly of him because of this. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

A specific scenario cited by several interviewees concerned the possible recruitment of their sons or brothers into the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Without prospects for other jobs or further education, some migrants said they had intended to join the ANSF as a last resort, which caused their families to fear for their security to the extent that they considered it safer to send them to Europe.

My older son had initially said he would join the national army. If he could not find any other job, then he would join the army. His father was frightened about the prospects of him joining the police or the army as the war was going on and he would be sent somewhere to the battleground. (Mother of two migrants, aged 15 and 18, from Kabul)

My brother was not happy here because he failed the entry test to university. He wanted to join the Afghan National Army (ANA). We did not want him to join the ANA because he would be killed if he joined. (Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

Possible recruitment by the Taleban of unemployed youth was also a concern.

The Taliban were recruiting young men in the area to fight the Afghan government forces. We were afraid they might hire my brother. My brother was young and unemployed, so we feared he might make the wrong decisions. (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

Sometimes even just the danger of travelling to and from the workplace was cited as an issue of concern. This was either due to not being able to safely access employment or the constant risk that a person is exposed to when leaving the house.

He did not have a good job here and could not go to Dai Mirdad [a district in the south of Wardak province] freely. On the way to Maidan Wardak, anything could happen to him. … He used to say “you [the entire family] are all at home and safe there. I have to deal with the risks and dangers because I have to earn money.” (Father of a 23-year old migrant from Kabul/Wardak)

The primary motivation was to escape revenge killings and Taleban threats, the secondary motivation was to be able to find a good job, one which we could take on without feeling threatened. My brother and I could not have gone outside the house to find work anywhere in Kandahar because we were afraid of the Taleban and of revenge attacks – we stayed at home, borrowing money from others, relying on our extended family to provide for us as we dared not leave or have any routine, or take a public job, for fear of being discovered and killed. … Even in Kabul or Pakistan, I would not have been safe. I wanted to break the cycle of violence so as to not endanger my own family – the only way to do this was to leave the country. (27-year old migrant from Kandahar)

‘Pull’ factors

 In addition to the ‘push’ factors related to insecurity and the lack of income and education, about a third of the respondents mentioned that the final decision to leave had been influenced by the actions of others who had already gone to Europe. These interactions seem to have either contributed to the final decision, or appeared to have helped families justify their consent to the migrant leaving once the decision had been taken.

It was not long after we saw other people from the neighbourhood leaving that we decided that our son should also go. (Father of a 19-year old migrant from Kabul)

My younger son’s friends from our neighbourhood – there were three of them, one is 20 years old and the other two are also minors – left for Germany. He was in contact with them via Facebook. (Mother of two young migrants, aged 15 and 18, from Kabul)

He decided to go because my niece, who was already in Europe, kept asking him to come to Europe. (Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

From my own family, my younger brother left for Europe. After he left, one of my paternal cousins and three of my maternal cousins left as well. (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

He said he wanted to leave and take the risk, just like other people who were leaving. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

From the twelve interviews conducted with families of migrants, a picture has emerged of families either struggling to decide whether to send a family member, or scrambling to come to terms with the decisions already made by their relatives, usually sons or brothers. With regards to the motivation for the journey to Europe, although the majority of the respondents mentioned economic and/or educational opportunities as a main contributing factor, it was clear that in almost all cases declining security had also been a significant (primary or contributing) factor. In some cases where insecurity and threats had been a primary concern, the subsequent negative impact on the families’ income opportunities appeared to have become the final push in the decision to leave.


(1) The study consisted of twelve in-depth, semi-structured interviews that took place across Afghanistan’s regions as follows: four interviews in Kabul and Wardak province; four interviews in Takhar, Sar-e Pul, Kunduz and Baghlan; one interview in Nangarhar; two interviews in Helmand and Kandahar; and one interview in Herat. The ethnic composition and urban/rural population ratio in the provinces was taken into account in the selection of interviewees. The respondents were selected and located through a referral system, where AAN researchers reached out to their networks looking for families where at least one member had left for Europe in 2015. Respondents were interviewed about the departure of their family member(s), how decisions were made prior to their departure, details of the trip to Europe and thoughts on the future of the migrant in Europe. In addition, basic household information was collected for each of the families. For a shorter summary of the study, published jointly with FES, see here.

All migrants included in the study were male, with one exception where a whole family – husband, wife and young children – travelled together. In one case, two young brothers from one household travelled together and in one case a migrant who had been forcibly returned was interviewed directly. All migrants included in this study were between the ages of 15 and 30 years. Most of the interviewees giving information about the migrants in question were brothers and fathers (there was one mother and one sister). 


asylum insecurity migrants migration Refugees unemployment