Thematic Dossier XIV: Afghan migration to Europe
Belgrade squat, November 2016. Photo: Martine van Bijlert
Recent images of migrants freezing in the cold in Greece and Serbia have made disturbing world headlines. Many of those stranded are part of the wave of Afghan migration to Europe, which gained a momentum in early 2015 and has resulted in about 250,000 Afghans arriving in Europe since then. In the past two years, AAN has produced a series of research-informed analysis on Afghan migration to Europe that has looked at the reasons why some Afghans are leaving their country; the routes they take and the risks they experience on what is for most a perilous journey to Europe; what is Afghan government policy on migration; and numbers and statistics. This dossier brings together all AAN publications on Afghan migration to Europe in one place for a much needed background read..
Afghan migration to Europe may have made headlines in 2015, but it is actually a phenomenon of many decades. A first significant wave of Afghan migration overseas was noticed in late 1970s and early 1980s with the beginning of the Soviet invasion and the conflict that ensued. As noted in the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Afghan migration profile study from 2014:
The past 30 years of conflict [sic] have caused Afghans to emigrate to countries beyond neighbouring Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran, including to countries in Europe. The main migrant routes from Afghanistan to Europe go through Turkey or the Russian Federation. […] The main destination countries of irregular Afghan immigrants in Europe now include Greece, Germany, Austria, France and Sweden.
Afghan migration levels to Europe during the last decades of the twentieth century remained on manageable levels and were justified in the receiving countries by the ongoing war in Afghanistan, particularly where there was ideological support (ie support for those fleeing ‘Soviet aggression’ or ‘Taleban oppression’). Nevertheless, in 2015, and some 14 years after the international military intervention in Afghanistan, it has been difficult for recipient countries in Europe to defend the new Afghan migration boom. In 2015, there was a surge of Afghans leaving and around 200,000 people came to Europe via Turkey, Greece and what was called the ‘Balkan humanitarian corridor’, ie the routes through the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to Serbia to the borders with Hungary and Croatia (essentially the European Union border). Afghans were the second largest group, after Syrians, of migrants and asylum-seekers to the EU in 2015.
The large influx of Afghan migrants that year resulted in several countries tightening their laws and closing their borders. As Thomas Ruttig noted in his November 2015 dispatch ‘An “Afghan Exodus” (1): Facts, figures, trends’:
The on-going “exodus” of Afghans – now the second largest group entering the EU – has contributed to the increasing refugee numbers across Europe. This, in turn, has led to heated debates and an increased political polarisation between pro- and anti-refugee movements and parties. As governments and citizens struggle to handle the influx of refugees, their numbers – real and perceived – have become an instrument in domestic politicking.
The main land route, via the Balkan corridor, closed in March 2016 and the numbers of people still coming dropped significantly, but not completely. Smuggling networks kept ferrying people to some of the outer – and now fenced-off – fringes of the European Union, the Serbian-Hungarian border (Hungary is in the EU, its neighbour, Serbia, is not) and the Croatian-Hungarian border (both in the EU). Over 43,000 Afghans still managed to get to Europe, although not necessarily to the EU, in 2016.
The situation for Afghan migrants en route also changed in March 2016 because of a number of factors: revised national policies towards Afghan migrants in the Balkans; the European Union-Turkey deal, which aimed at stopping the general flow of migrants and; increased efforts within the EU to accelerate ‘re-admission’ of Afghans to Afghanistan (ie sending back, either voluntarily or forcibly, those who had failed to be accepted as asylum seekers). Additionally, some countries, such as Germany and Finland, decided to classify Afghanistan as a ‘safe country’, or at least as having ‘safe zones’ to which those who had failed in their applications for asylum could be sent.
It was the closing of borders, however, that had the most evident impact on Afghan migrants. Many have found themselves stranded on the European periphery, in countries like Serbia, and in extreme weather conditions; this winter (2016-17) is proving to be a harsh one in the Balkans. Human rights and humanitarian organisations warned in January 2017 that thousands of people were trapped in freezing weather conditions in Greece and Serbia (see here for Medecins Sans Frontiers warning and here for Amnesty International’s).
With no sign that outmigration of Afghans will end any time soon and given how politically contentious the whole subject is, AAN will continue to publish evidence-based analysis on what is happening. For now, however, we wanted to bring together the work AAN has already done on Afghan migration to Europe. The dossier is divided into five parts: (1) how Afghan households decide for a member to go; (2) Afghans on the Balkan route; (3) Afghan government policy on migration; and (4) what is the situation for Afghans in Europe; (5) two case studies looking at Afghan minors in Europe. The dispatches in the five parts have been arranged in reverse chronological order (most recent first)..
1. How do people decide to leave?
Afghan Exodus: Maruf’s tale of an emerging transnational community
Author: Said Reza Kazemi
Date: 22 July 2016
Between 2014 and mid-2016, thousands of people left Herat – a major urban centre in western Afghanistan – for various European countries. Since August 2014, Said Reza Kazemi has been tracking Maruf and 24 of his friends and acquaintances, who have made the trip. The case of this young Afghan and his network shows the importance of friends’ influence on each other to migrate, in addition to major security and economic considerations. It highlights how the risks they take – both physical and financial – determine their resolve not to return. More importantly, it reveals the formation of a burgeoning and socioeconomically significant transnational community, even at a local level, that not only travels but also lives between Herat and Europe. This dispatch follows previous fieldwork and AAN publications by Said Reza Kazemi from the western Afghan city of Herat – it is the part of the ‘Afghan Exodus’ series of dispatches. The names of people and places in this dispatch have been changed or withheld to protect their confidentiality.
“We Knew That They Had No Future in Kabul”: Why and How Afghan Families Decide to Leave
Author: AAN Team
Date: 27 April 2016
The increasing number of refugees and migrants arriving across Europe has led to heated debates and an increased political polarisation between pro and anti-refugee movements and parties. Afghans are now the second largest group entering the European Union. A recent study by AAN and FES explores the reasons behind Afghanistan’s increased migration, by focusing on the discussions and decisions at the household level.
According to recent figures 178,230 Afghans sought asylum in the 28 states of the EU in 2015. A leaked draft EU document said that altogether 223,000 Afghan “illegal migrants” had entered the EU in 2015. Several countries have tightened their laws and tried to close their borders, while others are considering doing so.
There are clear information and knowledge gaps on the reasons behind the current, increased levels of Afghan migration. For this reason, this brief study aimed to explore the decision-making processes at the family level of a small number of migrants.
The study consisted of 12 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with selected Afghan households from which one or more members left for Europe in 2015. This short study which is a result of a joint project between the AAN and the Kabul office of the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES), is a summary of the main findings.
A detailed analysis of the interviews, divided in three topics: motives, routes and risks, and what happens after arrival in Europe is available here:
Deciding To Leave Afghanistan (1): Motives for migration
Author: Lenny Linke
Date: 8 May 2016
Deciding to Leave Afghanistan (2): The routes and the risks
Author: Jelena Bjelica
Date: 18 May 2016
Deciding to Leave Afghanistan (3): What happens after arrival in Europe
Author: Martine van Bijlert
Date: 19 May 2016
2. The Balkan Route
Afghan Exodus: Notes from a Belgrade squat
Date: 30 November 2016
The number of migrants, many of them Afghan, in Serbia has been steadily growing in the second half of 2016. More people continue to arrive, while departures have largely stagnated due to Hungary and Croatia tightening their border controls. As a result, Serbia is faced with a growing number of people on its soil who do not want to stay, but are unable to leave – despite trying very hard. Some enter the asylum system (or indicate that they might do so in the future) and are housed in government-run centres, while others are camping out in central Belgrade. AAN’s Martine van Bijlert and Jelena Bjelica have visited the main unofficial locations where well over a thousand people are trying to keep warm, dry and healthy, while winter is coming and the chances of continuing their journey to western Europe seem slim.
Afghan Exodus: Smuggling networks, migration and settlement patterns in Turkey
Author: Noah Arjomand
Date: 10 September 2016
Turkey is both a means and an end for Afghan migrants. Many thousands of Afghans seeking better lives have come to Istanbul, the bridge between east and west, on their way to the European Union. Many thousands have stayed on and built an expatriate community that both aids and exploits those passing through. In this dispatch, AAN guest author Noah Arjomand tells stories about life for Afghans in Turkey, explains the practical implications of Turkish and United Nations refugee policies and how the migrant smuggling economy works. Together, the stories show the networks of Afghans that include single men, families and the occasional lone woman, legal residents, asylum seekers, undocumented workers, smugglers and those who have already left Turkey for Europe.
Afghan Exodus: The re-emergence of smugglers along the Balkan route
Authors: Jelena Bjelica and Martine van Bijlert
Date: 10 August 2016
When the Balkan corridor closed in March 2016, Afghans trying to reach Europe found themselves stranded, once again at the mercy of smugglers’ networks. Many are still slowly making their way towards the outer fringes of the European Union at the Serbian-Hungarian border. Almost everyone transits through Belgrade, which has become an important hub for the Afghan-linked smuggling networks. In this dispatch Martine van Bijlert and Jelena Bjelica discuss the nature of these networks and describe how the situation for many Afghans currently in transit has become increasingly desperate.
Afghan Exodus: In transit through Serbia
Authors: Jelena Bjelica and Martine van Bijlert
Date: 8 August 2016
The unprecedented flow of people through the Western Balkans in late 2015 and early 2016, and the opening of a humanitarian corridor, provided a brief and unique opportunity for people from war-torn countries to reach the European Union. When the corridor closed in March 2016 many people, including many Afghans, found themselves stranded and, again, at the mercy of smuggling networks. In this dispatch AAN’s Jelena Bjelica and Martine van Bijlert discuss how the migration flows have impacted Serbia, a key transit country on the way to Europe, and how the situation for Afghans, and others, is becoming ever more precarious.
Afghan Exodus: The opening and closing of the Balkan corridor
Authors: Jelena Bjelica and Martine van Bijlert
Date: 5 August 2016
In late 2015 and early 2016, the Western Balkans witnessed an unprecedented flow of people through its borders on their way to Europe. For several months a ‘humanitarian corridor’ provided certain nationalities, including Afghans, with transportation to the outer fringes of the European Union. However, Afghans trying to reach Europe now once again find themselves at the mercy of smuggling networks. In this dispatch AAN’s Jelena Bjelica and Martine van Bijlert lay out the key events and policies that led to the establishment and subsequent dismantling of the corridor. It also examines how the relatively benign welcome that Afghans travelling through Serbia experienced, is now fading.
3. Afghan government policy on migration to Europe
Afghan Exodus: Can the Afghan government deal with more returnees from Europe?
Authors: Fazal Muzhary and Jelena Bjelica
Date: 31 October 2016
In the first nine months of this year, over 5,000 Afghans voluntary returned to Afghanistan from Europe. The recent signing of an agreement between Afghanistan and the European Union to allow deportations of those who have not been accepted as asylum seekers means the numbers of Afghans returning from Europe will rise. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica and Fazal Muzhary have been looking into the fate of recent returnees, who may have gone heavily into debt to fund their trip, hearing from two young men who have just returned from Norway after trying to bicycle their way to a life in Europe.
EU and Afghanistan Get Deal on Migrants: Disagreements, pressure and last minute politics
Author: Jelena Bjelica
Date: 6 October 2016
Finally, after a year of negotiations and some last minute hurdles – including on the Afghan side refusals to sign and an attempt to involve parliament – the European Union and Afghanistan have reached a ‘readmission’ agreement on how to return Afghans who have travelled to Europe and failed in their claims for asylum. President Ghani and Dr Abdullah both backed the agreement, while Minister for Refugees Balkhi said Afghans migrants should be allowed to stay, regardless of whether their claims for asylum were accepted or not. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica explains what happened in Kabul in the run-up to the signing (with parliamentary reporting from AAN’s Salima Ahmadi) and explains what the agreement actually says.
4. What is the situation for Afghans in Europe?
Afghan Exodus: Afghan asylum seekers in Europe (1) – the changing situation
Author: Thomas Ruttig
Date: 13 February 2017
Afghan Exodus: Afghan asylum seekers in Europe (2) – the north-south divide
Author: Thomas Ruttig
Date: 15 February 2017
Afghan Exodus: Afghan asylum seekers in Europe (3) – case study Germany
Author: Thomas Ruttig
Date: 17 February 2017
5. Two Case Studies of Afghan Minors in Europe
An Afghan Exodus (2): Unaccompanied minors in Sweden
Author: Ann Wilkens
Date: 18 February 2016
The increased refugee influx into Europe is testing cooperation within the European Union, has led to attempts to close borders and is affecting domestic politics. AAN advisory board member Ann Wilkens looks at the Swedish example. Sweden has seen more asylum seekers per head of population than any other European country and liberal asylum policies have come under great pressure. During the last six months there has been a dramatic increase in migrants in general and unaccompanied minors in particular. Two thirds of them are Afghan boys. Travelling alone, she says, they have been exposed to the dangers of a long and perilous journey and are now facing the challenge of adapting to vastly different cultures.
Safar ba London: Afghan youths on the move
Author: Assunta Nicolini
Date: 6 August 2013
In the last decade, Afghanistan has produced the largest number of asylum seekers in Europe. Many of them are unaccompanied minors. For her doctoral studies, AAN guest author Assunta Nicolini carried out an in-depth study among Afghans migrating to the UK, summarizing some of her findings for this dispatch. She looks at why families decide to send their children away from home alone, at the reality upon arrival, and at how these young men fare in their new lives. She includes the voices of children and parents themselves, offering personal insights into motives and the emotions of those who undertake this difficult, dangerous and often disappointing journey.