Expert Voice

Where do I go now? Afghans seeking to migrate in view of international troops leaving the country

21 June 2021


The Counsellors at the Migrant Resource Centre (MRC) in Kabul, operated jointly by ICMPD and the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation funded by the European Union, have seen a significant rise in migration related inquiries since the beginning of 2021. Currently, the MRC team counsel about 1,000 Afghans on a monthly basis, in-person, by phone and over message services. This is how they assess the current migration situation in Afghanistan.

By Isabelle Wolfsgruber

“I’m thinking about going to Belarus and then cross over to Germany.”

“How can we claim asylum in Tajikistan?”

“Can I get visa if I invest in Europe?”

The Counsellors at the Migrant Resource Centre (MRC) in Kabul, operated jointly by ICMPD and the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation funded by the European Union, have seen a significant rise in migration related inquiries since the beginning of 2021. Currently, the MRC team counsel about 1,000 Afghans on a monthly basis, in-person, by phone and over message services. From summer 2020, while peace negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban were ongoing and the Taliban increasingly exercising more pressure on the public, the number of monthly direct inquiries rose from close to 300 in July/ August to approx. 800 in November / December. This increase is partially  related to the lifting of Covid-19 travel restrictions and the natural increase in movements after the first lockdown. However, the perceived and real security threats have played a major role too as pre-Covid consultations in person were usually fluctuating around 400 per month. It must also be noted that the forced move to online counselling during lockdowns has allowed Afghans across several provinces access migration information. Since July 2018, the MRC has provided personal support to over 15,000 people, held information sessions for over 11,000 students and over 25,000 people engaged with the MRC through the pre-recorded message system on the 5588 migration hotline. On social media, the MRC has reached over 4.5 million Afghans and has had interaction with over 1.5 million of them.

From the thousands of questions, one thing is clear: people are simply scared. Scared of their current rights and freedoms being taken away; often afraid for their lives; and fearful of not being able to make a living, having or getting a job. Above all, people want to provide safety for their family. Terrorist attacks like the girls’ school bombing in early May had an immediate effect on people trying to find a way to leave the country. The same happened when the University of Kabul was attacked in November 2020. There is a clear connection between these and similar security incidents flaring up, and people looking for ways out of Afghanistan more so when these especially atrocities are committed against children and young people. Recently many government employees and journalists who had received personal threats called the MRC to find ways to leave the country. One can also observe that the real estate prices in Kabul and other cities decreased considerably as many are trying to sell their houses and other property in an attempt to raise the necessary resources for leaving the country.

One specific trend identified in recent months is the increased interest (four times compared to 2020) in Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) for the US for Afghans who were employed by or on behalf of the US government. A couple of recent flare-ups also led to an increase in inquiries regarding visas to Belarus and Russia from people intending to move towards Europe. But overall the trends remain the same:  Afghans are primarily seeking to go to Iran, Pakistan and Turkey (87% increase in queries on migrating to Turkey) within one month from April to May 2021 - while fewer nationals are looking at continuing their migration journey towards the European Union, at least not initially.

As visible from the above examples, people seeking migration advice come from all segments of the society. The largest group is the Afghan (male) youth looking for sustainable and peaceful living conditions in order to build a future for themselves. This group includes 16-17 year olds who wish to finish their schooling and go to university who see going abroad as their only option. Heads of families and elders also look for ways to find safety for their nuclear and larger families. Women are the smallest segment of society seeking migration advice: they normally make up around 12-14% of MRC’s clients. This trend changed last summer when the Taliban were intimidating women in villages around Kabul - threatening to take away their rights once they usurp power. Following this, the MRC noted a 40% increase in inquiries from women in the subsequent weeks.

The majority of MRC clients call from Kabul, Balkh, Jalalabad, Herat and Kandahar. However, this does not depict the full magnitude of people seeking to migrate from other parts of the country. The MRC does not reach all rural areas, and connects less with people who have lower education levels and little or no access to the internet. The qualitative needs assessment study in the autumn of  2020, conducted by ICMPD in cooperation with ATR Consulting , found that people from Faryab, Takhar and Balkh mostly want to leave for Iran irregularly via the Islam-Qala border crossing or for Pakistan, to find work in the construction or manufacturing sectors.

From major cities like Kabul and Herat, people seek to go through Iran to Turkey, not just because it is the obvious route, but because that is where so called “service providers” are situated. Smugglers announce on social media that Afghans who reach Iran can be brought to Turkey with a visa by road for a certain price. Once people reach Iran, the smugglers claim that for some reason the Turkish visa has been delayed, but that they can take them irregularly for USD 400 - 1,000 per person. The smugglers would often request a small down payment - usually around USD 100 - and the rest due upon arrival in Istanbul.

 People from Jawzjan tend to make the arrangements for their journey to Turkey with a valid visa, since irregular migration does not seem to be on their radar right now. Migrants, whether regular or irregular, from Nangarhar and Khost have little to no access to formal education. Many had previously resided in Pakistan and intended to go back for work again, with only a few interested in migrating towards Turkey.

The MRC also receives requests from Afghans in Turkey or people who have just returned from Turkey, on two main issues: (1) to be referred for reintegration assistance in their province and communities; and (2) how they can go back to Turkey and can get an official visa.

The diversity of Afghanistan is also reflected in its migration intentions, means and needs – one cannot generalise across the country. It is vital that the specific security, socio-economic and geographic parameters are taken into consideration when looking at migration trends from Afghanistan, as they constantly change and people adapt quickly to them.

From the thousands of personal consultations at the Migrant Resource Centre (MRC), a clear trend can be identified – people are seeking security, sustainable livelihoods and education. This is not new and has not changed over the past decades, the numbers of people simply increase and decrease depending very much on the security landscape – often fluctuating day by day.