The Migration-Displacement Nexus in Afghanistan

Khalid Koser
Khalid Koser Executive Director - Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund

May 4, 2009

Migration and displacement in and from Afghanistan are bewilderingly complex: one of the world’s largest and most enduring protracted refugee situations coincides with the largest repatriation in recent history – over five million refugees have returned since 2002 but over three million remain in exile. Returnees to Afghanistan from Iran and Pakistan cross paths with increasing numbers of cross-border migrants, traders and new refugees moving in the opposite direction, many of whom are subsequently deported as “illegal” labor migrants. Many returning refugees have effectively become internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Afghanistan, forming one of an increasing number of different IDP categories in that country. Some refugees who have chosen not to return to Afghanistan have remained illegally in Iran and Pakistan, and in some cases have paid smugglers to help them move further away. Camps that once housed Afghan refugees in Pakistan are now occupied by Pakistani IDPs fleeing violence in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) arising from US and Pakistani counter-insurgency operations against the Taliban. And there are even reports of Pakistanis fleeing across the border to seek temporary asylum in Afghanistan.

In this way Afghanistan’s border regions illustrate what might be described as a “migration-displacement nexus”. Within this nexus it is increasingly hard to distinguish different migrant types, and to match migrants to existing legal categories, for a number of reasons. First, especially in a conflict or post-conflict setting such as Afghanistan, it can be hard to distinguish individual motivations for moving. People moving out of Afghanistan may often be simultaneously fleeing the risk of violence, avoiding the effects of environmental hazards, responding to unemployment and poverty, and seeking to join family members elsewhere They might equally be classified as refugees, “environmental migrants” or labor migrants, and if they cross the border without authorization, they can also be considered as “irregular” migrants. Second, even where it is possible to separate out individual motivations for migration, often migrants moving for different reasons move together, from the same origins, to the same destinations and across the same border crossings. A report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) revealed that a startling 390,000 Afghans passed through a single border crossing on the Afghan-Pakistan border, in both directions, in one two-week period in January 2005. Approximately as many people were reported to be crossing into Afghanistan as those setting out for Pakistan. Third, different migrant “types” may adopt similar survival strategies, again making it difficult to distinguish them. There has been a growth of migrant smuggling and human trafficking of Afghans from Iran and Pakistan to Western Europe and North America, a significant proportion of whom subsequently gain refugee status. Both recognized refugees and economic migrants in Iran and Pakistan regularly send home remittances to support family members abroad. And an increasing proportion of the Afghan refugees who remain in both countries work in the informal economy in urban areas, competing with economic migrants from Afghanistan for the worst jobs in the labor market.

The migration-displacement nexus matters for at least three reasons. One is the importance of being able to distinguish those migrants – especially refugees – who have the right to international protection and assistance, from those – such as irregular migrants – who currently do not. Internally displaced persons may not be entitled to international protection, but there is growing recognition that they require special attention from their national governments, and distinguishing them from rural-urban migrants is equally important. There is a very real risk that as a result of the migration-displacement nexus some refugees and IDPs are being overlooked. A second reason is border security, and nowhere is this more apparent than on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Uncontrolled population movements undermine the exercise of state sovereignty and will further destabilize an already insecure and dangerous border zone. There is clear evidence that extremists are among those crossing the border in both directions, and also of links between cross-border movements of people, arms, and drugs. Finally, the migration-displacement nexus poses a real challenge for existing legal categories of migrants, and the consequent rights of different migrant types. Are the circumstances of those fleeing persecution necessarily so very different from those of people fleeing poverty as to justify discrimination in terms of protection and assistance?

The migration-displacement nexus also matters because it is by no means unique to Afghanistan and its region, although it is probably most evident there. The forced eviction of Zimbabwean migrants in South Africa in 2008 provides another example – many of these were migrant workers (in some cases without authorization to be in South Africa) who were subsequently internally displaced there, and at the same time in many cases could not go home because of the risk of persecution in Zimbabwe, thus equally being eligible to apply for asylum. The UN Refugee Agency – UNHCR – constantly monitors boats that cross the Mediterranean between North Africa and Southern Europe because of clear evidence that a proportion of those being transported are refugees fleeing violence and persecution in sub-Saharan Africa. There is very little doubt that some of the 200 hundred or so people who drowned off the coast of Libya in April this year would have been granted asylum had they reached Europe. And the sheer scale of internal migration in China – there are some 200 million rural-urban migrants, ten percent of whom have been estimated to have lost their jobs as a result of the global financial crisis – makes it almost impossible to distinguish those moving voluntarily for work from those trafficked against their will and those fleeing persecution or natural disasters. And looking to the not-too-distant future, people fleeing the effects of climate change will further challenge existing legal categories, normative frameworks and institutional responses to migration.