A. Executive Summary
The following report collects the main available data on the most recent migratory movements in and from Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the international armed forces after a 20-year long occupation. In addition, this report provides important data on local and international organisations supporting refugees or internally displaced persons, reasons for leaving the country, main pathways, laws governing migration both locally and internationally, as well as main trends affecting victims of human trafficking in Afghanistan.
For several decades Afghanistan has been considered the world’s highest refugee-producing country due to an unstable political and social climate. This current situation may have worsened because of the fall of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the full withdrawal of international troops from the country and the reinstatement of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
A decade-long civil war started during the collapse of the DRA, from 1989 to 1992, followed by a 4 year period of expansion of the Taliban regime across Afghanistan and the establishment of the first Taliban-ruled Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, on September 27, 1996. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was opposed by the Northern Alliance – United Front, headed by the guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. This conflict ended with the occupation of the country by U.S. troops aiming at capturing all of the Al-Qaeda commanders. After the 2001 occupation of Afghanistan by international troops and the Bonn Agreement, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was established, modernising its administration and economy, while reducing the presence of armed groups in the country. In August 2021 the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was ousted, as the Taliban group conquered Kabul and forced international troops to completely withdraw from the country. This withdrawal had been previously planned as part of the Doha Agreement, by which the Trump administration agreed to an initial reduction of U.S. forces from 13,000 to 8,600 troops by July 2020, followed by a complete withdrawal by May 1, 2021. As a reference, Afghan refugees who arrived in Pakistan in August 2021 have increased over 10,000% in comparison to previous periods, a trend that could grow even more in the near future.
B. Country Profile
I. Basic Information
Afghanistan is a landlocked country in central Asia, bordering Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and China. It covers an area of 652,864 square kilometers. According to Afghanistan’s National Statistics and Information Authority (NISA), in 2020 the country’s population was 42.9 million, while the UN estimate provided a smaller figure: 38.4 million inhabitants. Due to its strategic location within central Asia, Afghanistan has always had a long migration history, housing a large number of ethnic, linguistic and social groups. Pashtuns represent 39% of the Afghan population, followed by the Tajiks (20%), Hazaras (10%) and Uzbeks (6-10%), other minorities include Aimaq, Turkmen, Baloch, Pashai, Nuristani, Gujjar, Arab, Brahui, Qizilbash, Pamiri, Kyrgyz, Sadat and others.
The 0-14 age group represents 41.2% of the population, while people 65 and older are only 2.7%. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), life expectancy is 67 years for women, and 64 for men. Enrolment rate in upper secondary education is 44%, and gender equality index in upper secondary education (2009-2019) was 0.56. As a result, only 8% of Afghan females are literate against 38% of males, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Literacy is still a problem in Afghanistan due to poor or no educational resources for children and younger Afghans living in the country’s remote areas.
II. International and Internal Migrants
According to UNFPA, the vast majority of Afghans live in valleys and rural areas of the Hindu Kush, while only 26% of the population resides in urban areas. Most of the internal and international migration movements in Afghanistan are caused by safety or humanitarian needs. Afghans in need account for 18 million people across the different groups (i.e. IDPs, Cross-borders returnees, Shock-affected non-displaced, Refugees and Asylum seekers). According to a UNICEF report, in 2021 there were approximately 9,700,000 children in need, with a 60% increase since December 2019. Most of the internal migration is caused by lack of employment in rural areas forcing Afghans to move into more populated urban areas. Historically, migration within Afghanistan has been produced by financial issues, safety reasons, and lack of access to basic services such as adequate drinking water, permanent? food market, access to healthcare and education, or lack of ownership of productive assets in rural areas.
In Afghanistan there is a significant influx of migrants. UNHCR reports that most returnees are members of the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras ethnic groups, as well as members of other non-Pashtun minorities. The OCHA reports that in 2021 858,956 undocumented Afghans returned from Iran, while documented returnees from that country rose to 663,000. Approximately 24% of all Afghan returnees settle in the capital city of Kabul. Overall, the 2021 returnees have risen to 1,725,845, representing a 4-5% total of the Afghan population.
Pakistan is the main source of returnees; in fact just in 2021 its number increased to 866,889. Other cross-border refugees account for 72,278 people, especially in the Southern regions. Due to poor communication channels Afghans returning from Pakistan or Iran are barely taken into account within the decision-making process of humanitarian programmes, preventing also the improvement of the resettlement process overseen by international organisations.
III. Emigration and Skilled Migration
Emigration from Afghanistan is characterized by a high percentage of forced migration, although skilled migration flows also exist in the country. A general overview of the Afghan diaspora shows how vast its dispersion has been over several decades of conflict. The main recipients of Afghan migrants are Iran, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, and the United States. According to UNHCR, there are over 5 million Afghan citizens abroad, predominantly male, representing approximately 13.5% of the Afghan population, and among them 53.29% are men who occupy all kinds of skilled and unskilled jobs. Leaving Afghanistan is characterized by a hazardous international visa application process which can be done with the help of organisations such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) or directly through the recipient countries’ administrations. Recent events have compelled the international community to grant special visas for those Afghans working for international organisations in Afghanistan. For instance in 2021 the U.S. airlifted more than 122,000 Afghans from the country, giving priority to their application and granting Special Immigration Visa (SIV), and similar endeavours were undertaken by countries such as Germany, Spain, France, Italy or the United Kingdom. Other migrants include students abroad that according to the UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics (UIS) in 2021 were 31,522, and their main destinations were Iran, Turkey, India, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, and other receiving countries.
Migration inflows to Afghanistan are mainly returnees from Iran and Pakistan, both documented and undocumented, who forcedly or volutarily returned to their country. Surveys show that returnees seek financial education in order to create their own business, and for this reason, several programs have been in place to encourage the return of skilled Afghans, such as the Return of Qualified Afghans (RQA) programme. In addition to forced return and deportation, returnees go back mainly for personal reasons (42.3%), like the desire to be in their own country or close to their family. In terms of gender, 52.7% of returnees are male while females represent 47.3%. It has also been noted that 1.2% of Afghan households have a family member that is a seasonal cross-border migrant between Afghanistan and Pakistan. These programmes were signed by the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the host government and also the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Research shows that most returnees go back to Afghanistan with higher skills, yet they struggle financially once in the country that does not have the capacity to absorb themor its own development.
IV. Forced Migrants (internally displaced, asylum seekers and refugees, climate displaced people)
Historic data shows that between 1979 and 2009 nearly 75% of Afghans had to leave their homes one or more times. Since 2010, there has been a rise in conflict-induced displacements, due to armed conflicts and lack of security.
Pakistan shelters 2.2 million registered Afghan refugees, of the total 2.6 million documented Afghan refugees worldwide. According to USAID, Tajikistan hosts 10,700 refugees, while Iran about 800,000 and Germany approximately 150,000 refugees. Among many other countries, Austria, France, Greece, Sweden, Switzerland and Indonesia have also received significant numbers of Afghans. Undocumented refugees are harder to trace, and the total number of refugees could rise to approximately 3 million. Since August 12, 2021, forced migration to Pakistan has increased 10,702% due to life threatening conditions for Afghan citizens because of conflicts and unrest in their country. The main issue related to new migrant outflows is that receiving countries are now imposing quotas and limitations to the increasing number of asylum seekers, causing distress within the international community and forcing millions of Afghans to uncertainly search for another welcoming country.
Due to recent events, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) have increased considerably. According to the UNHCR’s Afghanistan Situation update of September 1, 2021, as of December 21, 2020 IDPs amounted to 2.9M, and since January 2021 they have increased by 570,482. Internal displacements are also an important aspect of Afghan society. There are currently 4.9 million IDPs, and 4.2 million returnees from abroad are now living in Afghanistan, representing an approximate 25% of the total Afghan population. Regions with most IDPs are North Eastern, Northern and Eastern regions, even though returnees usually arrive at Western, Southern and Northern regions. The main receiving administrations are located at Herat (954,900), Helmand (441,100) and Balkh (360,000).
Some ethnic groups are more likely to migrate internally than others. Ethnic groups can be found in all of the 34 Afghan provinces, and Kabul is the compendium of all ethnicities in the country. Among all ethnic minorities, the Hazaras are the most endangered one. Targeted violence and terrorism have forced Hazaras to move from Hazarajat to Kabul, through a dangerous pathway known as the “Death Road” because of recurrent killing and kidnaping. The Hazaras often take lower status jobs and have to face hostility from the remaining Afghan population. A similar fate also affects converted Christians, living in urban areas and representing between 8,000 and 12,000 Afghans forced to practice their faith in hiding.
In 2021 conflict displacements have affected 665,200 Afghans, who, according to the OCHA latest reports, represent 94,021 displaced families The main affected provinces are Faryab (27,950), Badghis (78,693) and Nangarhar (38,178), while the three main recipient places are Kunduz (86,163), Qala-e-Naw (35,809) and Taloqan (32,522). 60% of IDPs are children, 20% are adult women. The most vulnerable IPD groups are the Hazaras and other Shia groups who face targeted killing and persecution, mainly in the Eastern, Southern and Central regions, forcing them to join other family members in a different region within rural areas, or to rent houses camping together with other families without any regular income.
IDPs also suffer from lack of access to basic needs such as public health, water, education or even shelter, which leads them to encamp in informal settlements often exposed to natural disasters such as landslides. For those camping in urban areas, employment opportunities are scarce. Prior to August 2021, IOM reports that more than 50% of male IDPs were employed in the construction field; but the situation may have worsened as current data is poor or non-existent. On-site international organizations report a high risk condition for these people due to the recent political shift, causing a food crisis and leading to children acute malnutrition as families reduce the number of meals per day.
Climate displaced people should not be disregarded. 79% of Afghans are affected by harsh climate conditions. Since 2019 more than 10 million Afghans have suffered from a food crisis produced by drought. Flooding also affects Afghan rural life. It is the most recurrent natural hazard in Afghanistan, with 2,245 incidents of flooding over the last decade. Around 1,198,000 people were consequently displaced as a result of climate disasters in the country, being drought and floods the two most common disasters. The regions affected by decreased spring precipitation have been the North, Central Highlands and the East, where Afghanistan’s biggest agricultural locations can be found. The main migration sources due to climate changes are the Badghis, Helmand and Ghor provinces, and most of these IDPs are sheltered in Shaiday Camp, at Herat city.
V. Victims of Human Trafficking
In Afghanistan internal trafficking is more common than transnational trafficking. It is reported that its annual victims are approximately 500, however this number is disputed.
Types of trafficking include both labor and sexual trafficking, exploitation for prosstitution, prostitution of minors, slavery and practices similar to slavery. It affects both men and women, as well as boys and girls. Afghan trends show that trafficking can include entire families too, forced to work in the brick-making industry in the Eastern region and carpet weaving across the whole country. However, most trafficking victims are children and women forced to work in carpet weaving, brick-making, domestic work as well as commercial sex or begging. Most of them belong to the Hazaras ethnic group. Other forms of violence against women also exist: 51% of women suffer from lifetime physical or sexual violence, while child marriage rates are as high as 35%. Girls and women are often forced to marry in exchange for dispute settlements or other reasons such as debt release.
In addition to the human trafficking purposes mentioned above, in some regions like the Khorasan Province children are used for violent hostilities and explosive devices detonation. In a country being in a conflict over several decades, arms-related scenarios for human trafficking are not a surprise. Children have been reportedly recruited as child soldiers for forced labor and commercial sex, known as bacha bazi. These children are often returnees from Pakistan, Iran or Turkey. Nonetheless, trafficking is not confined to a national territory, but Afghan boys have been reportedly subjected to bacha bazi in Germany, Hungary, Macedonia and Serbia. Traffickers have subjected women and girls from China, Iran, Pakistan, Philippines or Sri Lanka to commercial sex trafficking in Afghanistan. Also, international foreign workers have been subjected to forced labor, including workers from Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan. Trafficking destinations of these victims also include agricultural labor such as poppy cultivation, opium farming and harvesting, salt mining or drug smuggling.
Reporting these trafficking incidents occur through interviews with community leaders and households for program assessments, local staff of international organisations discussing customs and traditions with communities, outreach programs conducted by local staff, mental health clinics, community health education initiatives (midwives), psycho-social counselling groups or through informal dialogue with partner agencies. However, the recent withdrawal of international agencies from the country put these reporting channels in danger, for one of the main issues trafficking victims face is the inability to disclose their condition to officials who could act in their defense. Official reports concluded that the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan investigated 138 alleged traffickers in 2020, prosecuting 64 suspects and convicting 34 traffickers. All of the 138 investigations focused on bacha bazi. Protection of trafficking victims and prosecution of traffickers were reinforced by the creation of the Child Protection Units (CPU). Other actions included a comprehensive National Action Plan on Countering Trafficking in Persons, a joint effort by Afghan NGOs, Afghanistan Network in Combating Trafficking in Persons (ANCTIP), and a regional NGOs network, Asian Network in Combating Trafficking in Persons (ACTIP).
VI. National Legal Framework
Recent political changes in Afghanistan may lead to legal derogations and new legislative procedures. However, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan migration related that Afghan Citizenship Law may or may not subsist. Working-Visa requests had been previously channeled through the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency or Ministry of Commerce that submitted requests to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Visiting visas had been previously requested in Afghan Embassies and Consulates abroad. The Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) was the framework created by the Afghan government in 2008 in order to help Afghans to return to the country through key-support areas, namely: ensuring equitable rural and urban development; improving access to basic social services and enhancing social protection; considering women and youth as priority population groups with specific vulnerabilities. The initiatives were channeled through the National Priority Programmes (NPPs) which included 12 programmes reflected within a Citizen’s Charter, rural and urban development programmes, a National Women’s Economic Development Plan and National Infrastructure Plan, all enacted with the aim of facilitating the return and reintegration of Afghans into their own country (e.g. covering issues such as land allocation, affordable housing in urban and rural areas, access to healthcare, etc.). In the legal and regulatory sphere some acts were amended, such as the Presidential Decree 104 on the basis of which a Land Allocation Scheme was developed. Several decrees for the protection of returnees were signed by Governments after 2001. These were the Presidential Decree 297 on the Dignified Return of Refugees or the aforementioned Presidential Decree 104 on Land Allocation Schemes. These initiatives were supported nationally through an inter-ministerial High Commission for Migration (HCM) and internationally through a joint effort between the Government of Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as UNHCR, an alliance supported through an overarching national Comprehensive Voluntary Repatriation and Reintegration Plan.
International refugee regulations apply, such as the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Additional Protocol in 2005. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is based on strict interpretation of Sharia-law which is considered a lex superior, and may imply a de facto derogation of some dispositions of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s lex priori. Therefore existing regulations will most likely become invalid and subject to new interpretation.
VII. Main Actors
The Afghan State is currently under a change process and there is no reliable public data on the actions that are being undertaken by local authorities to reduce forced migration, help resettlement and combat human trafficking. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan created the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, which worked together with UNHCR on plans to provide an Enhanced Voluntary Return and Reintegration Package (EVRRP) to refugees. The Ministry also worked in cooperation with the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants’ Affairs (BAFIA) in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON) in Pakistan. The MoRR worked with the ARAZI (land authority), the Independent board for New Kabul, Ministry for Urban Development, municipalities, and the Independent Directorate for Local Governance to identify plots of unused land within cities which could be redistributed amidst refugees.
Some of the countries that have collaborated with the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan during the last decades have established State-sponsored relocation programs for refugees. These countries are the United States of America, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Germany and Belgium. Other countries have also enabled channels to facilitate family reunification, such as Australia, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.
The Catholic Church
The Mission Sui Iuris of Afghanistan is an independent canonical mission with juridical personality immediately subject to the Holy See. It is entrusted to the Order of Clerics Regular of Saint Paul – Barnabites (CRSP). Fr. Giovanni M. Scalese, CRSP, presides over the mission as Superior Ecclesiasticus acting as Local Ordinary, but he returned to Italy after August 2021. The functioning chapel in the country was consecrated to Our Lady of Divine Providence, and had been active from 1919 to 2021.
Catholic Relief Services has had a longstanding operation project in Afghanistan working since 1998 along with Caritas Network to implement educational programs, emergency and natural disaster response actions as well as increasing farm productivity in Afghanistan’s remote area. Since then, CRS has helped more than 239,895 people working in Herat, Ghor, Bamiyan, Daykundi and Kabul. The Caritas Network has been operating in the country since 1998, and helps support rural development programmes in the Bamyan province. Overall, directly or through partners, Caritas Internationalis has carried out projects in 133 communities fighting hunger, giving psycho-social care, creating hygiene systems and water resources, giving healthcare support, helping people with disabilities, treating leprosy and tuberculosis as well as providing counseling support to fight against drug consumption.
Another well-known Catholic organisation acting in Afghanistan until August 2021 had been the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) providing services to internally displaced persons (IDPs), mainly from minority ethnic groups living in Kabul, Herat, Bamiyan, and Daikundi provinces, providing services to more than 14,902 people.
Since 2002, the International Catholic Migration Commission has been helping with the return of Afghan refugees through the identification of vulnerable Afghans, counseling and provision of urgent assistance as well as channeling refugees to the right visa application path. In 2020, the ICMC conducted 1,107 counselling and psychosocial interventions to support Afghan and non-Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
Other actors include donors for relief measures such as Maltese International or diocesan donors and charities that have actively contributed with resources to Afghan peace and resettlement, in projects such as infrastructure capacity building.
Currently, International protection applicants have the support of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). The World Health Organisation (WHO) also supports Afghans with COVID-related needs and general health issues. Other organisations include UNICEF, UNAMA, OCHA, the International Rescue Committee as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, an Eurasian political and security alliance. UNHCR has provided services including the development of schools, infrastructure, and expanding livelihood opportunities reaching more than 1.3 million people this year, including returning IDPs in Kabul, Helmand, Zabuk, Kunar, Kandahar, Nangarhar and other provinces. The UNHCR has been an active player in the country, working closely with the MoRR and utilizing multilateral platforms such as the UN Country Team (UNCT) and the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT), to raise awareness around the issue of refugee returns in the context of the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees and successfully increased the engagement of UN agencies with returnee-related issues and projects. Other mechanisms hinged from the SSAR such as Friends of SSAR, which provided opportunities for strategic exchange with other agencies and organisations, gathering perspectives under the joint effort of the UN Development Assistance Framework for Afghanistan (UNDAF). The participating entities were the FAO, ILO, IOM, OHCHR, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, UNFPA, UN Habitat, UNICEF, UNMAS, UNODC, UN Women, WHO, UNHCR, OCHA, UNIDO, UNCTAD and UNOPS, as well as all the ministry and entities dependant upon the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s government. The main work of the UNDAF was to (1) create an Equitable and Sustainable Economic Development for Afghans, (2) create Basic Social Services, (3) enhance Social Equity and Investment in Human Capital, (4) promote Justice and the Rule of Law, (5) establish an Accountable Governance of the country. UN activity is maintained as per the latest Report of the Secretary-General, following the Seventy-fifth session of the UN General Assembly of June 15, 2021.
There are 156 NGOs and international organisations delivering assistance across 98% of Afghan districts, providing assistance to 15.7 targeted million people in 2021. Some active organisations in the country are Medicins Sans Frontières (MSF) serving Afghans in Herat, Kandahar, Khost, Kunduz and Lashkar Gah, by providing medical facilities, Mobile clinics, a maternity hospital and qualified staff, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement that are located in all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces – including isolated rural areas – providing essential relief and supporting hospitals and medical facilities. Red Cross and Red Crescent run over 150 health centres and clinics, including 36 mobile health teams covering the whole country. They are supported with funding and resources by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which implies a robust ongoing supported presence in the country. Other organisations that are currently operating in Afghanistan for the last 3 years include Afghanaid, Danish DACAAR, Afghanistan Relief Organisation, Act for Peace, CARE Australia, Mercy Corps, among many others.