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Afghan Returns Built on False Policy Narrative

The idea that returning refugees will drive development in Afghanistan ignores reality, says researcher Marieke van Houte. She argues that the mass return of Afghans will further destabilize the country and drive a new exodus.

Written by Marieke van Houte Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Afghans who were deported from Germany exit the Kabul International Airport. AP/Massoud Hossaini

Afghanistan is considered solved as an international crisis. It’s 15 years since the fall of the Taliban, and the war on terror ended with the transition year in 2014.

In policy terms, this means that refugees and former asylum seekers can and should go home. This is not only true of neighboring countries, notably Pakistan, which are keen to move on millions of refugees hosted for decades, but of the European Union. Despite hosting much smaller numbers, E.U. countries are increasingly anxious to reject Afghan asylum seekers.

This policy narrative continues to exist despite the fact that since 2015 witnessed a new upsurge of violence in Afghanistan and a subsequent wave of Afghan outmigration of hundreds of thousands of people; around 350,000 Afghans are expected to have applied for asylum in the E.U. in 2015 and 2016.

Return migration has come to be seen in European policy as a multi-tool that can both enhance migrants’ contribution to development in their country of origin, while also helping to remove unwanted migrants. For this reason, Assisted Voluntary Return schemes are paid for out of development budgets, while compliance of states with the deportation of their citizens who refuse to leave has become an important negotiation strategy in international relations and a precondition for receiving development aid.

Connecting return migration to development aid might look at first like a win-win situation: either Afghan return migrants get money to rebuild their lives, or Afghanistan gets money to rebuild the country in exchange for accepting back its deported citizens. It also allows the E.U. to get rid of the Afghans whose asylum applications were rejected.

Yet seeing return migration as a tool for development and migration management is both shortsighted and counterproductive. It represents a classic mistake in the conceptualizing of the link between migration, development and peace-building.

The expectations on which migration and development policies are based only apply to a small minority of returnees who return voluntarily – without being legally obliged to do so. These are usually people from a higher socioeconomic background who had the opportunity to leave at an early stage in the conflict and have had the right to live in Europe, where they benefited from opportunities to work and study and live their lives in security. They returned, when they considered the circumstances right to do so, with some optimism, energy and a proactive attitude to the war-torn society.

Yet this is is not the group that is targeted by Assisted Voluntary Return and deportation policies. Rejected asylum seekers and undocumented migrants subject to these policies are often from more modest origins, and were either not able to leave until later in the conflict or arrived in Europe after being en route for years.

This group had lower chances of receiving a refugee status and instead lived as asylum seekers or migrants without valid residence permits and with limited rights in the host country before being involuntarily repatriated, often poorer than when they started off. The assistance they receive upon departure usually does not cover the investments made for the journey, let alone provide any extra they can use to build something when they return.

Rather than supporting development, the forced return of Afghan migrants actually threatens development and peace-building as it adds to the fragile situation in Afghanistan. Instead of resolving refugee flows by sending them back where they come from, we can expect that the increased pressure returnees put on resources and security will increase the outflow of Afghans, leading to a vicious cycle of increased arrivals in Europe.

While the bulk of the budgets for policies promoting return, development and peace-building go to de facto involuntary returnees, this group is unable to contribute to development in any way. On the contrary, this potential is undermined by restrictive immigration and asylum policies, which damage rather than promote the conditions under which these involuntary returnees could be actors of change. On the other hand, while a proportion of voluntary returnees can potentially contribute to development and peace-building, only a small share of migration and development budgets promote the initiatives of such returnees. This leads to a mismatch between the allocation of development budgets and the development potential of return migrants.

Moreover, the excessively optimistic expectations that are communicated to return migrants about their prospects foster anger and disappointment among returnees who find the reality awaiting them is quite different.

Return is neither a movement back to normal, nor is it easily a movement forward to change. When migrants return to their country of origin, they do not automatically contribute to development and peace-building. Instead, return can be a destabilizing factor in a fragile country. Rather than an instrument for development and an adequate final stage in migration management policies, return migration represents a new phase in the long, dynamic and ongoing history of conflict and mobility of Afghanistan. Migration will always be part of people’s survival strategies in times of conflict and crisis.

The economic, security and political challenges of the current transition period have set in motion a new episode of large-scale outward migration of Afghans. Instead of trying to manage and contain these migration flows, and treating the next large-scale arrival of Afghans as a “refugee crisis,” we should facilitate the resilience and ongoing determination of people to find a better life. If migration is to contribute to development and security, it should be facilitated rather than contained.

Marieke van Houte’s book Return Migration to Afghanistan: Moving Back or Moving Forward? is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

This article was amended to include a higher estimate of the number of Afghan asylum seekers expected to make a first application for asylum in the E.U. in 2015 and 2016.

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