Depression, anxiety, isolation and stress. It is not easy to return to a country plagued by decades of conflict. And according to a new report by the Danish Refugee Council’s Mixed Migration Centre, psychological hardships make it significantly more difficult for Afghans to reintegrate and start a new life.
Last year, the number of civilians who were killed in Afghanistan reached the highest in a decade. At the same time, poverty and unemployment is at an all-time high. Almost four decades of conflict and turmoil have made millions of women, men and children leave Afghanistan, but even though the country is still plagued by armed conflict, poverty, drought and violence, the number of people returning is at a record-high.
Since 2016, 2.4 million have returned – some voluntarily, others by force, and the majority driven by fears of deportation, by uncertain legal status or by economic difficulties. Many have faced traumas during their migration and return journeys – not least those who return by force – and a new study indicates that the circumstances connected to the return and the psychosocial well-being of migrants and refugees coming back to Afghanistan affect their ability and willingness to re-integrate.
“At a time where there is a dominant international policy of hindering migration, and a large number of Afghans are returning either voluntarily or by force, the report is very important in understanding how we ensure conditions to facilitate safe and sustainable returns that don’t force people into displacement again,” says Christian Friis Bach, Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council.
Remigration remains a plan B
The report is based on 56 in-depth interviews with former Afghan migrants and refugees who have returned from Iran, Pakistan and Europe. The research is the first to look at returnees’ aspirations and hopes for their future and not least the challenges they face when trying to reintegrate.
“Our research shows that if people have returned due to pressure or force, they are often more traumatized and disillusioned about trying to establish a future for themselves in Afghanistan and more eager to attempt to migrate again,” says Bram Frouws who heads the Danish Refugee Council’s Mixed Migration Centre.
“Still,” he adds: “most see remigration only as a fallback plan.”
Among the interviewees, employment and financial security were by far the most cited aspirations, while remigration was solely a ‘plan B’. But the report also suggests that circumstances leading to the return matter. Afghans who return involuntarily and who are in a poor psychosocial state are more likely to see remigration as their only option than those whose return had been their own choice.
“For people who have been pressured or forced to return, it often means returning to the exact same conditions that motivated the original journey, for instance personal persecution or economic reasons. On the contrary, voluntary returnees assess that conditions have changed and seem more motivated to build a new future for themselves in Afghanistan,” says Frouws.
He stresses that the conditions in Afghanistan are difficult for everyone but explains that returnees often face extraordinary challenges including debt, lack of food, a roof over their head and poor mental health. The report suggests that individual circumstances such as employment, access to housing, basic health care and education can play a major positive role – but most important is family support.
Family more important than money
For the interviewees, family is key when trying to get settled and feel comfortable in the communities they had returned to. Indeed, several saw family ties and family member’s assistance as much more important than economic incentives.
“There is a saying ‘home is where the heart is’ referring to one’s family. It’s not rocket science that it is easier to establish a new life for oneself and adapt to a new community with the help of people, you have a personal connection to. This is not less true in Afghanistan. The report reminds us that family ties are a more important indicator than economy, which should be considered both when it comes to state-initiated return programmes, and when we in the humanitarian sector seek to identify the most vulnerable and in need of help,” says Frouws.
In the European Union (EU), asylum recognition rates for Afghans are falling. Voluntary and semi-voluntary return has become a response for people who feel a lack of support from host countries. Despite the high number of people returning to Afghanistan, there is currently little knowledge of who they are, their needs and their aspirations for their future. Humanitarian and government personnel have little data and evidence on which to base their interventions, and the Afghan society is unable to capitalize on the skills and other attributes that returnees bring home with them. The new report aims at shedding some light at the ‘distant dreams’ of Afghan returnees.
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- Afghanistan is the second largest country of origin in the world for refugees with close to 2.6 million registered refugees – half of them are children below 18 years.
- Pakistan and Iran host around 2.3 million Afghans or an estimated 90 percent of all Afghans residing outside Afghanistan. Europe hosts less than 400,000.
- Approximately 1.3 million are internally displaced including more than half a million who were forcefully displaced last year alone.
- The UN estimates that 6.3 million people in Afghanistan were in need of help in 2018 – twice as many as in 2017.
Source: UNHCR, OCHA and Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
About Mixed Migration Centre
The Mixed Migration Centre (MMC) – a part of the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) – is a leading source for independent and high-quality data, research, analysis and expertise on mixed migration. The MMC is a global network consisting of six regional hubs and a central unit in Geneva. The report was commissioned and led by MMC Asia and carried out by Seefar.