From Afghanistan to Europe: migration’s misunderstood routes and reasons

While international audiences have grown weary of the conflict in Afghanistan, the violence continues. But a focus on gruesome, isolated attacks ignores the structural conditions that make life unlivable for many Afghanis. Current European border and asylum regimes lack the legal and policy frameworks for acknowledging these long-term, social conditions.


Melissa Kerr Chiovenda and Andrea Chiovenda

After Syrians, the second largest numbers of refugees entering Europe in 2015  (the year of the great refugee crisis caused by the war in Syria) were Afghans. While the number of refugees from Syria and Iraq decreased in the years following 2015, the numbers of those of Afghan origin remained stable. Indeed, Afghanistan has been engulfed in a chronic condition of war – sometimes hot and devastating, sometimes cool and simmering – for four decades since 1979. The conflict’s tumult and length has given rise to migrants developing complex and diverse reasons for seeking refuge in Europe. While this multiplicity does not fit perfectly within the strict requirements for asylum, this does not invalidate Afghans’ desires to migrate to Europe. Rather, it indicates a need to expand the types of mobility opportunities made available for Afghans and others in similar positions.

In Europe today, Afghan refugees tend to be perceived as less “legitimate” than those from other countries. This idea stems from a misconception that the war in Afghanistan is essentially over, especially as the United States moves towards signing a peace deal with the Taliban. Additionally, because of the country’s (currently) low-intensity, long-lasting conflict, many people first sought refuge in nearby countries, particularly Pakistan and Iran. Hence, relative to the Syrian war, this situation has provided less clarity about whether those escaping the Afghan conflict are deserving of asylum upon their arrival in Europe. In fact, Afghans reaching Europe since 2015 often perceive that their claims are given less weight by the immigration authorities, as if the conditions they flee were not bad enough to justify granting them the status of asylees.

The situation of Afghans fleeing to Europe reveals problems with the current migration system’s stark separation of economic migration from political asylum.

As a result, tensions among asylum seekers of different ethnicities and nationalities emerge in host countries, as Afghans complain that Syrians are “moved to the front of the line,” both in terms of care and fast-tracking of asylum cases.  Despite real differences between the conflicts, the situation of Afghans fleeing to Europe reveals problems with the current migration system’s stark separation of economic migration from political asylum, a categorization that ends up doing great harm to people who really do need help. The experiences of Afghans in the European Asylum system also expose the limitations of migration policies that use a generalizing national lens for all Afghans, papering over important ethnic dynamics that would inform claims to protection.

In Afghanistan, some ethnicities suffer from systemic discrimination and even targeted discrimination, and Hazaras are a clear example of this. Melissa conducted research in a province of Afghanistan where Hazaras are a majority, and found clear evidence of a collective trauma that stems from events which took place before the conflict in Afghanistan started, and which is made worse by continued targeting of Hazaras to the present. Hazaras have been the victims of multiple mass killings, from the late 1800s perpetrated by the Amir Abdur Rahman, to later attacks by the Taliban, to a drastic increase in attacks by Daesh (ISIS) in more recent years. Just to give one recent example, in May of this year, Daesh members entered a maternity hospital in a part of Kabul inhabited by Hazaras and shot mothers giving birth and their newborn children. The goal could only have been the ethnic extermination of Hazaras. The targeting of Hazaras in Afghanistan is widespread and well-documented, leading this group to fear for their lives.

While Hazaras are clearly targeted by suicide bombs and other attacks, they do not generally live in the parts of Afghanistan where fighting is heaviest. Those who do are often ethnic Pashtuns, who tend to live in the regions where the Taliban are most active, and hence also where the Afghan and US/international military forces have been most active in rooting out the Taliban.

Afghanistan has been a refugee-sending country since its conflict started 40 years ago, and most Afghans have sought resettlement in the region.

Andrea conducted research in a Pashtun-majority region in Afghanistan, and became well acquainted with the very real fears felt by inhabitants that they might be killed by Taliban, Daesh, Afghan forces, or US and other coalition forces. Taliban are often indistinguishable from civilian villagers in the areas where they operate. This leads to an extremely high number of civilian casualties among those living in Taliban controlled regions. Drone warfare has made this all the worse. Pashtuns are therefore most likely to be killed in a terrorist attack, or a military operation carried out by regular forces. The latter have been responsible for the killing of Pashtuns in massive numbers and with impunity, either as “collateral damage,” or as supposed “militants” (even when this is very questionable). Hence, a large number of Pashtuns seek to flee the country for matters related to the dangers of living in their home villages. The fighting in these settings seems likely to continue despite the ongoing peace deal between the US and Taliban (which sidelined the Afghan government).

Afghanistan also has its own deep systems of socio-economic inequality, whereby certain people, regardless of their ethnicity or religious faith, live under incredibly exploitative conditions. Some of these conditions are deeply ingrained: while in certain contexts ideals of egalitarianism and full political participation for members of a particular ethnic group are paramount, there are still pockets of contradictory realities whereby people live subject to essentially feudal systems that require tenant farmers or laborers to perform unpaid labor.

We witnessed this in a brick-making factory in a Pashtun area of the country, where children were forced to work to pay off their parents’ debts. We also noted it in a family-run carpet-weaving enterprise in a Hazara area of the country, where children and teenagers rarely saw the light of day, working at the loom for up to 15 hours daily. Such exploitative relations are often compounded by the emergence, over the decades of conflict, of violent and coercive komandan. These individuals take advantage of the prestige and following granted to them by military exploits and successes to turn into gang leaders with territorial fiefdoms. Afghans of all backgrounds may find themselves taken hostage by the brutality of competing komandanaan and seek a way out (see also Giustozzi 2006, 2009, Nojumi 2002).

Afghanistan has been a refugee-sending country since its conflict started 40 years ago, and most of the Afghans fleeing have sought resettlement in the region. Pashtun refugees fled to the northern provinces of Pakistan, and some Hazaras chose Quetta, a mixed city in southern Pakistan. However, this has economically overtaxed Pakistan’s local population, and so it is not surprising that with regularity, over the decades, Pakistan has sought to expel Afghan refugees. The second largest group of refugees from Afghanistan fled to Iran, and almost all of them were Shi’a Hazaras.

During the height of the war in Syria, Iranian authorities coerced Shi’a Afghans to fight in Syria in exchange for promises of legal regularization in Iran upon return.

Despite their similarity in religious faith, however, Hazaras have always, except for the first few years after the Soviet invasion, had a hard time in Iran due to being deeply racialized by the Iranian authorities because they likely have roots in the Turkic and Mongol populations who settled in Central Asia between the 12th and 14th centuries (although many Hazaras do claim autochthony in Afghanistan). The prejudice that many Iranians and state authorities harbored against these so-called “descendants of Chingiz Khan” resulted in discrimination in educational opportunities, vastly decreased social mobility, and a lack of regularization of their legal condition as prospective Iranian citizens (no matter for how many generations one had been settled in Iran).

Such acts of discrimination and suppression might happen by governmental decree applied to the entire Hazara population, or to individuals only. It is also not unheard of for Afghan Hazaras in Iran to simply be expelled across the border into Afghanistan, and in the process sometimes killed by border guards in the most horrific ways – such as recently, when a party of 12 burnt alive in their car after it was riddled with bullets by Iranian Border Guards. Furthermore, during the height of the war in Syria, Iranian authorities coerced Shi’a Afghans to fight in Syria in exchange for promises of legal regularization in Iran upon return (or for their families, should they die in action). Some were also threatened with the cancellation of their entire family’s residency permit, should they not agree to fight.

To escape these conditions, many Hazaras living in Iran – sometimes for decades – or Pashtuns in refugee camps in Pakistan, are now increasingly seeking asylum in Europe. This represents a problem for their asylum cases: they are Afghans by origin, many without direct experience of the conflict in Afghanistan. At the same time, they are not citizens of Iran or Pakistan, despite many having been born there. While they have been subjected to systemic discrimination in Iran, and legal invisibility in Pakistan, neither country is at war. Their cases as Afghans residing in a stable environment are not considered strong enough by European immigration authorities, hence they feel forced by an unfair system to make up stories of residence and persecution in Afghanistan.

Another reason Afghan refugees make recourse to stereotyped stories of war and misery in order to present stronger cases to immigration authorities is the lack of understanding among officials for how mobility is woven into the fabric of Afghan social life, and how geopolitical conflict and tensions have impeded it. Afghanistan has a long history of circular labor migration patterns practiced by many of its ethnic groups (and particularly by Hazaras and Pashtuns), and these patterns continue up to the present. Pashtun Afghans have sought work in the wealthy Gulf countries for decades, and working in the Gulf was one way they could complete life-cycle goals such as marriage and starting a family.

It is impossible to cleanly separate economic from security reasons for migration in such a long-running war. Economic destitution is often precipitated by, and a direct consequence of, conflict.

While Gulf migration is often associated with ethnic Pashtuns, other Afghans have migrated to the Gulf as well. In recent years, Shi’a Hazaras in particular have been restricted from working in the Gulf due to sectarian-political concerns, as most Gulf countries have fraught relationships with Shi’a Muslims. Hazaras have long practiced circular migratory patterns that take them from Afghanistan to Pakistan and to Iran, and then back. As with Pashtuns, this may become almost a rite of passage for many Hazara men. But such migratory patterns have been disrupted in recent years due to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. While this circular migration is partly a strategy towards economic benefit, it is also a social fulfilment of expectations related to marriage, building a household, and reaching full adulthood within one’s social environment.

These forms of self-actualization through mobility are not currently considered by immigration authorities in any European country to be sufficient grounds to relocate to Europe. And by international law, asylum regulations are not broad and imaginative enough to cope with the complex outcomes of a conflict such as Afghanistan’s. Yet, it is impossible to cleanly separate economic from security reasons for migration in such a long-running war, for economic destitution is often precipitated by, and a direct consequence of, conflict.

Allowing more Afghans paths to work and temporary settlement in Europe could help fulfill some of the need caused by the closure of formerly well-working migration strategies to places like Iran, Pakistan, and even the Gulf – which have been curtailed due to conflict and political disagreements outside the control of most citizens. In order to maintain an effective asylum procedure that protects those in imminent danger because of conflict and/or political persecution, it is necessary to offer alternative paths to entry that acknowledge the legitimacy of economic and existential migration under conditions of conflict by authorizing and regularizing the movement of more people seeking dignified livelihoods.


Melissa Kerr Chiovenda is an Assistant Professor of anthropology at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. She completed her PhD in anthropology at the University of Connecticut. Her dissertation research considered collective trauma among ethnic Hazara civil society activists in Bamyan, Afghanistan. Since 2016, she has conducted research on political identity among Afghan refugees in Greece. She has publications in such journals as Central Asian Survey, Asian Anthropology, Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, and several edited volumes. She is currently writing a book based on her dissertation research.

Andrea Chiovenda received his PhD in anthropology from Boston University in 2015. From 2015 to 2019 he was a postdoctoral research associate at the department of Global Health and Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School, collaborating closely with Byron and Mary-Jo Good. He was also an affiliated faculty member in anthropology at Emerson College, Boston. In January 2020 he joined the faculty of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi, UAE. Chiovenda has contributed to peer reviewed journals and edited volumes, and in 2020 published his book-length ethnography, entitled Crafting Masculine Selves: Culture, War and Psychodynamics in Afghanistan (Oxford University Press).

Photograph: Aggelos Barai