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© EU/ECHO Pierre Prakash
Afghan refugees in Iran, 2013

At a conference in Brussels this week, world powers including the EU, US and Japan pledged $15 billion towards development aid and peace building in Afghanistan over the next four years. The day before the start of the conference, the EU signed an agreement with the Afghan government allowing its member states to deport an unlimited number of the country’s asylum seekers, which the Afghan government are obliged to receive.

Although the EU said the deportation deal should not be seen as a condition of the financial support coming out of the donor conference, experts’ analysis was that donors would not have been as generous in their funding pledges if the deportation deal had not come through, and that the Afghan government would not have accepted the deal had it not been conditional on aid.

The deportation–aid deal is a classic European strategy to connect migration management with development and peace building. This might look at first like a win–win situation: Afghanistan gets money to rebuild the country, and the EU can get rid of the Afghans that reached the EU in 2015 and 2016 who have had their asylum application rejected. While around 213,200 Afghans have reached the EU in 2015 and the first half of 2016 (see here and here), 47 per cent are currently being rejected. But the deal is both short-sighted and counterproductive, and represents a classic mistake in the conceptualising of the link between migration, development and peace-building.

Afghan migration to Europe

After 37 years of conflicts and refugee flows, 2015 witnessed a new upsurge of violence in Afghanistan and a subsequent wave of Afghan outmigration of hundreds of thousands of people. While the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and Iran have hosted around 96 per cent of all Afghan refugees for decades, Pakistan has now stopped registering newly arrived Afghan refugees and migrants. Facing the risk of being deported to Afghanistan, growing numbers of Afghans have moved on to Europe from Pakistan (Koser 2014). Afghans are now the second largest group of asylum seekers in EU member states, comprising 14 per cent of the total number. While the 2015 peak is commonly believed to be part of a ‘European refugee crisis’, it is important to remember that the number of Afghan migrants and refugees in Europe still amounts to a fraction of all Afghan refugees.

Deportation to restore public order?

The recent peak in refugee numbers has exacerbated existing tensions and polarization in receiving societies. Increasing hostilities in Pakistan recently led to a hasty return of many Afghan refugees and undocumented migrants. In Europe, although many people welcome refugees, xenophobic violence on one hand, and frustration on the part of immigrants on the other, has caused polarization in society. The EU attempts to restore public order by deporting as many migrants as possible. Afghanistan, a country that is for 70 per cent of its gross national product dependent on international aid, probably saw no other option than to sign the agreement to take unlimited numbers of deportees, despite heavy internal resistance. But the question is whether these deportations will restore public order in Afghanistan in the long run, and evidence, including from my own research, suggests the opposite is likely to be the case.

Deportation threatens development and peace building

Research shows that Afghans who are forcibly returned face many challenges upon return. In addition to the original reasons for which they migrated, including fear of persecution, insecurity and poverty, an unsuccessful journey will have left them more impoverished, indebted, psychologically unstable, angry and disappointed (Van Houte 2014, Schuster and Majidi 2015).

This explains why ‘many, if not most’ deportees will not stay in Afghanistan but will leave again (Schuster and Majidi 2015). Those who are not able to, add to the groups of Afghans living in precarious situations and will be a destabilizing factor in already fragile areas of conflict. In the worst case scenario, these returnees, who feel stuck and resentful, may be vulnerable to recruitment by insurgency groups such as the Taliban, and the emerging Afghan branch of IS.

While for the EU, compliance with deportation has become an important negotiation strategy in international relations and a precondition for development aid – for example in the recent EU-Turkey deal and in the  mobility partnerships the EU has signed in the past decade - the forced return of Afghan migrants actually threatens development and peace building. Instead of resolving a problem, 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.

A new approach: Enabling instead of restricting mobility

The EU has made a classic mistake by trying to connect the restriction of mobility with aid for development and peace building. While the future of Afghanistan and Afghan migration are unclear, the EU–Afghan deal has paved the way for protracted aid dependency, conflict and migration outflows. In the long run, the deal will be counterproductive for both Europe’s and Afghanistan’s interests.

In a war-torn country facing protracted but constantly changing issues of violence, aid dependency and corruption, transnational mobility has become Afghans’ main survival strategy. It has helped them to adapt to local circumstances, ensure their own safety, find opportunities elsewhere, and contribute with their money, skills and networks to the country from a distance, by sending remittances, starting up charities or businesses or advocating for support for Afghanistan. So here’s an alternative idea. Instead of trying to manage and contain migration flows, a better way to establish the link between migration, development and peace building would be to enable mobility. The contributions of mobile Afghans may be the strongest asset available to the Afghan economy and the peace building process.

Is the idea of the EU opening its borders to Afghans in order to support development and peace building as absurd in principle as it is unlikely in practice? I would argue not. The destabilisation that will result by sending tens of thousands of impoverished, angry people back to a war-torn country, and entrenching aid dependency as well, isn’t a very clever idea either. We must continue to challenge the way in which we think about the relationship between mobility, development and peace building. We need, now more than ever, to encourage the EU and other global powers to consider the evidence and, in doing so, reconsider what can be a real win-win scenario.


Koser, Khalid. 2014. Transition, Crisis and Mobility in Afghanistan: Rhetoric and Reality. Geneva: IOM.

Schuster, Liza, and Nassim Majidi. 2015. "Deportation Stigma and Re-migration."  Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 41 (4):635-652. doi: 10.1080/1369183X.2014.957174.

Van Houte, Marieke. 2014. "Returnees for Change? Afghan Return Migrants’ Identification with the Conflict and their Potential to be Agents of Change." Conflict, Security & Development 14(5):1-27.

About the author

Marieke van Houte is a Marie Curie Research Fellow at IMI. Her research focuses on the linkages between migration and return migration, conflict, development and change. Her monograph entitled Return Migration to Afghanistan: Moving Back or Moving Forward? will be published in 2016 by Palgrave Macmillan.

IMI does not have an institutional view and does not aim to present one. The views expressed in this blog are those of individual authors.

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