Book published on Return Migration to Afghanistan

My book Return Migration to Afghanistan: Moving Back or Moving Forward?, in which I argue that seeing Afghan return migration as a tool for both development and migration management is shortsighted and counterproductive, is now published by Palgrave Macmillan.

In an Op-Ed for News Deeply, I discuss the findings of my book in relation to the current renewed Afghan exodus alongside mass deportations.

Buy the book and support Afghanistan! All of my royalties go to Afghanistan Human Rights & Democracy Org, AHRDO, a brilliant Afghan NGO committed to ‘the promotion of participatory democracy, a culture of non-violence and the respect for human rights in Afghanistan and the region, principally through employing a variety of arts and theatre-based programs that create spaces for dialogue, peace-building, social justice, public participation and consequently societal transformation from the grassroots up’. They were a great inspiration and support during my research in Kabul.

If you’re in the Netherlands, may I suggest to buy the book via You pay the same price as anywhere else, but 10% of the amount you pay goes to a charity of your choice (why not Stichting voor Vluchteling-Studenten UAF). Why? Because they’re good people: they once lent me one of their laptops in a time of Great Computer Panic, so I could continue working on what became this book!

I am deeply grateful to all Afghan return migrants who participated in the study, as well as colleagues, family and friends who helped to make this book happen. Thank you!

EU–Afghanistan deportation–aid deal: Classic strategy or classic mistake?

(This blog was first published on the International Migration Institute blog)

afghan-refugees-in-iran-2013At 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 about 800,000 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 tomanage 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.


My monograph entitled Return Migration to Afghanistan: Moving Back or Moving Forward? will be published in 2016 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Exploring migration through drama

dsc05966-kleinI assisted for a few days in the project Exploring Migration: Research and Drama in Schools, which takes monologues based on interviews with undocumented migrants to schools, and develops them with the students into a theatrical performance. It was a brilliant experience, as teaching drama techniques proved to be a perfect tool to discuss migration.

I will take the example of status to illustrate this. Working on the status of your character is a key element in drama: it is essential to realize if your character is dominant and powerful or rather weak and subordinate, and how that affects the interaction with other characters. Through drama exercises, the students first became physically aware of what status is and how you can show status in body language.

Next, we worked in small groups on the monologue that we were going to put into a performance. My group worked on the story of Adnan, a 16 year-old boy who had travelled from Afghanistan to the UK. His story was about the journey that took him 1.5 years, during which he had to run for his life and was smuggled in containers. When he reached the UK, he became an undocumented migrant, constantly fearing to be caught and deported.

We discussed the status of each of the characters in the story, and I asked what status Adnan had. Very high, said the student who was going to play Adnan, because he is very brave and has survived a difficult journey and he is the person sent by his family to help them. No, his status is very low, said another, because he is afraid all the time and he is dependent on other people.

I was amazed. These eleven-year-old kids managed to realize something that took academics a lot of time to wrap their heads around: that refugees go through a lot of hardship, but are not just victims. It was just up to me to connect their thoughts: exactly, Adnan is both brave and scared, both a survivor and a victim of exploitation. We have to take that into account when we play the character of Adnan: we want to show both, because that’s who he is.

By focusing on getting the most out of their performance and their drama skills, the kids had en passant learned that being a refugee is not as unidimensional as some media, politicians, activists or academics try to make us believe. While attempts to talk about migration in a nuanced way often end up in a dead-end street with the words: ‘it’s all very complicated’, they had grasped this complexity in a very concrete way. This sense of nuance will hopefully stay with them as they grow up and engage into hot-headed migration debates.