Q: Your latest research in Afghanistan builds on your longitudinal study of Afghans migrating to Europe. Can you explain how your research has evolved over the years?
At Samuel Hall, we wanted to go beyond static reports or discussions about migration flows and broad narratives. We wanted to follow an oral history method in which we would record interviews between our Afghan researchers as the informed interviewers and Afghan migrants with personal experience of the events we wanted to investigate. In 2016, our Samuel Hall team had a simple idea: talk to Afghans traveling from Afghanistan to Iran, Turkey, Greece and Europe through the office in Kabul and our Afghan colleagues – a conversation from Afghans with Afghans along the migration path. The aim would be to talk to them about their experiences, fears and aspirations, decisions, compromises and sacrifices, but also about what they have learned during their migration trip.
We continued to use this methodology in 2021 with an additional component. We combined the discussions about the migration path with discussions with family members, especially with wives who remained in Afghanistan. We called them family search interviews, talking to the men abroad and to the wives at home with similar questions. The âtracingâ is based on the fact that traditional Afghan couples rarely had the opportunity to talk to each other in detail, but through our researchers they managed to recreate a conversation across borders. The results are documented in a study that we carried out for the World Bank. We hope they can educate gender sensitive labor migration programs and policies so that regular outings are offered while addressing the needs of those staying at home.
Q. You have done research on the Durable Solutions Platform, specifically on the requirements for reintegration into local communities when refugees return. What does it take for such reintegration to be possible in the Afghan context?
In 2020 we published a study for the Durable Solutions Platforms and DRC / NRC / IRC in which we identified reluctance to reintegrate: recognizing that refugees, communities and other stakeholders were often not prepared for reintegration .
I will focus on 3 of the main areas that we have requested more support in:
First, to inform returnees through improved information exchange with returnees;
Second, to demand better reception conditions in countries of asylum for better reintegration; Third, it is a matter of prioritizing urban and community planning. Due to limited land and housing options, returnees often settle in informal settlements. Urban solutions will be at the heart of future reintegration. Through a Protracted Displacement in an Urban World consortium, we are now working with the Jalalabad community and other community actors, including the private sector and community representatives, to plan and help shape ways of reintegration. The open discussions we are having will help develop more innovative and inclusive solutions.
Third, you are right when you speak of “local communities” rather than “return communities,” a term that practitioners often use. We cannot assume that there is such a thing as a âCommunity of Returnâ: Returnees often experience displacement, not reintegration. The context is evolving quickly and the constraints are many: uncertainty, a global pandemic, inflation and economic deterioration, but also the weight of cultural norms that affect all demographic groups. Some refugees and other migrants cannot âreturn homeâ. Their homes may be inaccessible, destroyed, or they may no longer have social networks to rely on.
Q: Can you think of cases where reintegration worked and why it worked? What about cases where resettlement in third countries has worked well and why?
Reintegration and resettlement, two of the common permanent solutions to displacement alongside local integration, work when all rights are taken into account: material, physical and legal rights. It can also be thought of in terms of the dimensions of a person’s life: ensuring economic, social, and psychosocial well-being.
Let me give you an example. A successful case of reintegration is Ahmad, whom I met in March 2020 in the Bamyan province of Afghanistan. He returned from Pakistan as a young Afghan refugee and took part in qualification programs run by humanitarian actors such as the Agha Khan Foundation (AKF). He was able to develop from a trainee to a trainer in a poultry breeding program. Thanks to the support he received, he traveled around Afghanistan, visited and learned from other poultry farming initiatives. He learned from other Afghans how to raise chickens in harsh winter climates, built a sense of solidarity with his peers and got to know and understand his country and the requirements of poultry farming better. This enabled him to set up his own poultry farm with some start-up capital. He has built a viable economic company with a social impact. Bamyan remains one of the rare safe and peaceful provinces in his country.
Resettlement will also work well if support is provided – over a period of time. From language to connections with like-minded people and organizations, integration – much like reintegration – is not a linear process. It will have many ups and downs that will require the support of economic, social and psychosocial actors.
Q: What are the implications of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the recent announcement by the Biden administration with September 11th as the official date? It seems that the violence has escalated in the last few months and with it the displacement?
As I share this update from Kabul, much of the US troop withdrawal has already been decided. More and more Afghans abroad are looking for ways to find their families who have stayed in Afghanistan. Women inquire about visas to come to their husbands, older mothers seek reunification with their children, US or UK citizens. Others are looking for the only way out – for most of them the irregular migration route out of the country.
Internal displacement is increasing within Afghanistan. Heavy fighting continues in northeast Afghanistan, displacing families in provinces such as Baghlan. In one month, in May, more than 21,000 people were displaced in this province alone. A similar situation is observed in eastern Afghanistan: OCHA reports that the fighting continues to drive Afghans into the provinces of Laghman and Nangarhar as well as Nuristan and Kunar. Internally displaced people are scattered across cities, live in public buildings such as schools, or live in overcrowded accommodation with host communities. In addition to psychosocial care, basic health and nutritional care is required.
Roads connecting provinces are no longer considered safe and illegal checkpoints are increasing, further restricting humanitarian access, so the numbers are most likely underestimated. With the end of the exit, these trends will intensify.