Why are Afghans leaving Afghanistan?

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Written by Abid Amiri, Guest Contributor

More than 30,000 Afghan citizens filed for political asylum abroad in the first eleven months of 2011, according to UN statistics. The figure indicates a 25 percent increase over the same period in 2010. The number of people fleeing Afghanistan has trebled since four years ago despite the international community pouring billions of dollars into Afghanistan to try and boost the economy, rebuild infrastructure, and defeat a Taliban-led insurgency. Experts believe the actual number leaving is likely to be far higher than those only seeking asylum because of a large smuggling market that has developed. However, this rising trend begs a question of why so many people are leaving Afghanistan. In other words, what are the major incentives abroad that are encouraging Afghans to flee their country?

First, most of these people are economic migrants. Marco Boasso, the director of IOM in Kabul, said: “The majority of people arriving in Europe are not refugees or people under threat. They are economic migrants.” The outlook of many young Afghans have grown more pessimistic in the past five years. In 2002, after the Taliban were ousted from power, if you would ask an Afghan man what his future plans were, the answer would definitely not be to leave Afghanistan and go abroad. Instead, at the time more and more immigrants were returning from Iran and Pakistan. They wanted to settle in their home country and build a prosperous life. However, in the last five year most of them have been disappointed. The unemployment rate in the country has remained at more than 40 percent since the fall of the Taliban government. Most young men are escaping redundancy and poverty, and taking shelter abroad. They are turning to an increasingly sophisticated human smuggling industry, paying anywhere from a few hundred dollars to more than $30,000 for fake papers and flights to countries in Europe and Australia.

The second reason why so many Afghans are seeking asylum abroad is the thirst for education. Nearly 200,000 students graduated from high school in 2008, and only 34,460 of them were enrolled in public tertiary education system, according to the Afghan Ministry of Education. About 500 students went on a scholarship to Indian colleges and universities. A few hundred others were fortunate enough to earn Fulbright or similar grants to America, Europe, and Turkey. The Afghan Ministry of Higher Education has not had the capacity to absorb a large chunk of these graduates to higher education institutions. Thus, the remaining 82 percent or so who want to pursue higher education cannot attend college or university in Afghanistan. Each year more and more students are joining the ranks of those deprived from higher education. After three decades of war, Afghans have realized the importance of knowledge. They are in thirst of getting their college degrees, but unfortunately cannot. Therefore, there is no better alternative for them but to leave Afghanistan and go to Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, etc. to get educated.

Above all, the security situation in the country has been deteriorating as the coalition forces are planning to withdraw by the end of 2014. There are growing concerns and uncertainty among Afghans as to what will happen when the troops leave the country. The memories of the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and the civil war that followed are fresh in minds of many. Afghans fear that once most foreign troops leave, the Taliban will take over more territory and civil war could erupt along ethnic lines. They are leaving Afghanistan to secure a safe future for themselves and their children abroad.

Abid Amiri currently works for the American Councils for International Education as Program Associate for Higher Education, and has also worked in their Kabul office as a Program Manager. He earned his B.A. in economics and global studies from St. Lawrence University, and concentrates on the North America, the Middle East, and open market economics in Afghanistan. His most recent work on unemployment in Afghanistan was published in the first issue of the Glocal Journal. Abid speaks fluent Pashto, Dari, English, and Urdu. Follow Abid on Twitter @abidamiri

Photo: AP Photo/Nathalie Bardou