In this COI Focus, Cedoca examines the migration movements of Afghans since the Taliban takeover of power in August 2021. For this, Cedoca mainly consulted sources dating from after August 2021. Because of their relevance and for a proper understanding of the context of migration in Afghanistan, some older sources were also consulted and included. Cedoca closed the research for this COI Focus on 15 November 2023.
Migration is described as a major component of Afghan history and a phenomenon ingrained into Afghan society and culture. The Taliban takeover of power in August 2021 did not ultimately lead to an exceptionally large new wave of migration, according to sources. Yet the desire to emigrate remains strong, with more than half of the Afghan population indicating they want to leave the country. However, the de facto Taliban authorities, according to sources aware that they need the talents, skills and experience of their people, have been proclaiming a clear message in their official communications since seizing power, asking the Afghan people not to leave the country and urging those who have already fled to return to support the new order.
As of 2023, two years since the Taliban seized power, there still appears to be some ambiguity about Afghanistan's new legal and judicial system. The 2004 Constitution and the laws and regulations enacted under the former Republic were abolished, as they were not in line with Sharia law. According to the UN, Afghanistan is in a vacuum in terms of rule of law, fuelling uncertainty about any ad hoc regulations by the new authorities. Some legal ambiguity has also arisen in the area of individual rights regarding emigration and return to Afghanistan since August 2021. Sources indicate that they are not aware of any current Taliban legislation or the issuance of specific regulations or decrees on migration since the seizure of power.
Since spring 2022, the international airport of the Afghan capital city Kabul has been operational again. As of 2023, there are daily departures and arrivals of both domestic and international flights worldwide. As of 2023, no direct flights to Afghanistan are possible from the EU. However, it is possible to fly daily via Istanbul, Abu Dhabi or Dubai from Brussels to Kabul International Airport. Flights to Kabul are operated by Ariana Afghan Airlines, Kam Air, Jeju Air and (since November 2023, also) Fly Dubai. The immigration process at Kabul Airport is largely as it was before. The screening of arriving passengers is described as thorough and is still being carried out by former immigration and airport personnel, who are reportedly gradually being replaced by Taliban personnel in uniform. As of 2023, the Taliban and their intelligence service (GDI) have a presence at the airport.
Demand for passports in Afghanistan appears to far exceed supply, resulting in long waiting times. For security reasons and due to technical problems, interruptions in the operation of passport offices are regularly reported, both in Kabul and in the provinces. Bribery and the importance of having personal connections with de facto authorities in obtaining a passport in Afghanistan have also been reported. No new passports have been issued by foreign mission posts since the Taliban seized power in August 2021. Some consulates in Europe, such as the Afghan Embassy in Brussels, do allow machine-readable passports to be extended (by five years) by affixing a sticker. As of August 2021, applying for a taskara from abroad is no longer possible.
Since August 2021, the EU has suspended all return agreements with Afghanistan. A number of individual European countries have also decided to suspend forced deportation. The status of such agreements is no longer clear after the Taliban seizure of power. According to sources, there were no forced returns from Europe to Afghanistan in 2022 and during the first months of 2023. During the research for this COI Focus, Cedoca found only a few exceptions to this - a handful of reports of forced returns to Afghanistan from European or Western countries after 15 August 2021. Just about all of these cases involved individuals who were returned within a particular context or have a specific profile.
Since Turkey resumed commercial flights to Kabul in January 2022, there have been continuous reports of deportations of Afghan migrants. Throughout 2022, this was said to involve nearly 70.000 people; in 2023, it was again said to involve thousands. The returns from Turkey mainly took place by plane. Various sources reported on mistreatment, humiliation and use of force by the Turkish authorities towards Afghan migrants. According to sources, it is unclear whether a return agreement exists between Turkey and the de facto Taliban authorities. In addition to these deportations by air, there are also reports of Afghans being expelled overland from the border areas of Eastern Turkey to Iran.
Afghan migrants in the neighbouring countries Iran and Pakistan also face harassment, intimidation, abuse, detention and deportations by their host countries. Reports of (mainly illegal) Afghan migrants being sent back to Afghanistan appeared regularly in both 2022 and 2023. A large number of detained Afghans were also repatriated from Iran and Pakistan. These forced returns all took place overland. In 2022 and during the first half of 2023, there were 100.000s of Afghans mainly being sent back from Iran. The autumn of 2023 also saw a massive wave of deportation from Pakistan, when the Pakistani authorities announced in early October that all migrants residing illegally in Pakistan would need to leave the country. Those who had not left voluntarily by 1 November 2023 would be arrested and deported. By mid-November 2023, more than 300.000 Afghan migrants were thought to have already left Pakistan since this deportation policy was announced.
Sources indicated that it is unknown how many Afghans have voluntarily returned to Afghanistan from Western countries since the Taliban seized power in August 2021. Voluntary return to Afghanistan from neighbouring countries is being monitored by UNHCR. According to these data, the number of people in 2022 was nearly 6.500 and in the first nine months of 2023, nearly 13.000. The majority of these Afghan migrants were coming from Pakistan. This voluntary return is mainly related to socio-economic motives, a desire for family reunification, the (perceived) improved security situation in Afghanistan and the fear of arrest in the host country, according to UNHCR.
Several sources confirmed that since the Taliban seized power in August 2021, there have been some temporary returns of Afghans to their homeland in addition to permanent returns to Afghanistan. Family visits, business interests and property management are cited as possible reasons for this temporary return.
In March 2022, the de facto Taliban authorities established the Commission for the Return and Communications with Former Afghan Officials and Political Figures, which has been operational since May 2022. The Taliban have been calling on political leaders and officials from the former government, as well as investors, businessmen and academics who have left the country to return to Afghanistan, promising to guarantee their safety and offer them positions within the new administration. Sporadic reports were published about former high-ranking figures who have actually returned. By early October 2023, that number was said to have reached nearly 700 people. However, according to sources, the Commission's promises are not always kept in practice.
Multiple sources indicated that there is little concrete information on the current situation of Afghans returning to Afghanistan, both from the West and from neighbouring countries. The available information on this is described as scant, limited and often rather more anecdotal. Sources pointed out that there is no systematic monitoring of individual Afghans returning due to the difficulty of conducting monitoring activities on the ground. Furthermore, Afghan society is described as highly diverse and complex, which is also reflected in the way the de facto Taliban authorities are governing the country. Consequently, there is always some (local) variation in interpretation and attitudes possible, including in terms of how people returning to Afghanistan are perceived and treated. Thus, possible reactions towards returnees by the de facto Taliban authorities or by the Afghan community, according to sources, will always depend on several factors, such as the individual profile of the person returning, the network this person has in Afghanistan and the place, context and family situation this person is returning to. However, several sources did indicate that they were not aware of any systematic actions by the de facto Taliban authorities towards returned Afghan migrants merely because they had returned from a Western country (unless there were any additional reasons - for example, in the case of people with a particular profile, such as former ANDSF personnel).
The overall security situation in Afghanistan in recent decades has been largely determined by a long-running internal armed conflict, as a result of which many Afghans are internally displaced or have sought refuge abroad. The Taliban took power in August 2021, after many years of conflict between the former government, its security forces and foreign troops on the one hand, and rebel groups such as the Taliban and the ISKP on the other.
The end of the fighting between the former government and the Taliban resulted in a sharp decline in conflict-related violence and a significant drop in civilian casualties. In assessing the need for international protection, the Commissioner General takes into account that the Taliban's control of the entire Afghan territory has a significant impact on the human rights situation in the country and on the risk faced by many Afghans in case of return.
Following the seizure of power by the Taliban, the Commissioner General announced a temporary, partial suspension of refugee status determination decisions. In the period between 15 August 2021 and 1 March 2022, no rejection decisions were taken for Afghan applicants. However, it was apparent that many persons clearly were in need of protection; positive decisions granting refugee status were taken for those cases during that period. This also applied to many persons evacuated from Kabul.
In early March 2022, the suspension was ended. Since then, the CGRS has been taking decisions again for all cases.
The CGRS has to assess whether a need for protection exists for each applicant for international protection. Every application is assessed individually. This is done on the basis of the refugee and subsidiary protection definitions contained in law and international treaties. The CGRS does not make "political" assessments of a regime and grant protection status on that basis.