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Nassim Majidi on telling the stories of Afghans on the migration trail to Europe

By Wednesday 7 July 2021 No Comments

Majidi’s think tank has spoken to Afghan migrants and their families back home about their experiences, fears and aspirations, choices, compromises and sacrifices

BY Preethi Nallu

Nassim Majidi, an Iranian-French migration expert, is the co-founder of the Kabul-based Samuel Hall think tank, which “conducts research, evaluates programs and designs policies in contexts of migration and displacement”.

Here, Majidi talks to openDemocracy reporter Preethi Nallu about the impact of migration on Afghanistan refugees and their families back home, as well as solutions for successful reintegration.

Preethi Nallu: Your latest research in Afghanistan builds on your longitudinal study of Afghans on the migration trail to Europe. Could you explain how your research has evolved over the years?

Nassim Majidi: At Samuel Hall, we wanted to go beyond static accounts or discussions of migration flows, and comprehensive narratives. We wanted to follow an oral history method, where we would record interviews between our Afghan researchers, as the informed interviewers and Afghan migrants with personal experience of the events we wanted to study.

In 2016, our team at Samuel Hall came up with a simple idea: talk to Afghans travelling from Afghanistan to Iran, Turkey, Greece, and into Europe, through our Kabul office and our Afghan colleagues – a conversation by Afghans with Afghans along the migration trail. The aim would be to talk to them about their experiences, fears and aspirations, choices, compromises and sacrifices, but also what they learned through their migration journey.

We continued using this methodology in 2021 with an added component. We combined the migration trail conversations with conversations with family members, specifically with wives who remained in Afghanistan. We called them family-tracing conversations, whereby we spoke to the men abroad, and also to the wives at home, using a similar set of questions. The ‘tracing’ was built around the fact that traditional Afghan couples rarely had an opportunity to talk to each other at length, yet through our researchers, they managed to recreate a conversation across borders. The results are documented in a research we conducted for the World Bank. We hope they can inform gender-sensitive labour migration programming and policies, so that regular pathways are offered, while considering the needs of those who remain at home.

PN: You have been engaged in research related to the Durable Solutions Platform, especially research on the pre-conditions for reintegration into local communities when refugees are returned.

NM: In 2020, we published a study for the Durable Solutions Platforms [a research platform providing recommendations for the long-term future of Syrian refugees] and a consortium of NGOs, where we identified the lack of preparedness for reintegration: acknowledging that refugees, communities and other stakeholders were often unprepared for reintegration.

I will focus on three of the main areas where we called for greater support.

First, to inform returns through improved information sharing with returnees; second, to call for better hosting conditions in countries of asylum for better reintegration; third, is to prioritise 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 now work with the Jalalabad Municipality [in Afghanistan] and other municipal actors, including the private sector and community representatives – to plan and co-design ways of reintegration. The frank discussions that we are having will help build more innovative and inclusive solutions.

Finally, you are right in speaking about “local communities” and not “communities of return”, a term often used by practitioners. We cannot assume that there is such a thing as a “community of return”: returnees often experience dislocation, not reintegration. The context is fast evolving and constraints multiple: insecurity, a global pandemic, inflation and economic deterioration, but also the weight of cultural norms impacting all demographic groups. Some refugees and other migrants cannot return ‘home’. Their homes may be unreachable, destroyed or they may no longer have social networks to rely on.

PN: Can you think of cases where reintegration has worked and why has it worked? How about cases where resettlement in third countries has worked well and why?

NM: Reintegration and resettlement, two of the common durable solutions to displacement alongside local integration, work when a full range of rights is considered: material, physical and legal rights. You can also think of it in terms of dimensions integral to 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 Bamyan province in Afghanistan in March 2020. He had returned as a young Afghan refugee from Pakistan, and enrolled in skills training programmes offered by humanitarian actors such as the Aga Khan Foundation. He was able to progress from being a trainee to becoming himself a trainer in a poultry-raising programme.

Resettlement will have many ups and downs that require the support of economic, social and psychosocial actors

Thanks to the support he received, he travelled throughout Afghanistan, visiting and learning from other poultry farm initiatives. He learned how to raise chicken in harsh winter climates from other Afghans, building a sense of solidarity with his peers, and getting to know and better understand his country, and the demands of poultry raising. This enabled him to set up, with some seed capital, his own poultry farm. He has built a viable economic business, with a social impact. Bamyan remains one of the rare secure and peaceful provinces of his country.

Resettlement will similarly work well if support is provided – over a period of time. From language, to connections with like-minded individuals and organisations, integration – very much like reintegration – is not a linear process. It will have many ups and downs that require the support of economic, social and psychosocial actors.

PN: What is the impact of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the latest announcement by the Biden administration with 11 September as the official date [for doing so]? It appears that the violence has escalated in recent months and with it, displacement?

NM: As I share this update from Kabul, much of the US troop withdrawal has already been enacted. More and more Afghans abroad are searching for ways to reunite with their families who remain in Afghanistan. Women inquire about how to obtain visas to go join their husbands, elderly mothers seek to reunite with their children, citizens in the USA or the United Kingdom. Others are seeking the only way out – for the majority, the irregular migration path out of the country.

Inside Afghanistan, internal displacement is mounting. Heavy fighting continues in north-eastern Afghanistan, displacing families within provinces such as Baghlan. In one month, in May, more than 21,000 people were displaced in that province alone. A similar situation is seen in eastern Afghanistan: the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that fighting continues to displace Afghans across Laghman and Nangarhar provinces, as well as Nuristan and Kunar. Internally displaced persons are scattered in cities, inhabiting public buildings such as schools, or staying with host communities in overcrowded shelters. Basic health and nutrition care is required, alongside psychosocial support.

Roads connecting provinces are no longer seen as secure, and illegal checkpoints are mounting, which further limit humanitarian access, so the numbers are most probably an under-estimate. With the end of the pullout, these trends will worsen.