The EU and the politics of migration management in Afghanistan

This report from UK think tank Chatham House looks at whether coordination can be improved to address competing migration pressures.

Since 2015 a substantive literature has emerged on the ‘migration crisis’ and Europe’s turn towards ‘migration management’ – meaning efforts to control immigration, especially from countries considered less developed than the EU, and religiously and culturally different in ways perceived to threaten the EU’s security, social cohesion and welfare. Deportation and repatriation are integral to this approach, which policymakers typically analyse in terms of its implications for the EU. However, the responses to this approach by countries of origin such as Afghanistan are less well understood. This paper underscores the strength of Afghanistan’s conceptually comprehensive responses to migration, returns, reintegration, security, peace and development. It points to the weaknesses of the EU’s concentration on the ‘root causes’ of migration, and instead highlights the historical significance of mobility for Afghanistan and the surrounding region. The need for a more multidimensional view of migration management, and for a corresponding reassessment of policy, is acute. Increased migration, global instability and the threat of terrorism are priorities for many EU member states, but the COVID-19 pandemic has added to the challenges.

The formulation of nuanced, synchronized policy towards migrants – in which both the EU and external partners adopt more coherent and coordinated approaches – is essential. Afghanistan is a key country of origin for asylum seekers in Europe, and the prime global recipient of EU development assistance. It was one of the first nations to conclude a migration partnership agreement with the EU, in 2016. Implementation has been thwarted, however, by the challenges of developing a holistic response to migration amid ongoing war and violence. Profound political divisions, internal displacement, environmental degradation, urban deprivation and entrenched poverty all complicate policymaking in Afghanistan, as do volatile regional dynamics and the emerging challenges presented by COVID-19. This paper considers the asymmetries in European and Afghan policies on migration. It highlights the myopic European emphasis on returning arrivals to their country of origin, and the fact that this approach neglects the implications of potential post-peace deal scenarios (involving some kind of political settlement with the Taliban) for the management of returnees. The paper underlines the need to provide a more balanced interpretation of the Afghan government’s (insufficiently acknowledged) achievements on the issue.

The authors offer tailored and practical policy recommendations for the Afghan government, the EU, civil society in Afghanistan, and international donor organizations working with Afghanistan on migration issues and displaced populations. Accordingly, the paper analyses in particular the following dimensions of the migration challenges in relation to Afghanistan: It outlines the current framework for EU migration management and the ‘Joint Way Forward’ (JWF) partnership agreement with Afghanistan, underlining the composite nature of policy goals. It dissects and evaluates the conceptual and practical dimensions of the Afghan government’s migration policies, including the Comprehensive Migration Policy (CMP), the Citizens’ Charter and Citizens’ Charter Cities. It probes the regional policy background in relation to Afghan returnees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Specifically, the paper examines the EU’s support for returns of displaced Afghans from Iran and Pakistan through the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees (SSAR). Volatile regional relations and the serious gap between official rhetoric and Afghanistan’s capacity to absorb returns from Iran and Pakistan remain obstacles to effective policy. It is therefore also crucial to look beyond the immediate regional context, and to consider the prospects for deepening connectivity with countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. The future and efficacy of migration policies for Afghanistan are inextricably linked with the ongoing conflict, and with prospects for peace with the Taliban. While policy formulation must take into account the current challenges of implementation, Afghan and international stakeholders also need to prepare for the ensuing potential scenarios involving (a) reduced US-led international support and (b) political inclusion of the Taliban, should peace talks deliver some kind of durable settlement. In these circumstances, nimble and coordinated EU backing for Afghanistan will be more vital than ever.


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