Hameed Hakimi, Research Associate at Chatham House in London

Barin Sultani Haymon, Independent Researcher


For more than three decades, Afghanistan was the number one source country of the global refugee population. This only changed in late 2014, as the increasing severity of the Syrian crisis tipped Afghanistan into second position in terms of gross headcount. Growing insecurity, ominously demonstrated in Taliban’s recent brief occupation of Kunduz province, coupled with the economic hardships facing Afghans as evident in growing unemployment figures, an increasing number of Afghans are seeking refuge outside their country – especially in Europe.

In response, the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation recently launched a campaign, for instance, to tackle the exodus of Afghan youth – the so-called ‘brain drain’. The campaign makes use of evocative messaging and threatening imagery to caution potential emigrants; examples include pictures of an overcrowded boat, a shipwreck, or a group of young Afghans detained behind a fence. This is meant to illustrate the perils of the journey out of the  ‘homeland’. Facebook is being used as a popular tool to dissuade those intent on leaving Afghanistan, with emerging localised  efforts appealing to a sense of patriotic pride or, more cynically, leveraging ‘guilt’ as a motivating factor to deter the ‘abandonment of the homeland’ in a time of dire need. In this context, those who decide to seek a new life in Europe, Australia and America are portrayed as uncaring and callous individuals. This is not endemic of Afghans only – most recently, Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière suggested that middle class Afghans should remain and help build the country up.

The current narrative in the West explaining why Afghans are leaving is media-centric and misleading. The voices of those who are leaving are largely unheard, quieted by the social media efforts of the Afghan government and a rising opposition in Europe, who are increasingly reluctant to treat Afghan asylum cases in par with the Syrians who are escaping civil war. Media commentary and the social media frenzy make little mention of the real voices of those Afghans who are leaving, often opting for a life of uncertainty in hopes of obtaining a refugee status in Western countries. Is leaving an easy decision? What factors are considered in choosing the target destination? How are the deteriorating socioeconomic conditions in the region affecting Afghans’ choice to leave their country? Is there a ‘watershed’ moment that pushes them to leave, or is it simply a matter of biding time until individual circumstances allow a means to an exit?

In exploring the exodus of Afghans – which includes a high number of educated Afghan youth – we are confronted with the complexities of a conflict-ridden country where seeking safety and finding econòmic security supersedes any sense of belonging and nationalist sentiments. These complexities can be untangled significantly through meaningful conversations with those Afghans who are intent on leaving. The aim of this paper is to uncover some of the factors driving the Afghan exodus as told by Afghans themselves. This is important for going beyond the simplistic and often sensationalist narrative around the problem of the net migration outflow from Afghanistan.


About the Author

Hameed Hakimi is a research associate of the Asia Programme at Chatham House, London and formerly a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He has also worked at the British Refugee Council. His areas of expertise include politics and society in Afghanistan; FATA (Pakistan); Islam/Muslims in Britain; and refugees and asylum seekers in Britain.

Barin Sultani Haymon is an independent Afghan analyst, with a background in the non-profit sector. She holds an MSc in Comparative Politics (Conflict Studies) from the London School  of Economics and obtained her BA in International Studies from Emory University in Atlanta, GA, with a focus on conflict resolution in the Middle East and Africa. She also completed a program at The Institute for International Mediation and Conflict Resolution (IIMCR), in conjunction with Erasmus University Rotterdam and The Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.