Why did Afghans return from Europe? This section compares the narratives of the decision to return by ‘early’ and ‘late’ arrivals to European countries, to explore how changing structural conditions affected the interaction between capacity, desire and agency. This collection of narratives shows the widest possible variety of this interaction, rather than claiming to be a representative sample of the population of return migrants.
Early arrivals of Afghans to European countries consisted mainly of people of middle or upper class background, who left the country after the fall of the communist regime and the civil war in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and travelled directly to Western Europe. All early arrivals in this sample were given refugee status and now held citizenship of their destination country. Within this enabling structural reality of a relatively open regime towards refugees and access to legal status, the respondents in this group returned under different combinations of desires and capacities.
Besharat came with his parents to the Netherlands in the Netherlands in 1992, when he was 15 years old. As a political refugee and later citizen of the country, he had every formal opportunity to participate in society. But when he had to choose his education and professional development, he felt his ambitions were held back by his immigrant background. He said that people told him to settle for a modest education, and that his creative career aspirations were discouraged.
[In the Netherlands] if I told someone I wanted to be [an artist], they said are you crazy, that is so expensive. (…) He said there is no job for you there. Then my dream again went back to the ground.
- Besharat (m, interview, original in English).
Although there were no formal barriers to pursuing an artistic career, Besharat’s experienced a normative force in society that kept his ambitions at a low level. His narrative is typical of Afghans of a higher socio-economic background who had high career ambitions but experienced a glass ceiling in the host country, which they related to discrimination and racism (see Ammassari, 2004). Besharat had a strong desire to become an artist, but he felt that his capacity to break through this stigma of being a foreigner was limited. During a visit to Afghanistan, he was offered a more attractive job and he stayed. From there he quickly grew to become a successful artist.
And when I know I come back, I feel for the first time that I am out of the gevangenis (jail). (…) All the opportunity you have there (in the Netherlands), everything can be done, security, hospital, beveiliging (security). (…) Here is you have nothing, but still for me, if I was in Holland, (…), I’m sitting in a jail.
Besharat described his return to Afghanistan as a liberation from a constraining environment, that enabled him to realize his artistic dreams. By stressing that Afghanistan is a lot less organized and safe than the Netherlands, he highlighted his determination and the offers he is willing to make to realize his career ambitions.
Eshan, unlike Besharat, did not mention a social-economic glass ceiling. He also migrated along with his parents to Germany, obtained refugee status and German citizenship. Having left at an earlier age of 7 years old, he received a large part of his education there and found a job that matched his level of education. Still, after some years of working in Germany, he applied for a job in Afghanistan and returned. He explained:
After I finished my studies and all this time I worked, and I was quite bored about everything. And didn’t know why (…) I’m not happy because I had everything (…). And then what was still something missing and I was looking for it what can it be, should I change my job, should I change my style, should I change my life, and what’s the problem. (…) And then I found out, maybe it’s a good thing to go back to my roots and start again as a human being (…) can you live in Afghanistan, it is something for you, do you still identify yourself as an Afghan?
- Eshan (m, interview, original in English).
Eshan’s narrative shows that although he had every capacity to lead an economically prosperous life, he also felt he lacked a sense of meaning and belonging in his life, which made him feel depressed. He tells the story of his return as part of a personal desire to reinvent himself, and finding a new sense of identity and happiness.
Tareq, who had Dutch citizenship, a good job and a Dutch wife, said he was perfectly happy with his life in the Netherlands, which changed after the events of 9/11.
It started when my mother-in-law, she was a bit… How should I put it (laughs) she didn’t like foreigners. She didn’t like them. And after that the case of 11 September. Made it worse. So she tried everything to separate us. And she did it.
- Tareq (m, interview, original in Dutch).
Tareq highlighted that the increased discrimination towards Afghans, foreigners and Muslims after 9/11 caused his mother-in-law to turn against him and enforce a divorce from his wife. He was not able to keep his family together. In the juridical aftermath of the divorce, Tareq also lost custody over his children, which he related to the legal system being focused on mothers’ rights and neglecting those of the father. As a father, a husband, and Afghan and a Muslim, he felt he had lost all sense of control over the situation, which put so much stress on him that he started to develop psychosomatic problems such as a loss of function in his legs. On an impulse, he decided to go back to Afghanistan.
I never thought I would come back here. Suddenly I had the thought. You know what, I’ll go, see what happens there.
After facing sudden social and legal exclusion from his family, Tareq returned to Afghanistan and remarried to an Afghan woman. His story of return strongly driven by a desire to be back in charge of his family life. He said he had teared up his Dutch passport and would never set foot in the Netherlands again. However, as the security situation in Afghanistan started deteriorating, he was now thinking of moving again, together with his wife.
The stories of early arrivals such as Besharat, Eshan and Tareq show that their agency to decide to stay or move can be seen as an effort to match desires and capacities on different dimensions of life. Their decisions of return can be both a reaction to constraints and a sense of opportunity for a different life. These constraints and opportunities mainly concerned the soico-economic dimension in the case of Besharat, a cultural and psychological dimension in the case of Eshan, and a social and institutional dimension in the case of Tareq.
The stories of later arrivals, after the mid-1990s, were very different from the early arrivals, as they were characterized by people who were of more modest background. Many of these people had initially migrated to neighbouring countries and moved on after being pushed out, or after years of travelling. When they arrived in Europe, the attitude to asylum seekers and return had changed: none of the late arrivals in the sample had received a permanent legal status of the host country. Instead, they had either received a temporary protection, which expired after the fall of the Taliban, or they were rejected as asylum seekers. Both categories meant that they were legally obliged to return. Within this more constrained structural reality of a more unwelcoming asylum regime and limited access to legal status, the respondents in this group returned under different combinations of desires and capacities. While some returnees in this group returned through so-called Assisted Voluntary Return programmes, others, who refused to comply with AVR and stayed as undocumented migrants, were eventually arrested and deported.
The most negative account of return under these circumstances comes from Wasim.Footnote 1 After Wasim left Afghanistan, both because of the conflict in the country and a conflict in his own family, it took him about 8 years to reach the United Kingdom, where he arrived in 2000. He did not manage to obtain refugee status, but he was determined not to return to Afghanistan. He said that he brought a knife with him each time he had to report to the police, with the intention of committing suicide if he was going to be deported. But when that day came, he said, he did not have his knife with him. Instead, he physically resisted his deportation so strongly that his arm was broken in the struggle. The interview took place 5 years after his return to Afghanistan from the UK. When asked how he was doing, he started crying and explained how his life had been miserable since his return. He said that because he was illiterate and had received no education, his only economic opportunity was to do manual labour, which the lasting effects of his broken arm had made impossible.
The lack of prospects for a life in Afghanistan and the large financial and temporal investment he had made to reach Europe, gave Wasim a strong desire to stay in the UK (see also Zimmermann, 2012). However, as he did not have the legal capacity to stay, his capacity to prevent his return was limited to physical resistance: he fought with the police when he was deported. The agency he had over his return decision was minimal, as his alternatives were extreme: instead of being deported to Afghanistan, he could have gone into hiding from the police. After he was arrested, death by suicide was his only alternative to returning to Afghanistan. Confronted with his extremely limited choices, his strong desire to stay, the lack of capacity to do so, and the sudden and enforced conditions of deportation made his return a disempowering experience. Wasim displayed his broken arm as a symbol of how his return continued to affect his life negatively. Other Afghans who were deported told narratives with a similar, resentful tone.
The story of Areef shows a returnee with a different narrative in a similar structural reality. Areef left Afghanistan at the age of 16, with the intention to find a means to support his family, who were in a deprived situation because of the war. He travelled for 2 years before he reached the Netherlands. He applied for asylum three times and lived in the Netherlands for 10 years, with four of these years being spent as an undocumented migrant under difficult circumstances. Although he tried everything to stay, at some point he decided to return by signing up for AVR. He said:
How long do you want to stay in the Netherlands? You will never get a permanent status. Here, every time I call here, my mother says you have to go back, my father says ‘come back’. And I heard my father died. Only then I say ‘OK, I go back to Afghanistan’.
- Areef (m, interview, original in Dutch).
Like Wasim, Areef lived as an undocumented migrant, and he had no legal capacity to stay in the Netherlands. He could only rely on some support by NGOs, which did enable him to survive in the Netherlands. But his desire was not so much his own survival, but to be able to support his family, which comes forward from a responsibility to succeed in the task of migrating as a household strategy. By linking his return decision to the repeated requests from his family and the death of his father, he describes his return as the best option to meet the desire to effectively support his family within his capacities.
Hamid, who returned through AVR, is a good example of the complexity of return motivations. Below are quotes from an interview with him, in chronological order, which represent a seemingly contradictory narrative.
I was not rejected. I could stay there. But my father was sick and I stay very long time there. And I (was) supposed to come to help my father, to service to my father in the last time of his life and to get his prayer for my life. (…)
Then when the Taliban collapsed, the Holland government sent some people to me, saying that now the Taliban is not a threat. So you are more than welcome to go back to your country. And they took my passport, they took everything else. And I said OK and I waited waited waited and it continued for about 2.5 years. (…)
If there’s any chance, you can take [my passport] to Holland and if you can renew it, bring it back here and I can go, that would be great.(…)
Actually it would have been a lot better if I was accepted in Holland but unluckily I could not get the chance. I just missed it somehow. And my friends are still there and they’re having a good time. But the thing is that I really like Afghanistan and Afghanistan is a best place for me. I have my family here. I have my relatives, and to be honest, I cannot compare a little dust of Afghanistan, a very unpaved street of Afghanistan to a very beautiful place in Holland. Because this country this is my mother. (…)
And when I came, I had some money in my pocket that I brought from Holland. And when I came I saw my dad he was really in a terrible situation as he was sick and plus they were renting a house and they didn’t pay rent of the house for 4 months, they were behind for 4 months. (…)
And then everybody encouraged me for taking care of my dad and everybody persuaded me and said now you see you’re the older son of your dad and now he sees you here, and now he’s no longer sick, so… And I was really happy for that.
- Hamid (m, interview, original in Dari, via translator).
When he returned, Hamid’s temporary ID had already been withdrawn, and he knew that it would be hard to stay in the Netherlands for much longer without the legal capacity to do so. On the one hand, his failure to stay in the Netherlands was very disappointing and disempowering to him (‘they took my passport, they took everything else’), especially since he felt a relative failure compared to his friends. On the other hand, he claimed agency over his return by stressing that he returned even though he did not have to (yet), because he was needed by his family. To match his limited capacities, Hamid highlighted the desire to be in his ‘mother’ country and to support his parents, in order to claim agency over his return.
When their legal capacity to stay in the host country had been restricted, several returnees stressed that a desire to reunite with their country, their family, and their culture, had been the reason to return. However, if returnees like Hamid had wanted to return, why did he and many other returnees try to open up the possibility of leaving again, in the case of Hamid by asking the researcher to reissue his ‘passport’? Several returnees themselves also observed this contradiction:
Those people who are saying that they are really happy being in Afghanistan, and they don’t wanna go back. Believe it or not if you gave them their passport and their visa, if their departure is at ten, I’m sure they want to leave at nine.
- Kamal (m, interview, original in Dari, via translator).
The story of Ajmal provides some insights. Like Hamid, he insisted that he had himself decided to return, while it also became clear that he was a rejected asylum seeker and was legally obliged to do so. Although he would have liked to build up his life in the Netherlands, he did not have the capacity to find employment within the structural reality of his status as an asylum seeker, which made him feel as if he was wasting his time. After he returned through AVR, he rebuilt a successful business and was able to renovate his house in central Kabul. In this way, he claimed agency over his return by matching his desires and his capacities. However, he also said:
I am happy for my life, I love my country, I love my Afghanistan, my kids, I am here. But in case if there is any problem in the future, we don’t know the future, what will happen. If there’s something the Holland government could do to help us. Just ideas.
- Ajmal (m, interview, original in Dari, via translator).
Reza, who was deported from the UK, also became a rather successful businessman after return. Reza explained that with his own construction company he could make more money in Afghanistan than when doing unskilled work in the UK. Nevertheless, he said that he had tried many times to leave Afghanistan again. One time he paid a human smuggler to bring his family to Canada, but he was deceived and lost his money. He said:
So many times I try to go back there. (…) Actually, I don’t know why I want to go there. (laughs). Back.
- Reza (m, interview, original in English).
The return decision of late arrivals such as Wasim, Areef, Hamid, Kamal and Ajmal, too, could be seen as an effort to match desires with capacities, although within a framework of more limited choice compared to early arrivals. The changed structural reality had strongly affected their legal capacity to stay, which severely limited the agency over their decision to return. But beyond having determined their return decision in the past, their legal status continued to determine agency in mobility decisions in the present. From the structural reality of Afghanistan’s unstable political situation and insecure future, an underlying desire for security and mobility emerged. Having lost their capital on the previous failed migration experience, and facing increasing restricted migration policies and thus riskier and more expensive travel routes, decreased their capacities to migrate out of Afghanistan. This inability to match desires and capacities, resulting in a lack of agency over their post-return mobility, caused a lot of unrest and discontent among these returnees, giving them the feeling that they were ‘stuck’ in a highly explosive environment. These returnees’ involuntary immobility (Carling, 2002) added a subtext that gave their narratives the seemingly contradictory twists.