Manage Afghan labour migration to curb irregular flow to Iran, study urges

UNHCR and International Labour Organization-funded survey analyzes the factors that drive Afghan migrants into Iran and why some are deported.

Houses lie empty in this settlement in Balkh province, northern Afghanistan, as some families have left to find work in Iran.   © UNHCR/R.Arnold

KABUL, Afghanistan, December 11 (UNHCR) - A study of Afghan deportees from Iran has revealed that economic pressures are the main reasons behind the increase in irregular population movements from Afghanistan, and that illegal human smuggling from Afghanistan has thrived despite the range of restrictive and deterrent measures adopted.

Analyzing the factors that drive Afghan migrants into Iran and the circumstances under which some are deported, the report proposes that the governments of Afghanistan and Iran should identify how to manage migration in a way that will benefit all parties.

The research study was conducted by Altai Consulting and funded by the UN refugee agency and the International Labour Organization (ILO) as part of a project called "Cooperation towards Comprehensive Solution for Afghan Displacement."

It was prompted by the lack of clear analysis of the nature of Afghan deportees, notably their confusion with the registered Afghan refugee population in Iran. The result is a quantitative survey of 784 deported Afghans - the vast majority of them single men - in the provinces of Herat, Farah, Nimroz and Kabul in March and April this year.

One of the survey's main conclusions is that the high rate of unemployment, low wages, and widespread poverty in Afghanistan are major push factors for single men to migrate to Iran in search of employment. In contrast, the labour opportunities and an average salary that is four times higher than in Afghanistan are major pull factors for many Afghans. "Their migration is motivated by economic and labour considerations and is unlikely to end as it is a key livelihoods strategy for populations in Afghanistan," notes the report.

Pull factors in Iran include a strong demand among employers for cheap, flexible and reliable migrant labour. The existence of a transnational social network consisting of relatives or friends in Iran also makes it easier for Afghan migrants to live and work in the informal job market.

The number of undocumented Afghans in Iran is unknown. In the last two years the Iranian authorities have deported more than 700,000 Afghans they allege have broken immigration laws and are working illegally. But an estimated US$500 million is sent back to Afghanistan in remittances per year - some 6 percent of Afghanistan's national gross domestic product (GDP).

The methods of migration have shifted since 2001 with the rise of a better organized human smuggling network on both sides of the border. As the report's Executive Summary points out, "This network has thrived despite restrictive policies put in place by the government of Iran, showing not only the failure of dissuasive measures in responding to the irregular labour migration flow from Afghanistan to Iran, but also the role played by restrictive border management policies in favouring the development of and reliance on a network of smugglers with consequences for security, law and the protection of migrants."

Part of the reason for the popularity of using smugglers' services is that it costs twice as much (US$740) for a migrant to enter Iran legally than to do so through smugglers (US$361). In addition, some interviewed deportees said that a work visa costs too much, takes too long to deliver, and only lasts for three months with no guaranteed right of employment. The resulting reliance on clandestine migration is costing both the Iranian and Afghan governments more than US$221 million a year in lost revenue.

"The current migration flow between Afghanistan and Iran is predominantly overwhelmingly a labour migration issue, not a refugee issue," the study stresses. It makes several recommendations on how to address this highly organized and irregular flow while reducing the vulnerabilities faced by the migrants.

Firstly, the Afghan government should seek to prevent irregular labour migration by reminding its citizens of their responsibility to respect Iranian immigration laws and of the risks and consequences of not doing so. It should also crack down on abusive migration practices at the border while developing specific programmes and training in provinces from where labour migration originates.

While recognizing the right of every state to deport undocumented people on its territory, the report appeals to the government of Iran to improve the process of detention and deportation and to respect the rights of all those in custody. The Afghan authorities, in turn, should provide immediate assistance for deportees to minimize their vulnerabilities, and help them reintegrate by investing in skills they learnt in Iran - especially in construction, agriculture, manufacturing, professional and technical services.

Most importantly, the study advocates for bilateral negotiations between the two governments to expand the avenues for regular labour migration. "The governments of Iran and Afghanistan will need to agree on a temporary visa policy that will be accessible and affordable for potential migrants and which will deter them from relying on clandestine migration to Iran," it says, suggesting a legal framework under which the Afghan government must show its commitment to curb irregular migration and build a strong migration management strategy with Iran.

By Mohammed Nadir Farhad in Kabul, Afghanistan