The bulk of out-migration from Afghanistan in the past decades consisted of people fleeing conflict and oppression, mainly to neighbouring countries, namely, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan. Although large numbers of refugees have returned to Afghanistan, especially those who fled to the countries mentioned above, there is still a large diaspora of recognized refugees abroad.

Three main periods in recent history of Afghanistan generated waves of migration from the country. The first wave followed a period of instability from 1979. The second wave was caused by instability, oppression, and conflict between various groups and the Taliban Government during the 1990s. The third wave began in the early 1990s, as a large number of the well-educated Afghans from the liberal urban middle and upper classes migrated to Europe and North America to escape the Taliban regime. This large-scale migration spread to people from the lower-educated rural areas in the mid 1990s as the Taliban began to assert control. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, estimates of the number of Afghans living overseas included 3.2 million in Pakistan, 2.2 million in the Islamic Republic of Iran and several hundred thousand in disparate communities across the globe (Monsutti 2005).

A study commissioned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Office (UNHCR) estimates that about six million people left the country between 1979 and 1992 (UNHCR 2009). After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the UNHCR launched voluntary repatriation programmes in both the Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan under a tripartite agreement and since 2002, more than four million Afghan refugees have been repatriated. However, despite this massive repatriation, Afghanistan continues to be the world’s largest country of origin for refugees.

In 2009, there were still more than 1.9 million Afghanis living with refugee status abroad. The majority of them were in the Islamic Republic of Iran (54 per cent) and Pakistan (40 per cent). Other countries hosting large communities of refugees from Afghanistan were Germany and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (see figure 1). Also of note, India, has been hosting a sizeable number of refugees from Afghanistan, with the number estimated to be about 8,500 in 2009. In addition to recognized refugees, another 981,000 Afghans were estimated to be living in a refugee-like situation, mainly in the Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan (UNHCR no date).

Labour migration from Afghanistan is characterized by seasonal and cyclic patterns prompted by higher wages and relative stability in neighbouring countries, interspersed with phases of dramatic, large-scale migration during periods of political instability. More than three decades of continuous conflict have weakened the institutions of Afghanistan and prevented the Government from maintaining control in outlying regions. This instability combined with the destruction of infrastructure, breakdown of industry and loss of farms, houses and irrigation channels constituted major push factors for migration (Monsutti 2006). In addition, extended drought, such as in 2000 and 2004, has forced many rural families whose livelihood comes from land and livestock to adopt alternative livelihood strategies and consequently migrate in search of work (Nakanishi 2005).

Migration between Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan is often temporary and cyclical in nature. A number of Afghan migrants use Pakistan as a transit country to the Islamic Republic of Iran, as controls at border crossings between Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran are more strictly managed than those between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan. The Islamic Republic of Iran is also a transit country for onward travel to GCC countries, Turkey and Europe. A field survey by UNHCR in 2007 and 2008 showed continuity in cross-border movements, with seasonal variations in incoming and outgoing migration, and higher movements recorded in spring and summer (UNHCR 2009). Also of note, most labour migrants departing from the Afghanistan capital Kabul use the services of smugglers to facilitate border crossings (Stigter 2004).