Social and economic context of migration

The population of Afghanistan is about 34 million, of which almost 80 per cent live in rural areas. Taking into account refugees and those in a refugee-like living situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan and significant communities in Germany, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America, up to six million Afghans reside abroad (Arif and Shujaat forthcoming). The country’s population is growing about 2.8 per cent annually, and is projected to exceed 90 million people by 2050. Afghanistan ranks near the bottom of worldwide development indices, with a human development index (HDI) ranking of 155 out of 169 (Human Development Report Office 2010) and an average life expectancy at birth of 44.6 years in 2010 (World Bank 2011).

Migration has long been part of the social landscape of Afghanistan, and many households often send at least one family member abroad to seek employment. This decision, made in the context of socio-economic and security conditions, can be viewed as a survival strategy. The wage disparity between Afghanistan and bordering countries, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan, and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC),2 are important considerations for labour migrants seeking employment overseas.

The economy of Afghanistan relies on foreign aid, which accounted for 45.7 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2009 (World Bank 2010) and is a major factor behind the high economic growth of the past few years. However, the country remains extremely poor. More than one-third of the labour force is unemployed, and much of the employment is in informal sectors. Among the migrant and refugee populations, this figure is significantly higher, with estimates that the unemployment rate for refugees without a primary education exceeds 60 per cent (Groenewold 2006).

Due to the effects of post-conflict dispersion and periods of mass out-migration, remittances provide an important addition to the GDP and are a valuable source of foreign exchange. Many Afghan families rely on the remittance potential of at least one family member, particularly unmarried men, working in the Islamic Republic of Iran or Pakistan (Monsutti 2005). Remittances from family members working outside the country enable families to settle debts, pay for food and living expenses and, in some circumstances, reinvest the money (Monsutti 2006).

While remittances are a source of income and stability for many households in Afghanistan, recorded remittances from Afghans living abroad are far below their potential amounts (IOM 2008). Two factors behind this may be the perceived risk of doing business in the country and strong cultural barriers to using formal remittance channels. Consequently, most of the remittances from Afghans living abroad flow through informal channels.
Afghanistan is one of the few countries in the region that lacks a concrete emigration policy or a legal framework for managing international migration. As a consequence, the country has limited capacity to develop and implement policy, issue regulations or enact laws on matters relating to migration.


2 The member States of the GCC are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.