September 23, 2017
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Call Us ‘Students’ Not ‘Refugees,’ say Afghans Migrating for Education

In the third part of “Afghans on the Migration Trail,” migration specialist Nassim Majidi explores how the desire for education motivates young Afghans to leave the country – and argues that allowing them to study once they reach Europe is crucial for integration.

By Nassim Majidi


“I WOULD PREFER to be an international student than an Afghan refugee,” says Zekria, who fled Afghanistan and hoped to pursue his dreams of higher education in Europe.

When he headed out on the arduous journey to Europe, he was troubled by two pressing concerns: “I wished I knew the language and that I had already completed my basic education.”

Zekria is like many young people we met during our study interviewing Afghans along the migration trail who feel that they cannot control the security conditions or employment opportunities in Afghanistan, but remain certain they can improve their futures through education.

During our conversations with Afghans in the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden, many young people and their parents said the overall quality of education in Afghanistan is weak. They saw insecurity in their communities curbing their educational opportunities, and said seeking higher education was a prime motivation to leave.

Their decision to migrate was often based on a desire to influence their circumstances, pursue achievements and have a “good life” – of which they describe education as a key component.

While educational facilities do exist in Afghanistan, they are costly and accessible only to a select elite. This also makes education a potent symbol with ideological connotations, and university grounds have become direct targets.

The American University of Afghanistan in Kabul is an example of both the high costs of education and the dangers associated with attending privileged institutions. The university was targeted in August 2016 in a complex, Taliban-led attack that killed 13 people and injured more than 40, including students and professors.

Even before the attack, many students were aware that their educational futures had been tainted by divisive politics and conflict. Over the last two years, many of the Afghans we spoke with left the country not only because of “push factors” such as insecurity, unemployment and corruption, but also because of their persistent hopes to fulfill their educational potential.

Given the dearth of educational opportunities in neighboring countries like Pakistan and Iran, especially for non-citizens, Europe has become their prime choice of destination.

Yet their hopes are not always borne out.

Zekria has since returned to his hometown in Afghanistan after he wasn’t able to pursue his dream of higher education in Germany.

Hayatullah, another young man interviewed, also returned after he wasn’t able to pursue a master’s degree in Sweden.

“Education was my main reason for migrating,” he says. “But when I wanted to start my studies in Sweden, they asked me to start from grade nine.”

With the Swedish government stipend barely enough to cover his personal expenses, and with no prospects of immediate work, Hayatullah would not have been able to support his family. So he returned to Afghanistan. “The conditions turned against me,” he says.

Afghan children who came to Europe as “unaccompanied minors” pull sleds up a small hill in northern Norway. In Norway and Sweden, about one in five asylum seekers in 2015 was a minor traveling alone. (AP/Alastair Grant)

Afghan children who came to Europe as “unaccompanied minors” pull sleds up a small hill in northern Norway. In Norway and Sweden, about one in five asylum seekers in 2015 was a minor traveling alone. (AP/Alastair Grant)

Asif, who is 13 years old, was dealt a much more favorable outcome by Swedish immigration authorities. Because he traveled on his own to Europe, he received more protection as an unaccompanied minor.

The remaining six members of Asif’s family are still in the Afghan capital of Kabul. His mother is the sole income earner for all of them, but even with her embroidery work, the family barely gets by.

Originally from the Afghan province Maidan Wardak, just west of Kabul, they left two years ago when the Taliban started to regain control of the area. They are considered internally displaced persons in Kabul – among more than 1 million others displaced inside Afghanistan today due to conflict and natural disasters.

Despite the dangerous journey that Asif undertook on his own at a young age, his positive experience at school in Sweden highlights three reasons why education is important to Afghan refugees, and how it can help their integration in Europe.

First, education means being treated as equals.

Asif says he now feels like one of the “other Swedish children.” He goes to school every day, and says he has access to “all the facilities in Sweden, such as health and education.”

Second, education helps refugees more easily feel stable and secure.

Having seen dead bodies, robbers and smugglers torturing migrants along his journey, Asif says he now feels safe. He attributes much of that sense of safety to being in a classroom and being with other local children. He also feels that going to school has made him part of something bigger than his individual story and that of his family.

Third, education means acceptance, not just as refugees, but as students.

Asif says that he feels no discrimination between himself as an asylum seeker – he has yet to receive official refugee status – and other students who are Swedish citizens. He left Afghanistan after completing sixth grade, and has now finished seventh grade. Moving on to eighth grade is now his main focus.

Migration experts like Ayla Bonfiglio at Maastricht University, who have found similar views among young people emigrating from East Africa, argue that many would-be refugees may prefer the “international student” label to the “refugee” label in order to assimilate into their new environs. If young Afghans prefer being students to being refugees, could this be part of a long-term solution, where countries provide such educational opportunities?

Contrary to conventional wisdom, providing international scholarships and education opportunities to Afghans will not necessarily lead to a long-term brain drain. Instead, it can lead to future generations of Afghans having a greater capacity to shape their futures, whether at home, in their host country or elsewhere.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.