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Global Migration and Its Impact on the Afghan Family Institution in Local and Transnational Contexts

By Said Reza Kazemi

For results of the project please see here.


Old woman and baby in a transnational Afghan family

Situated in the junction of cultures, people in Afghanistan have historically been moving, in group and in person, legally and illegally, of their own volition and due to circumstances beyond their control, to other territories and later countries (in a nation-state sense) in the region and beyond, oftentimes in a cyclical manner. This regional and trans-regional movement has helped people, first and foremost, survive socio-economically as well as meet the cultural, religious and other needs of their lives (Dupree 1973; Dupree 1975; Shalinsky 1993; Kakar 1995; Shahrani 2002). Migration, therefore, has been a way of life for people in Afghanistan. It has also gradually provided, inter alia, a fecund ground for the inter-penetration and inter-relatedness of local beliefs, ideas, practices and traditions across the region


In recent history (i.e., since the late 1970s), Afghan population movements have primarily been affected by the protracted, and still on-going, armed conflict in the country (Harpviken 2009: 6—9). As of late 2012 and early 2013, there are reportedly some 2.6 million refugees from Afghanistan in 82 countries (out of the country’s population of approximately 30 million people) (UNHCR 2012b: 14). As a result, Afghanistan has remained the biggest source country of refugees for 32 consecutive years, accounting for one out of every four refugees world-wide. Regionally, 95 per cent of all Afghan refugees live in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan, while Germany hosted the largest number of Afghan refugees (around 31,700 people) outside the immediate neighbourhood in 2012. Furthermore, 36,600 people from Afghanistan claimed international asylum in 2012 (36,200 in 2011), retaining the country in its place as ‘the most important source country of asylum-seekers in the 44 industrialized countries’ (UNHCR 2012a: 3, 16). At the same time, Afghan children lodged many (number unknown) of the 21,300 asylum claims made by unaccompanied or separated children in 72 countries in 2012 (UNHCR 2012b: 3). From a domestic perspective, there are currently around half a million internally displaced persons (IDPs) across Afghanistan and the return of refugees to Afghanistan has reportedly dropped by 41 per cent compared to the previous year (UNAMA 2013). Although data on Afghan migration and overall population should be taken into account with caution (e.g., Edwards 1986; Kronenfeld 2008), the situation the data points to makes it important to further study Afghan migration, not because the data seems to dramatically depict a catastrophic picture of what is going on in the country, but because it indicates a way that can potentially lead to some insights about certain primarily cultural facets of Afghan migration in its global disperse and, therefore, make some contribution to the broader field of socio-cultural anthropology of migration.


Research on Afghan migration is vast, but has mainly been sponsored by international organisations and, thus, conducted from a policy angle. Most research has sought ways to help national, regional and international migration and other law enforcement authorities understand the complexities and address the challenges related to Afghan migration (Jazayery 2002; AREU 2005a; AREU 2005b; AREU 2006). As such, this research is not only mainly focused on the macro-level national and regional economic and regulatory aspects of Afghan migration, but it also is influenced by at least a latent policy bias (e.g., Øverland 2005). Other research has examined Afghan migration mainly from a sociological standpoint generally and within a social network analysis (SNA) paradigm specifically (e.g., Monsutti 2005; Harpviken 2009). In one of the most serious studies so far, Harpviken (2009) applies SNA to conceptualise the dynamic nature of social networks, the flows within these networks (i.e., security, material resources and information) and the agency possessed by migrants even in a situation of on-going war. However, the analysis is, as perhaps needed in this study, geographically (i.e., mainly western Afghanistan and neighbouring Iran) and temporally (i.e., 1978—1999) limited in its focus and gives almost no attention to primarily cultural flows in social networks of migrants and those who remain behind, particularly within the domestic family sphere.


All in all, the cultural dimensions of global Afghan migration are yet to be fully examined. This is while the recent, post-2001 emergence of globalisation – mainly the result of the US-led international military intervention absorbing the Afghan periphery into the global core rather than the ‘implosion of peripheries into centers’ (Kearney 1995: 550) – has been unprecedented in Afghanistan’s history, inter-linking at least parts of the country (both urban and rural) to the world beyond the immediate neighbourhood in a complex web of thick social networks and global cultural flows (beliefs, values, ideas, practices, etc.). These developments are most intimately felt, experienced and coped with in the domestic family domain rather than at the macro-level of national and regional political, economic and social relations. Moreover, they typically lead to social and cultural changes and tensions and the family as the basic unit of the society and its larger reproduction both affects and is affected in the process of this local-global interaction. Building on existing knowledge of socio-cultural anthropology of migration (e.g., Appadurai 1996; Vertovec and Cohen 2002) and multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork, this doctoral research addressed these main questions: how have ordinary Afghan people in an outlying neighbourhood in western Afghanistan established, employed and maintained social networks that have global reaches? What are the local responses of families located in this neighbourhood to global cultural processes? How do these global processes impact the Afghan family concept and reproduction in local and transnational settings? And what are the strategies adopted by these families to address the incompatibilities, tensions and conflicts that typically arise from these local-global interactions?




Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) (2005a) ‘Bound for the City: A Study of Rural to Urban Labour Migration in Afghanistan’.


AREU (2005b) ‘Transnational Networks: Recognising a Regional Reality’.


AREU (2006) ‘Afghan Transnational Networks: Looking Beyond Repatriation’.


Appadurai, A. (1996) Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Dupree, L. (1973) Afghanistan, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Dupree, L. (1975) ‘Settlement and Migration Patterns in Afghanistan: A Tentative Statement’, Modern Asian Studies 9:3, 397—413.


Edwards, D.B. (1986) ‘Marginality and Migration: Cultural Dimensions of the Afghan Refugee Problem’, International Migration Review 20:2, 313—325.


Harpviken, K.B. (2009) Social Networks and Migration in Wartime Afghanistan, Houndmills: Palgrave.


Jazayery, L. (2002) ‘The Migration-Development Nexus: Afghanistan Case Study’, International Migration 40:5, 231—254.


Kakar, M.H. (1995) Government and Society in Afghanistan: The Reign of Amir ’Abd al-Rahman Khan. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.


Kearney, M. (1995) ‘The Local and the Global: The Anthropology of Globalization and Transnationalism’, Annual Review of Anthropology 24, 547—565.


Kronenfeld, D.A. (2008) ‘Afghan Refugees in Pakistan: Not All Refugees, Not Always in Pakistan, Not Necessarily Afghan?’, Journal of Refugee Studies 21:1, 43—63.


Monsutti (2005) War and Migration: Social Networks and Economic Strategies of the Hazaras of Afghanistan, New York and London: Routledge.


Øverland, I. (2005) ‘Humanitarian Organizations in Tajikistan and the Coordination of Aid to Displaced Afghans in No Man’s Land’, Journal of Refugee Studies 18:2, 133—150.


Shalinsky, A.C. (1993) Long Years of Exile: Central Asian Refugees in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Lanham, MD: University Press of America.


Shahrani, M.N. (2002) The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan: Adaptation to Closed Frontiers and War, Seattle: University of Washington Press.


United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (2012a) ‘Asylum Trends 2012: Levels and Trends in Industrialized Countries’.


UNHCR (2012b) ‘Displacement: The New 21st Century Challenge’.


United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) (2013) ‘Briefing by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan, Ján Kubiš, to Security Council, 10 September 2013’.


Vertovec, S. and Robin Cohen (eds.) (2002) Conceiving Cosmopolitanism: Theory, Context, and Practice, New York: Oxford University Press.


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Narrative in migration: An ethnographic story of an Afghan transnational family

Hakimi family on the move

In my doctoral research, I traced an Afghan transnational family in time and in space. I used participant observation and in-depth qualitative interview methods to study the Afghan transnational family of the Hakimis. Temporally, the family was studied from as long in the past as it remembered and/or narrated. Spatially, I investigated the family as it lived between Asia and Europe (see the family as it is scattered and circulates on the map). I tracked and stayed with family members in Afghanistan (Kabul), Pakistan (Islamabad), India (Delhi), and Denmark (Vejle). In the course of the research, I also traced narratives about family members in Iran (Tehran), the Netherlands (Amsterdam), the UK (London), and Italy (Rome)/Albania (Tirana)/Iraq (Erbil). Overall, the research has resulted in an ethnographic story about this Afghan transnational family as it has come to live between Asia and Europe during the last two decades.

A first research finding has been the role narrative plays in creating a sense of family in transnationally scattered Afghan families. Following Gardner (2002), narrative contributes to the building and sustaining of an identity for spatiotemporally dispersed Hakimi family members. It is the narrative about the family past that gives coherence to the present-day transnational way of living in this Afghan transnational family. A second related and significant finding has been the study of change in flows in Afghan transnational families. In such families, (1) money transfers have considerably gone up in volume, (2) communications have become meticulously dense, (3) multi-locational visits have increased in frequency and length, and (4) some flows, primarily souvenirs, have become increasingly cultural and material. This builds on and contributes to existing research on Afghan transnational families (see, for instance, Monsutti 2005; Harpviken 2009).


The research was presented and discussed twice in the Cluster Colloquium (KJC) in 2013 and 2015 and once in the seminar ‘Islamic(ate) Spheres’ (KJC) in 2015. On a larger level, the research was presented and discussed in the international symposium ‘Family in the History of Central Asia’ in Internationale Wissenschaftsforum Heidelberg (IWH) in November 2014. This symposium presentation has resulted in a paper titled ‘Global familyood and global family communication: cases from Afghanistan’. Additionally, several short research papers have been published on a variety of topics, including on migration from Afghanistan. Some of these papers have received media attention.


Works cited


Gardner, K. (2002) Age, narrative and migration: the life course and life histories of Bengali elders in London, Oxford and New York: Berg.

Harpviken, K.B. (2009) Social networks and migration in wartime Afghanistan, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.


Monsutti, A. (2005) War and migration: social networks and economic strategies of the Hazaras of Afghanistan, New York and London: Routledge.