Press conference with UNAMA, UNHCR and ILO

7 Dec 2008

Press conference with UNAMA, UNHCR and ILO

KABUL - Transcript of press conference by Ewen MacLeod, UNHCR Acting Country Representative for Afghanistan; Marc Vansteenkiste, International Labour Organisation, Chief Technical Advisor; Nassim Majidi, Altai Consulting and Dr. Nilab Mobarez, UNAMA Spokesperson’s Office.


UNAMA: Good morning to everyone and welcome to our press conference today. My name is Nilab Mobarez from UNAMA Spokesperson’s Office. Today is the prosperous and happy day of Arafat and we wish you all a very happy Eid ul-Adha for each of you and all the Afghan people.

We are joined this morning by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Representative in Afghanistan, Mr. Ewen Macleod, the International Labour Organisation’s Chief Technical Advisor, Mr. Marc Vansteenkiste and Ms. Nassim Majidi of Altai Consulting who will present a new study on Afghan deportees. I will now hand over to our guest Mr. Ewen MacLeod.

UNHCR: Good morning everybody and thank you very much for coming on this cold morning. As my UNAMA colleague said we will introduce a study commissioned by the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) this morning.

The study is part of the cooperation that we have had between UNHCR and ILO in the region including Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2004. The purpose of that cooperation and of this research project is to better understand the economical dimension of this population’s movement to and from Afghanistan.

Ever since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1980 it has been very popular to describe every Afghan leaving from Afghanistan or coming back to Afghanistan or living in other country as a ‘refugee.’

The research that we have been working on with ILO shows very clearly that there are very important economic and social factors which influence both the movement and the reasons for Afghans living abroad or returning to Afghanistan.

This latest study focuses very much on the Afghans who have been deported from Iran. It’s an independent study carried out by the consulting firm Altai. And as we will hear later, it reflects the findings of research which was carried out over a number of months earlier this year.

We hope when the study is released publicly today that all policy makers concerned with population movement to and from Afghanistan will read it and will study the recommendations it contains. We believe a number of recommendations will be extremely helpful in finding solutions to this complex challenge.

I will now pass the floor to Ms. Nassim Majidi from Altai who will introduce the study.

ALTAI: Thank you for being here today and we appreciate your presence with us.

I am presenting a report on Afghan deportees from Iran which was commissioned by UNHCR and ILO and conducted by Altai Consulting.

The broad objective of this study was to provide information on patterns of cross border movements and to draw attention to the specific migratory phenomenon namely the migration of Afghans under irregular conditions and for employment purposes to Iran.

I will briefly go over the methodology used for this survey. The field work was carried out during March and April 2008 in the three provinces bordering Iran – Herat, Farah and Nimroz and the capital, Kabul. The distribution of interviews reflects the deportation flows from Iran with the highest numbers being in Nimroz.

Before getting into the major conclusions of this study I wanted to draw an overall picture of this deportee population for you.

The migration of Afghans to Iran today is primarily a temporary and cyclical labour phenomenon of adult males travelling without their families. They stay on average for three and half years in Iran with an intention to stay five years or less. Their goal is not to settle down in Iran. 60 per cent of them have been to Iran more than once for work purposes and have been deported and 23 per cent have been deported more than once as well. So this migration is clearly temporary and cyclical. It is a labour migration issue not a refugee migration issue.

One of the major conclusions of this study is the role played by trans-national social networks as a driving force of migration. As the numbers show you, Afghans settle in cities in Iran where relatives and families reside. They depend on them for immediate assistance such as shelter and food and they rely on them to find their first employment upon arrival in Iran.

The major benefit for Afghans going to Iran is the opportunity to accumulate wealth and to send it back to their families in Afghanistan. This is what we call ‘remittances.’

Based on the data collected in our study, Afghans in Iran send 67 per cent of their monthly wage back to Afghanistan. Since many are the head of their household and the sole breadwinners of their family, this money often represents the sole source of income for Afghan families here.

Based on the numbers you can see in this presentation, an annual rate of US$ 2,496 per person is sent back to Afghanistan. This means an annual flow of US$ 500 million dollars, which is approximately 6 per cent of the national GDP of Afghanistan. This is equal to the telecommunications market share of the whole Afghan economy.

Now I draw your attention to the labour impact of this migration. The potential for Afghans to succeed financially in Iran is significantly higher than in Afghanistan. The monthly wages in Iran are four times higher than in Afghanistan. An Afghan in Iran has an average of US$ 320 a month wages based on our data. However if that person returns to Afghanistan, they will only have a monthly wage of US$ 80.

Unemployment levels in Iran are also significantly lower. Afghans going to Iran based on the interviewees we spoke to, find on average, employment in less than a week. Beyond their fulfilled income generating potential in Iran, Afghan men also benefit from experience to improve their wages or to learn new skills.

As you can see from this slide, 73 per cent of interviewees have learned a new skill during their work experience in Iran. The industries which rank the highest in terms of the transfer of skills are in construction, agriculture, manufacturing, professional and technical services, wholesale and retail trade. The transfer of skills is illustrated by a comparison of activity sectors before and after migration showing a net increase in the number of people working in construction sector.

Our data shows that about 30 per cent of Afghans working in the construction sector before their migration, but upon the return, 70 per cent are working in this sector.

One of the negative consequences of this migration flow has been a rise of a well organised human smuggling network. Since 2001 there has been a shift in the methods of migration with the rise of a smuggling network on the both sides of the border despite the restrictive policies put in place by the government of Iran.

Out of the pool of interviewees, 91 per cent of respondents claimed using a clandestine method of entering into Iran and of these, 79 per cent used the help of a smuggler. This shows two things: one is that the restrictive measures such as deportation put in place by the government of Iran have been inadequate to respond to this irregular migration flow. And two: that these restrictive policies have unintended consequences and have favoured the development of the network of smugglers with implication on the security and protection of migrants.

The cost benefit analysis clearly favours clandestine migration. When we look at the numbers for a typical Afghan migrant, it costs US$ 740 for a legal path to Iran while the cost for illegal migration based on our findings is equal to US$ 361. So it is twice as expensive for a migrant to enter Iran legally than irregularly.

The increase of irregular methods of entering Iran is accompanied by a significant revenue loss for government of Afghanistan and for the government of Iran. Based on the figures obtained by the study in one year, the estimated revenue loss for both countries is around US$ 221 million, with a clear benefit for smugglers with US$ 94 million paid to smugglers.

This is a source of revenue which the governments could collect if the migrants were provided with a viable solution to gain lawful employment in Iran and has significant policy implications in terms of government resources on migration management policies and further supports the claim in favour of revised visa options.

There is an undeniable human cost to this irregular migration as well. Our study has shown that there has been a rise in different types of vulnerabilities facing these Afghan migrants. First there is a physical and psychological vulnerability caused by abusive practices of traffickers and smugglers. The increase in the activities of smugglers has also seen an increase in the risks and dangers faced during transit. For example, a lot of the people we interviewed named the fear of death, fear of physical and verbal abuse, and the lack of food and water as main problems faced during their transit.

Other vulnerabilities, including physical and psychological vulnerabilities caused by detention and the deportation practices in Iran and the financial vulnerability upon arrival in Afghanistan.

The resulting long-term vulnerabilities is a failure of reintegration back into Afghanistan as one third declare their intention to go back to Iran within a few days or a few months. These findings have strong implications at the policy level. Labour migration remains a way of life and a key livelihood strategy for Afghans and it is therefore unlikely to end.

The recommendations in this section are to been seen as an overall package to address and identify clandestine movements and to diminish vulnerabilities.

The priority is on the domestic agenda and on bilateral negotiations to establish a legal framework. The immediate priority for the government of Afghanistan to prevent this irregular migration flow.

This can be done in several ways – first it is recommended that the government of Afghanistan educate Afghans about their civic responsibilities and raise awareness about the risks of clandestine migration.

As a means to prevent further irregular migration it is recommended that the government of Afghanistan uses reintegration efforts such as integration programmes and the Afghan labour market to meet the demands of these Afghan migrant workers.

The government of Afghanistan should be supported in this effort by the assistance community through an inter-agency joint action plan promoting policies favouring the labour reintegration of these deportees by investing in their skills learned in Iran in the sectors of construction, agriculture and manufacturing.

The base of the problem today is a lack of legal framework to regulate the irregular immigration flow – it is therefore our recommendation that the governments of Iran and Afghanistan enter bilateral negotiations to expand the avenues for regular labour migration.

This should be coupled with intensified measures at the Afghan border and enforced legislation and systems of sanctions against the thriving network of smugglers.

Finally we’d like to highlight that every state has a sovereign right to deport undocumented and unauthorised populations within its territory. Without questioning this right, it is our recommendation that both governments endorse a rights-based approach for all deportees during detention and upon return.

We encourage the government of Iran to improve the process of detention and deportation to respect the rights of all individuals taken into custody and we encourage the government of Afghanistan and the assistance community to help deportees to return with dignity to Afghanistan by providing immediate assistance at the border to minimise their vulnerabilities and to build the basis for a successful reintegration process.

An executive summary of the report is provided to you today and a final version of the report is also available online.

IRNA (translated from Dari): Thanks Ms. Majidi for the comprehensive presentation. In my view, one thing which is missing in your study is the issue of those Afghans who legally enter Iran but overstay their visas and then become illegal. Could you please elaborate on this issue?

ALTAI: Thank you for your comment. I would like to mention two points on this issue. Based on the 780 people interviewed, 91 per cent claimed not resorting to the legal option but opting directly for an irregular method of migration. 76 per cent mentioned using a smuggler. Your point is true that some Afghans enter Iran legally but after some time they find themselves in an irregular status in Iran. Further support and proof is needed in favour of a legal framework and visa option that would fulfil the demands of these Afghan migrant workers. A lot of Afghans have mentioned to us that they do not feel it is wise for them to opt for the legal method as it is expensive, but also because the visas expire after a month or two and therefore they find themselves inevitably in an irregular condition in Iran.

IRIN: Iran deported a large number of Afghans last winter which created a lot of problems. The UNHCR office in Herat and the government authorities say that Iran deports hundreds of youths on a daily basis. If Iran accelerates the deportation process don’t you think that a humanitarian catastrophe may occur?

UNHCR: If you recall last year - on appeal from the government of Afghanistan and international humanitarian agencies - that process was suspended during the winter. If we witness a repetition of this, a repetition of the winter circumstances and a high level of deportation of vulnerable people, of course, we would hope that the Iranian authorities will respond in exactly the humane way that they did last time.

REUTERS: Could you please give us an indication of how many smugglers are engaged in this and from where do they operate? How would you use this study in UNHCR and finally how did you come to the figure of US$ 500 million remittances by Afghans in Iran annually?

ALTAI: I will answer your last question first. We based our findings on the reports and the data we collected. When we asked interviewees how much money out of their monthly wage they send back to Afghanistan, the average amount was US$ 280 a month. Calculated on the basis of a year, this gives us an annual rate of US$ 2,496 per person. This is the average amount of money one Afghan migrant sends back to Afghanistan. Then we took the overall estimated number of migrants based on the deportation flow. For instance in 2007 there were about 360,000 deportees from Iran. Then taking the annual rate of remittance per person and the number of irregular migration flow we came to the number of US$ 500 million a year.

On your first part of your question about smuggling networks; we did not do precise research on the smugglers themselves. Although it will be an interesting research to be done in the future. But what we know is that the smuggling networks are based on both sides of the border and originate from all provinces in Afghanistan. What was very interesting to us was to see that Afghan migrants based anywhere in Afghanistan can easily be connected to a smuggler who usually take them to the southern border in Nimroz. Nimroz and Zaranj have become a big centre for smugglers to take Afghans through the borders to Baluchistan and then to Iran.

UNHCR: As with the launch of this study today and with all the previous studies, we share it with the governments concerned, we share it with international organisations, with you in the media and with individuals and universities etc. We will also put the study on our website as well as on ILO’s website so you can find it there. You will also find a number of other studies on the same subject. Much of these studies also support the findings of this research-study. For example, in 2005, ILO conducted a study on the earning of Afghans in Iran and those findings are very similar to the findings of this recent study.

ILO: On behalf of ILO I would like to stress very clearly that we are very happy with the study because it is a new study based on new facts and figures. It is not based on analysing existing reports - it is based on the new data collected from the field. I think the results show what is going on. I want to add very clearly that nothing is wrong with foreign employment or the desire to work abroad – but it must be decently organised foreign employment. ILO is supporting the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs very extensively in setting up agreements with neighbouring countries and countries in the Middle East and with South Korea to have the possibility for Afghan workers to work in those counties on a legal basis.

TAMADUN TV: Do you have a figure for how many Afghans annually go to Iran irregularly and how many of them fall vulnerable?

ALTAI: For the first part of your question, as indicated before, based on our findings, 91 per cent of Afghans migrating to Iran do so irregularly – those are the findings of our report. And secondly, on the issue of vulnerability, the transit to and from Iran is undeniably a very difficult process for Afghans today who decide to migrate irregularly. Now, they do not fulfil, for the most part, the vulnerable categories as they are defined by the UN. If these populations fulfil the guidelines of the Extremely Vulnerable Individuals (EVI), they will be rightly assisted but most of these people do not fulfil the criteria for EVIs.

UNHCR: I can say based on the existing criteria of vulnerability, this year out of over 360,000 deportees from Iran, 350 individual cases of vulnerability were identified and those were all among single males; all of those were assisted with transportation, with food and some basic support.

ARIANA TV [translated from Pashto]: The study highlights without doubt there has been a strong presence of a smugglers network at the border and that they are more organised recently. People who use them of course, become vulnerable – what is the UNHCR recommendation to both Iran and Afghanistan governments?

UNHCR: It is very important that a distinction is being made between refugees and migrants. We believe that this is an issue to be discussed between the two governments primarily. We know that Iran is a signatory to the international law as governing protection of refugees; and there are few countries in the world that are better or have more a more generous record for refugees than Iran. The issue of irregular migration is not an issue that UNHCR is mandated to manage or comment on. Our interest is that this issue is understood clearly and managed differently from those arrangements that are established for the protection of refugees. And we certainly support the point made in the study that the rights of migrants should be respected; meaning that they should be treated with respect and humanity.

ILO: The existence of smugglers does not create migration; they are there because there is need for them. In migration - smugglers take part of the business. We fully understand that people are taking responsibility for their families or looking to find jobs to support their families. We also know because it is not only in Iran where you can find Afghan workers. Afghan workers can also be found in many countries in the Middle-East. We also know that Afghan workers in the construction business are highly respected in a lot of foreign countries.

So there is clearly a high demand for Afghan workers in many foreign countries. And I think the main challenge for the government. ILO will do whatever we can to support the Ministry of Labour is to get this foreign employment. To get it organised and to protect every party involved in it. For the moment there is already an agreement between the government of Afghanistan and Qatar; there are also negotiations with the Emirates and in around two weeks, a delegation from the Ministry of Labour is going on a mission to South Korea with the full support of ILO. We believe that with more legal opportunities for foreign employment, the more pressure and opportunities for illegal foreign employment will be reduced. We should never forget that the baseline of the problem is that thousands of fathers are looking for a decent income for their families. And it is our obligation to help them find decent incomes.

SHAMSHAD TV [translated from Pashto]: In recent years has the deportation of Afghans increased or decreased from Iran?

UNHCR: Deportation has been going on for a long time - that is not new. Since April 2007, the annual figures have increased roughly threefold. Last year the data we have shows that 365,000 Afghans were deported from Iran and this year we expect the figure will be very similar. And 98 percent of those deported are single males.