By Gabriele Rasuly-Paleczek
Most current studies on refugees and asylum seekers coming to Europe focus on the reasons for fleeing, the challenges refugees face during their flight, and their experiences in potential host countries. So far little attention has been paid to the relevance of personal motives (e.g. fleeing to avoid a forced marriage, or to escape an ongoing vendetta) and to the importance of social obligations and relations in the context of forced migration.
When social relations are highlighted at all, they are mostly studied in the context of facilitating the establishment of refugees in their new places of residence (e.g. providing jobs, housing and a first orientation in the new environment), or in connection with transnational networks of refugees and their relatives and friends left behind in former places of residence. A few studies, such as the paper by A. Monsutti et alii entitled “Afghan Transnational Networks: Looking Beyond Repatriation” (2006) and Ch. Berg Harpviken´s book entitled Social Networks and Migration in Wartime Afghanistan (2009), highlighted the role of social networks for the reintegration of returning refugees in their former home region and/or in preventing people from becoming refugees at all by successfully securing a sustainable livelihood despite protracted war or civil war.
However, the decision to flee is not only informed by personal concerns (e.g. fearing to be killed by insurgents), but is also closely linked to social obligations individuals bear to their social environment (e.g. children, wife, kinsmen, friends). Thus, it seems worthwhile to focus on the intersection of social ties and obligations and the reasons for fleeing, including very personal ones as forced marriage.
In line with other studies, the data on refugees from Afghanistan that were collected in the framework of the ROR-n pilot study that informed the book “From Destination to Integration – Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna “ (2017) show that it is usually a combination of causes that influences the decision to flee or to renew a flight.
Frequently, we find a mixture of general security concerns (e.g. increases in local violence, heightening of ethnic and religious conflicts), personally experienced violence (death threats, detention by government and/ or opposition groups, reprisals by Islamic radicals, retaliation for having worked for foreigners), as well as economic and other reasons (e.g. being persuaded by friends to leave the country with them, evading an unbearable domestic situation, fleeing from an ongoing vendetta, being discriminated in current place of residence, e.g. in Iran). However, these flight motives are often closely linked to social obligations.
Despite decades of protracted violence, displacement and economic hardship that have badly affected the resilience and coping strategies of most Afghans, many still exhibit a strong commitment towards fulfilling their social obligations, in particular towards honoring their responsibility for the wellbeing of their family, kinsmen and friends. Thus, protecting the life of family members or offering children a “good life” are among the most important social obligations that – in addition to the aforementioned reasons – inform the pre-flight decision making process.
These social obligations are often deemed as more important than one’s own wellbeing and safety. Several of our interviewees mentioned that the final decision to flee was only taken when a personal threat (e.g. fear of being abducted, receiving threatening letters etc.) was perceived as not only endangering one’s own life, but also that of other family members (e.g. children, parents, brothers, etc.).
An illustrative case is a 54-year-old male Pashtun from Kandahar, whose brother had been killed several years earlier by the Taliban. The interviewee himself fell victim to a suicide attack in which he was severely wounded and lost the vision of one of his eyes. Yet, it was not until his two young children were threatened to be kidnapped for ransom that he and his family left the country.
Offering one’s children a better future also forms an important motivation for many refugees, as the following quote from the same interview illustrates: “Since I had been seven years old, blood had been spilled in Afghanistan, until today. When I consider my situation, without education, under no circumstance did I want my children to suffer the same fate. Education is very important!”
The commitment to protect the life of family and kin and to care for their wellbeing does not solely refer to one’s own personal flight (e.g. fleeing to minimize potential threats for other family members who stay put). It also extends to the obligation to organize the flight of a relative whose life is endangered or to send a family member away offering him/her better occupational or educational opportunities as in the case of a 21-year-old male Hazara, who at the age of 17 was prompted by his father to leave Iran, where the interviewee and his family were living in precarious circumstances.
The obligation to support family members, kin or friends focuses mainly on organizing the flight itself. Close relatives (e.g. father, father-in-law, mother-brother, etc.) and friends provide the financial means for the flight and/ or establish contact with a human trafficker, herein often using personal networks to trace a trustworthy smuggler. Yet, the support does not stop here. It is granted throughout the whole flight process by sending money to allow the continuation of the flight, by putting a refugee in contact with acquaintances that may facilitate further movements, or by offering advice for what to do next when a problem appears.
Summing up, our Afghanistan data offer ample evidence that the decision to flee is informed by a combination of causes, such as security concerns, economic as well as personal reasons, and a vast array of social obligations. The relevance of social obligations in the pre-flight decision-making process has oftentimes been neglected in forced migration studies. This research gap should be closed by putting a stronger research focus on the intersection of social obligations and reasons for fleeing when studying forced migrants.
From Destination to Integration: Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna is available for purchase here
Berg Harpviken, Christian. 2009. Social Networks and Migration in Wartime Afghanistan. Houndmills, Basingstoke, New York
Kohlbacher, Josef and Schiocchet, Leonardo (Eds.): From Destination to Integration – Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna. ISR-Forschungsbericht Heft 45, Vienna 2017; Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaft
Monsutti, Alessandro and Collective for Social Science Research. 2006. “Afghan Transnational Networks: Looking Beyond Repatriation.” Synthesis Paper Series; Kabul, AREU, August 2006