Russia has the image of a country that does not consider refugees to be a promising category for increasing the country’s population, and the very procedure to first obtain official refugee status, and on the basis of this status gain citizenship in the Russian Federation, is quite difficult for Afghans, writes Valdai Club expert Dmitry Poletaev.
After the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan on February 15, 1989, the government of Mohammad Najibullah lasted three years, until April 1992. The civil war in Afghanistan became a decisive factor in the emigration of Afghans to different countries, including Russia. Many supporters of the Najibullah regime fled to Russia, including members of the military-political elite, who hoped to get political asylum from their former allies. The influx of Afghans into Russia, which began almost immediately after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, intensified after the fall of the Najibullah government and reached its peak in 1992-1994. The Russian experts and leaders of Afghan communities estimated the size of the Afghan diaspora at about 100-150 thousand people by the end of 1994. In other post-Soviet countries, such as Ukraine, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, the number of Afghan refugees was significantly less.
Only a few Afghans managed to formally establish their position in Russia as refugees, so their number in Russia gradually began to decline. They experienced serious difficulties in obtaining refugee status and, later on, Russian citizenship. According to the official statistics, from March 1993 to January 2002 only 491 Afghans received refugee status, and from 2009 to 2021 — only 417 Afghans. One more indicative figure: among all those who had official refugee status in Russia, only 140 (!) people received Russian citizenship from 2004 to 2013, and most of them were refugees from Afghanistan (111 people — 79% of all those who received citizenship).
The analysis of migration flows from Afghanistan to Russia over the past three decades points to several important factors, that can affect the prospects for migration from Afghanistan to Russia:
1. A significant part of Afghan migrants in Russia consisted of former members of the Afghan elite, who could not stay in their homeland for political reasons. These included many educated people, including those who had received a higher education in the USSR, who at one time had held high positions in their homeland. In general, this flow was quite significant, but the Afghans departing en masse went mainly to other countries, such as Pakistan and Iran.
2. Afghans in Russia only acquired official refugee status and citizenship of the Russian Federation with great difficulty, and this information, via social networks (word of mouth), became known among Afghans in other countries. Even those few refugees who have official status in Russia cannot count on receiving benefits and comprehensive social support, such as those received by such refugees, for example, in the EU countries. The general message of this situation is that from the very beginning of acquiring its new statehood, Russia has not considered refugees as a significant demographic resource, despite the fact that it needs both an influx of migrants for permanent residence and labour migrants, due to the growing shortage in the work force.
3. For migrants from Afghanistan the legalisation of their status in Russia, in addition to obtaining refugee status, is rather difficult, since they cannot use the most popular channel for acquiring Russian citizenship — the State Programme for Assisting Compatriots Residing Abroad in Their Voluntary Resettlement in the Russian Federation, because its criteria doesn’t apply to them. Therefore, the reserve regarding attracting highly skilled migration from Afghanistan, created during the Soviet Union, is far from being fully utilized. For Russia, the most promising choice would be to use the channel for receiving qualified migrants from Afghanistan. We are talking primarily about those Afghans who studied in Russian and Soviet universities, but since Russia does not yet carry out a comprehensive work with foreigners who received higher education in Russia, the deployment of such a program aimed at Afghan graduates would be a difficult task.
4. Russia has seriously changed its approach to relations with Afghanistan, radically moving away from the approach that it had developed during the Soviet era, which implied direct assistance (including military aid). Now Moscow follows a pragmatic approach of interaction with the most influential forces in Afghanistan, without providing direct assistance to any of the opposing sides. Within the framework of this approach, a significant increase in the migration flow from Afghanistan to Russia is unlikely.
Russian experts note that the image of Russia over the past 30 years has been periodically accompanied by reputational costs in the eyes of influential families in Afghanistan, even if they no longer have real power, but merely possess social capital. This was true in the distant past — the end of support for Afghanistan from Russia, which led to the fall of the Najibullah government in 1992, and the present time — for example, when Afghan student Rafiullah Rohani, who is a relative of the former chief of the Afghan General Staff Army General Haybatullah Alizai — “enemy number 1 of the Taliban” was refused entry to Russia in the autumn of 2021. This also reduces the attractiveness of Russia as a host country for Afghan migrants.
By 2020, most Afghan refugees were in Pakistan (1,438,000 people, 55.4% of the total number of Afghan refugees in the world) and Iran (780,000 people, 30%), and among Western countries the largest number of them was in Germany (148,000 people, 5.7%). According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia, as of January 1, 2021 514 immigrants from Afghanistan had temporary asylum status (3% of the total number of those who have this status in Russia), and 256 had refugee status (56% of all those with refugee status in the Russian Federation).
By the fall of 2021, more than 5 million Afghans were displaced inside and outside Afghanistan, which is a very significant figure for a country of 39 million. Since the end of May 2021, almost a quarter of a million Afghans have been forced to leave their places of permanent residence, of which about 80% are women and children. After the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, UN-estimated refugee flows have ranged as high as half a million. Currently, Afghanistan is on the verge of a humanitarian disaster, and the organisation of humanitarian aid flows remains an unanswered question.
Another matter must be addressed: pressure from Afghanistan may compel an increasing number of citizens of the Central Asian states in its immediate vicinity to emigrate to Russia and seek permanent residence. There are already Central Asian immigrants within Russia who have decided to acquire Russian citizenship as a result of the development of labour migration. Now, among other things, they are being pushed towards this decision by the possible escalation of the military conflict in Afghanistan. For example, there is already a surge in the number of Tajik citizens moving to Russia seeking permanent residence.
Russia has the image of a country that does not consider refugees to be a promising category for increasing the country’s population, and the very procedure to first obtain official refugee status, and on the basis of this status gain citizenship in the Russian Federation, is quite difficult for Afghans. Therefore, despite the uncertain situation in Afghanistan and the growing risk of a new flow of refugees, it is highly improbable that the flows of refugees from Afghanistan to Russia will be significant, at least in the short term.