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How resettling Afghan refugees might help Afghanistan’s future

Migrants help their home countries by building trade ties and by sending back both cash and political knowledge.

- August 25, 2021

With the Taliban taking over Afghanistan, many Afghans are seeking refuge and protection elsewhere — prompting a debate over whether more developed countries should welcome them. Some commentators have argued that the United States has a moral obligation to help Afghans who assisted American efforts in Afghanistan over the past 20 years. Others emphasize that Afghan refugee resettlement could bring benefits to host communities. Opponents of resettlement fear that Afghan refugees pose a security threat, while others voice concerns that refugee resettlement will change America’s demographics and politics.

Policymakers may wish to consider how these departures could affect those who remain behind.

In the short term, if large numbers of Afghans leave the country, it’s likely to destabilize the country. Many seeking to leave have professional knowledge, experience and expertise running hospitals, schools, businesses with ties to the West, and other institutions providing essential services. But there’s another consideration: In the long run, resettling Afghan refugees could help not only their new host countries but also the people who remain in Afghanistan.

Here’s what the research shows:

Migrants and refugees help increase ties with the international economy

Resettled refugees can increase trade and investment between countries in several ways.

First, they want familiar things from home, leading to international sales — and often creating a taste for those things among their host country’s communities. We can see this in American appetites: As migrants have introduced Americans to new foods, imports of those foods have increased.

Further, refugees and migrants have specialized knowledge about how markets work — both in their home and receiving countries. They get to know local regulations, meet new potential business partners, and become familiar with the informal norms and customs that make trade and investment possible — while retaining relationships with contacts back home.

Such ties are especially important to countries like Afghanistan that have a weak rule of law, meaning that businesses cannot rely on the courts to adjudicate disputes. Rather, they must find trustworthy partners and rely on personal ties. That was true for refugees in the past, including Vietnamese refugees resettled in the United States after the Vietnam War; Afghans will probably do this as well.

Why do U.S. mayors want more refugees?

Refugees send money home

Refugees also save money to send back to their families. Unlike international aid, these remittances go directly to households, bypassing government agencies and officials and other potential points of corruption and diversion.

Scholars have found that remittances are crucial to the political economy of countries with large diaspora populations. They help finance families’ investments in education, health and general welfare, while supplying those home countries with convertible currency they need to keep exchange rates stable.

Afghanistan was already suffering from the covid-19 pandemic and a food shortage. Many families urgently require assistance. The Taliban will be hard-pressed to provide that aid: Currently, the Taliban does not have access to Afghan government accounts or other sources of aid.

In the short term, remittances would give many families a safety net of much-needed cash at a time when hard currency is hard to come by. An increase in remittances could help stabilize the Afghan currency, which is rapidly losing value, causing the price of imported goods, including food, to rise.

Resettling Afghan refugees in developed democracies could affect Afghanistan’s long-term political development

In the still longer term, refugees in the United States, and in democracies around the world, could alter Afghanistan’s politics from the ground up.

Top-down approaches to nation-building have been roundly criticized for failing to bring in local networks of engaged citizens and for failing to develop social capital — the relationships between people that create trust. A bottom-up strategy requires developing civil society organizations — such as unions, community organizations and even athletic clubs — that can support and sustain opposition to the Taliban’s rule.

Refugee communities can invest in civil society’s support for democracy through what social scientists call “social remittances” — discussing with family and friends back home what they’re learning about healthy democratic norms and practices and human rights expectations. They may pick up this new knowledge from everyday activities, like interacting with teachers and principals at public schools, discussing local issues with government officials, joining a local civic group or labor union, or just watching democracy in action. What’s more, refugees can discuss watching and learning from a free press holding officials accountable, seeing opposition parties argue with the government and, if they become citizens, voting. Of course, discrimination against migrants can undermine these effects.

A great deal of evidence suggests that migrants in democracies grow more supportive of democratic forms of government and that they learn how to organize opposition movements. They then transmit that support and organization back home when they talk to friends and family. And if they return home, they boost local support for democracy. For example, after the Taliban fell in 2001, many of those who led Afghanistan’s democratic political parties, took jobs in government or supported those leaders had spent time in democracies before returning.

Groups like the Taliban have seized power elsewhere. Will the Taliban face similar difficulties governing?

Of course, democracy failed in Afghanistan after 2001. Many migrant communities try and fail to change authoritarian regimes. For example, in Morocco, migrants have organized unions and pro-democracy movements — only to be harshly punished by the government. That’s clearly a serious risk under Taliban rule. And research shows that migrants’ support for democracy back home takes about 10 years, on average, to fully manifest. But the refugee community has the potential to influence civil society even at a distance.

The fate of Afghanistan’s refugees understandably has the world’s short-term attention. But their safe resettlement could influence Afghanistan’s short- and long-term conditions, too.

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David Leblang (@realDLeblang) is a Taylor Professor of Politics and Public Policy and Faculty Fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.

Margaret Peters (@MigrationNerd) is an associate professor of political science and the chair of the Global Studies major at UCLA.