as a partner for regulating global migration flows

01 — The key questions for the Partner-Atlas

RELEVANCE: What relevance does Afghanistan have for Germany with regards to "regulating global migration flows"?

For decades, Afghanistan was the country with the largest diaspora in the world. In 2015, it was replaced by Syria. Afghanistan looks back on 40 years of flight, emigration and forced displacement due to civil war, violence and destroyed livelihoods. Since 2001, the country has been one of Germany’s most important security partners in the Middle East. Afghanistan has also been a reliable partner in migration policy and has never used migration flows as political leverage. In view of the withdrawal of NATO forces by September 2021 and a currently uncertain peace process, the country is facing a vulnerable turning point. It remains to be seen what position a future, possibly Taliban-led government will take on alliances and in foreign policy.

After Syrians, Afghans are the second largest group of refugees worldwide. The majority of the Afghan diaspora (91 percent) is located in Iran and Pakistan. Destination countries for Afghans are Iran (63 percent), Pakistan (22 percent), Turkey and Europe (12 percent). Afghanistan also has more than 2 million internally displaced persons. In the past six years, around a third of the Afghan population have had the status of a refugee, an internally displaced person or an emigrant.

During the major refugee flows in 2015, around 154,000 Afghans came to Germany; by 2016, the number had fallen to 50,000. The number of asylum applications filed by Afghans in Germany dropped to less than 10,000 as of 2018. Since 2016, more than two million Afghans have returned from Iran and Pakistan. The reason is a tougher stance by the Iranian and Pakistani authorities as well as the deteriorating economic situation in neighbouring countries.

The main causes of flight and migration from Afghanistan are poverty and lack of economic prospects, ongoing fighting and violence, recurring droughts and floods. More than 70 percent of people live below the poverty line. According to the Global Peace Index, Afghanistan is the least peaceful country in the world. Fighting and attacks have claimed the lives of 45,000 people in the past five years. Despite the 2020 peace agreement between the US and the Taliban, neither an end to the violence nor an economic recovery is in sight.

The Covid pandemic is an aggravating factor. It has hit Afghanistan hard in humanitarian and economic terms, due to poor sanitation and inadequate government medical care and prevention capacities.

Until today, the Afghan economy is poorly integrated globally and regionally and depends for its survival on international aid.

Afghanistan will therefore remain a country of origin for refugees and migrants for the foreseeable future. Decades of experience with refugees, emigration and the loss of skilled workers, but also the return of emigrants and a knowledge transfer to Afghanistan, have turned the country into a test case for the long-term impact of migration flows and how they can be regulated.

Possible civil war-like fighting following the NATO troop withdrawal or the establishment of a repressive Taliban regime would trigger another round of refugee and emigration flows.

WILLINGNESS: To what extent is Afghanistan willing to work with Germany in realising this interest?

The Afghan government has always supported German efforts to regulate migration. Germany’s deportation of Afghan citizens was the litmus test for Afghan-German cooperation.

In 2016, Germany began carrying out deportations to Afghanistan for the first time. Particularly in the first few years, the repatriations received considerable critical attention from the Afghan and international media and put the Afghan government under public pressure.

Until 2016, deportations from Germany had been unthinkable for the Afghan government, which had always relied on receiving special treatment due to historically close Afghan-German relations. Nevertheless, Afghanistan supports the German policy.

German and Afghan authorities, such as the German embassy in Kabul and the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, closely coordinate each repatriation. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) provides initial support after arrival and helps with integrating the returnees into the labour market.

STATUS QUO: How close is Germany and Afghanistan's current cooperation in this area?

Germany is the second largest donor country in bilateral development cooperation. German development aid for Afghanistan amounts to approximately 400 million euros per year. At the Geneva donor conference in late 2020, this aid was basically guaranteed until 2024. German institutions, such as the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ), are currently involved in the water supply, energy, education, health, economic and employment sectors, in order to provide prospects for the young Afghan population that would enable them to stay in their country.

POTENTIAL: What is the potential for strengthening the partnership between Germany and Afghanistan in this area?

Despite the deportation policy that started in 2016, Germany continues to enjoy a high level of trust and goodwill with the Afghan government and population – and this benefit of the doubt is Germany’s greatest asset.

Dual nationals trained in Germany could act as a bridge for bilateral cooperation. Already in the 1960s, Afghans came to Germany to study at universities. In the future, they could act as mediators and partners, in the political process, for economic cooperation and investment in Afghanistan; this potential has not nearly been exhausted.

After the twenty-year NATO mission, the Afghanistan of 2021 is facing a dramatic turning point. The country will have to look for new allies after NATO’s troop withdrawal. Neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, Iran, China, India, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan or Russia have a vital interest in filling the vacuum after the withdrawal of the Western allies, shaping the regional order, containing flight and illegal migration and fighting transnational drug trafficking and terrorism. For a hundred years, Germany has had a special relationship with Afghanistan; it is valued as an ally and as an economic and development partner by pro-Western forces and by forces that are more critical of Western policies. The current period of upheaval poses a major challenge for German-Afghan relations. In the new era, Germany and Afghanistan will have to reimagine their bilateral relations.

POLICY RECOMMENDATION: What in German foreign policy has to change in order to fully exploit this potential?

The cooperation with Afghanistan in economic and development policy must be prepared for a deteriorating security situation and an unstable or even repressive Taliban-led government Many well-educated Afghans inside or outside the country want to invest in their country, but they need long-term prospects for jobs, a better political future and a stable security situation. Apart from humanitarian aid, which will still be needed, there could be more support for private-sector initiatives and investment, educational exchange and for strengthening the regional dialogue with neighbouring countries, instead of providing direct government aid for rebuilding the country.

After the NATO troop withdrawal, it should be expected that more Afghans will want to leave the country. Therefore, a broad-based awareness-raising campaign is urgently needed, honestly informing those Afghans who seek asylum or wish to emigrate about the risks and opportunities involved. This should include hundreds of Afghan local staff who worked for the Federal Armed Forces and other German institutions. Running such an education campaign is primarily an Afghan responsibility and should involve government agencies, the media and associations. It should address people at the local level. People seeking asylum need to have an honest and realistic impression of the personal, social, cultural and job challenges of starting a new life in Germany. In the current situation, individual and alternative solutions are needed, as well as options going beyond claiming asylum in Germany.

Also, more flexible programmes such as fellowships and research stays (e.g. for journalists, scientists, members of parliament, activists, artists) should be offered to well-educated Afghans, in order to get them out of a threatening situation on short notice.

In order to give people in Afghanistan reasons for staying in their own country and in order to regulate refugee and migration flows from Afghanistan in the future, neighbouring countries also have to offer cooperation and support. Afghanistan’s integration into regional trade and regional exchange of knowledge and education will be crucial for the country’s development after the western NATO countries have left. Regional scholarship and research programs and streamlined visa procedures in the neighbouring countries designed for Afghan students, business people, media workers or civil society representatives would keep expertise in the region.

Ellinor Zeino heads the KAS Regional Program Southwest Asia, Kabul, Afghanistan.

Last update: July 22nd, 2021


  • Population: 38,928,346
  • Capital: Kabul
  • Interest: Regulating Global Migration Flows
  • Region: Asia and the Pacific
  • Potential partner countries: Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, Pakistan

04 — The region

Asia and the Pacific



For Germany, Japan is one of the most important economic and value partners in Asia. In addition to the wish for jointly maintaining and further developing the multilateral order, there is also the desire for closer cooperation in future technologies. Japan and Germany face similar challenges, particularly in regard to the future of industrial production and the demographic development of their societies.

  • Population: 126,476,461
  • Capital: Tokyo


Germany has a vital interest in maintaining and consolidating a world order based on the values of liberal democracy and on the centrality of the United Nations (UN). Given the USA’s global withdrawal, which the coronavirus pandemic has made even more evident, Germany needs to pursue this goal together with other international partners. With the Indo-Pacific Guidelines that were released in September 2020, the Federal Government expressly commits itself to this task in the region that is taking centre stage in the 21st century. India’s importance can hardly be overestimated in this respect: India is already the largest democracy in the world, and within the 2020s, it will replace China as the most populous country. Like Germany, the subcontinent at the Indo-Pacific interface is dependent on a solid security structure, an open trading system, and free navigation in international waters. India is especially severely affected by the consequences of global warming due to its vulnerable ecosystems and is reliant on multilateral approaches to solve this global problem.

  • Population: 1,380,004,385
  • Capital: New Delhi


For decades, Afghanistan was the country with the largest diaspora in the world. In 2015, this position was taken by Syria. Afghanistan looks back on 40 years of fleeing refugees, emigration and expulsion due to civil war, violence and destroyed livelihoods. Since 2001, the country has been one of Germany’s most important security partners in the Middle East. Afghanistan is also a reliable partner in migration policy and has never used migration flows as political leverage.

  • Population: 38,928,346
  • Capital: Kabul


The Expo 2017 world exhibition, a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (2018), the peace talks on Syria: no country in Central Asia is as oriented towards Europe and Germany as Kazakhstan. Nevertheless, much of what has happened recently in Kazakhstan and Central Asia has remained below Germany’s threshold of perception.

  • Population: appr. 19 million
  • Capital: Nur-Sultan


Vietnam is one of the few communist countries. A “socialist-oriented market economy” determines the country’s economic status, the communist party vigorously enforces its claim to total power, and the country is subject to fierce criticism in reports on human rights. At the same time, more than three decades of economic growth and political stability have led to Vietnam establishing itself as an influential player in Southeast Asia. An early and vigorous response to the coronavirus crisis has so far managed to limit the dangers to health and the economy.

  • Population: 95,529,003
  • Capital: Hanoi