Sending Money Home: The impact of remittances on workers, families and villages

For a country where jobs are scarce and, for many, livelihoods unreliable, sending men from the family abroad to work is an option tried by many families. Remittances, the money those workers send home, are hugely important for the national economy, individual families and communities. In this report, guest author Sabawoon Samim delves into the experiences of Afghan men working in the Gulf and how the money they send home is a lifeline for their families and communities. He also scrutinises the social and cultural impact of this migration – how greater earning power and exposure to life in the Gulf has affected their thinking and the power dynamics within families and inside local communities.

The most common destinations for Afghan migrants over recent decades have been Iran and Pakistan. This study focuses on those going to the Gulf countries: the differences between the destinations and the reasons for going are telling. Afghans first arrived in Iran and Pakistan en masse as refugees fleeing war rather than as workers seeking jobs, and they travelled together with their families and clans. Later, some did start travelling to Iran and Pakistan for work, but mostly illegally. These two neighbours are also themselves economically fragile and Afghan migrants have a tough time finding decent work.

Afghans travelling to the Gulf, on the other hand, have been almost solely motivated by the need to work and the vast majority are lone men who leave their families behind. The numbers are also far smaller – in the hundreds of thousands, rather than millions. The orientation of the migrants towards their home country persists; they not only visit as often as they can but also send far more money home than if they had wives and children living with them. Their migration is also mostly legal; Afghan workers need to have papers, including a work permit, to go to the Gulf, but then, once there, enjoy a legal status in the host countries. Compared to Iran and Pakistan, the difference in the money to be made in the oil-rich Gulf very much marks it out.

Those differences mean that the attractiveness of the Gulf as a destination is very particular, as is the effect of that migration on the local and household economies back home. This report offers a local-level view of both aspects of this migration. It also looks at its effect on family dynamics as young men gain earning power and a greater say in economic and cultural matters. It focuses on migration from rural communities in Afghanistan’s south and southeast, regions which have supplied many migrant workers to the Gulf. The report touches on some of the wider, national-level implications of this particular migration, for example, the importance of remittances to the national economy, but its primary focus is the local level and the individual experience.

The report draws on 11 in-depth interviews with migrants and was also enriched by the author’s multiple conversations with different people during previous travels and fieldwork. The interviewees came from the provinces of Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Ghazni and Kandahar. Residents from these provinces have supplied a large number of migrants to the Gulf. Interviewees included both the migrants themselves and their male relatives. (Unfortunately, the author was not able to speak to any women in the families).

The report begins by looking at the history of migration to the Gulf and then explores what Afghan migrants do there. It delves into the effects of remittance money on households as well as the social implications it has had on Afghan society. The report concludes by arguing that migration patterns, which serve as a key source of livelihood for many families, do carry risks, as the ability to travel and work abroad is prone to changes in the policies of host countries.

The history of migration to the Gulf

Like many others, Afghans have long sought to migrate to areas where employment and labour opportunities were better than at home. As an initial step, migration for work typically comes inside the country, chiefly from rural to urban areas, where prospects for paid labour are relatively better, but then also, potentially, on to foreign countries.

The history of migration to the Gulf in modern times dates back to the earlier part of King Zaher Shah’s reign (1933-73). At the time, Afghans used to migrate to British India and some would then go onto Gulf countries,[1] which one interviewee, quoting his grandfather who had migrated there in search of labour in the 1940s, referred to as “mere deserts.” However, he found labour opportunities scarce and like many others returned to India.

The trend to migrate to the Gulf for work only really gained traction during the presidency of Daud Khan in the 1970s when the Gulf states started to discover large-scale oil deposits and underwent rapid development. As these states needed cheap labour to work in their fast-developing economies, travel there for work became an option for Afghans, among many others. According to the accounts of at least three men who migrated to the Gulf in the 1970s, Daud Khan’s government was asked to supply Afghan labourers to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (the UAE) and, to a lesser extent, Kuwait. According to these three men, coupled with the account of a later migrant who knew about the event, Daud Khan rejected the UAE’s offer. The reason given by all of the interviewees was Daud Khan’s personal pride, as he considered supplying Afghans as labourers a national disgrace. He did issue passports, though, allowing Afghans to travel to the Gulf as tourists. When they arrived, however, according to the interviewees, most then found labouring jobs.

Later on, the Soviet invasion of 1979 and subsequent war spurred mass emigration from Afghanistan for the first time. The violence forced hundreds of thousands of Afghans to flee to Pakistan and Iran as refugees, where they faced troubles in camps and had a hard time earning a livelihood. Some among them tried to move beyond Pakistan and Iran to other countries, including to the Gulf, and were helped by Afghans who had travelled there earlier, during the reigns of Zaher and Daud, and had already established a footprint.

Even after the Soviets withdrew in 1989, and the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) government fell and the mujahedin gained power in 1992, Afghanistan was not at peace. Out-migration persisted and even increased as poverty and bitter civil war pushed new waves of people out of the country to seek work and safety abroad. The same was true during the Taleban’s first Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) from 1996 to 2001.

However, it was the post-2001 events in Afghanistan that most drastically transformed the nature of migration vis-à-vis the Gulf. With the fall of the first IEA and the formation of a new US-backed government in 2001, Afghanistan’s status as a pariah state ended and it was exposed to the outside world for the first time in many years; diplomatic relations with countries, including the Gulf states, evolved and Afghan migrants were welcomed to the labour market there.[2]

Why go to the Gulf?

The factors that had pushed Afghans to migrate before 2001 remained in and even increased. Several factors were at play, including spreading insecurity all over the rural areas of southern and southeastern Afghanistan as the insurgency gradually but inexorably took root. In some places, the insecurity hampered trade and economic growth. The Taleban, particularly during the initial years of their insurgency, blocked development projects, banned locals from working for the government or NGOs and threatened and even killed individuals associated with the government. That, and the reluctance of some NGOs to work in insecure areas, worsened economic prospects. Many in the rural areas, including our interviewees, felt they could not find a place in the new setup as they lacked the right skills and/or could not read and write well or at all. Agriculture could not support the growing population, and the labour market was struggling to afford jobs for everyone.

Families might also want their sons out of the country so they would remain safe and not fall victim to recruitment campaigns by the government, or the Taleban or local militias. The author came across several cases of this push factor. In Paktika’s Mushkhil area, a family requested their fellow villager, who had migrated to the UAE, to provide a visa for their young son; he had joined the insurgency and they wanted to coax him out of the movement. In another instance in Ghazni province, when the older brother of a migrant to the UEA called Mirza found out about his younger brother’s increasing interactions with the Taleban, he immediately provided him with a visa to cut him off from the insurgents.

In these circumstances, migration looked like a good option. The post-2001 government facilitated issuing passports, foreign work permits, travel and other related matters. However, the question of who could get to an attractive destination like the UAE or Saudi Arabia depended on an individual having connections with Afghans already there. Businessmen with a footprint in the Gulf who needed cheap labour would seek out young men from their own communities, providing them with visas and work opportunities, covering all their expenses and then recouping the outlay from their salary once they started working, as one interviewee described.

When I went to Dubai [around 2015], I was 18 years old. One of my fellow villagers had a shop there and needed a worker and my father asked him to get visa for me. He agreed and I started working for him, initially for 1,000 dirhams [367 USD], a month.[3] My salary was 1,300 but he took a cut of 300 dirhams [roughly 95 USD] to make good the cost of my visa. 

I worked for him for three years and then got a share in a [new] shop, established by a friend who also worked for the same fellow villager. Our shop steadily grew. Now, I have two shops and have hired more than ten workers, all from my village, and relatives. Initially, I came here with empty hands, having no more than 500 afghanis [roughly seven USD] in my pocket, but now, after seven years of musafari [migration], I have built a new house, bought a car and have a good life. 

Within the Gulf, the destinations for most Afghans have been the UAE and Saudi Arabia – the latter has turned into a major hub for Afghan migrants despite not providing visas. According to the World Bank, 360,000 Afghans were living there in 2015 (see footnote 1). Many Afghans, after arriving in Pakistan as refugees in the 1980s, had procured Pakistani ID cards and passports and some at least have used these to get to Saudi Arabia This was the case with one of our interviewees, while three others got there by bribing Pakistani officials and/or using personal connections to get a passport, which they used to get visas to Saudi Arabia, something easily available to Pakistani nationals. Once they arrived in Saudi Arabia, our four interviewees, like many others, changed the passports they were using to their Afghan ones. Interviewees described Saudi moves to allow Afghans to change their Pakistani passport to Afghan ones as a special “treatment” and exceptional “favours”.

When it comes to the UAE, it provided visas to Afghans until 2020 and Afghans travelled there in large numbers. Other Gulf states, such as Kuwait and Qatar, also host a small number of Afghans who live there and do business. Migration to these two, and other, Gulf countries has been sporadic throughout the last two decades as they have also denied visas to Afghans. More recently, Afghans began to migrate to Oman, which started issuing visas in the last couple of years. In Oman, many have established businesses, whilst others use it as a gateway to other countries (mainly the UAE).

Nearly all the migrants whom the author interviewed or otherwise came across have been less-educated men,[4] and according to our interviewees, Afghans working in the Gulf predominantly come from rural southeastern and southern Afghanistan.[5] The reasons they gave for this was that residents of these areas had had a footprint there since Daud’s tenure; one interviewee said that when Daud Khan was asked to supply labourers to the Gulf, he mostly sent men (as ‘tourists’) from southeastern provinces. Ever since, men from those areas, already working in the Gulf, have brought over their relatives or fellow villages, keeping and expanding their presence.

In general, employment opportunities are scarcer in rural areas than in urban centres, so there is a greater incentive for men in rural areas to leave home in search of a job, whether to Pakistan, Iran or, if they have a chance, the Gulf. Many first migrate to urban centres inside Afghanistan. However, with the urban market for unskilled labour often saturated, those who lack enough education and working skills often find it difficult to get a job. This was the case with at least one of our interviewees, who hails from Paktia and now works in the UAE. He first tried to establish a business or find a well-paid job in Kabul, but his business never flourished, and he failed to find a job with good wages – hence, he migrated to the Gulf.

Once they arrive in the Gulf, Afghans initially start as labourers, but many establish their own businesses after mastering a certain profession. In the Gulf, where the prospects of successful businesses are much more realistic, Afghans have proven resilient by building different businesses and providing labour opportunities not only for Afghans but also for Pakistanis and Bengalis.

What jobs do Afghans do in the Gulf?

Unlike migrants from countries such as India, Afghan migrants do not hold administrative roles in either governments or the private sector. A number have small businesses and others are employed by their fellow Afghans, or Arabs, or others.

As for Afghan businesses in the Gulf, they vary. Afghans from certain regions, or provinces, dominate particular sectors. One interviewee from Khost, who has spent 15 years in the UAE, described these patterns:

When you go there [to the UAE], you’ll see that every Afghan working in construction is from Khost. When you go to [an Afghan] bakery, you will surely find out the owner is from Ghazni or Paktia. It’s the pattern that was established years ago and is followed till today.

Migrants from other parts of the country such as the north, for example, are famous for dominating auto part retail. Interviewees from Paktika said their people focus on furniture and carpet shops, a sector in which Ghazni natives have also flourished. An interviewee from Paktika, in his 40s, also remarked on this pattern:

For years, when Afghans from certain provinces came and worked in certain sectors, they’d also then bring their fellow villagers and relatives to the same business. And as the chances of businesses flourishing are high, and people of all sectors make good profits, they’ve continued and grown the speciality that was handed down to them. For example, I’m from Paktika and have a mafrushat [furniture shop]. When I need a worker, I bring one from among my relatives. He works for me, gets familiar with my business and after a few years, he builds one for himself also. This pattern repeats and repeats and that’s why every province has a certain occupation. 

The majority of Afghans do not own businesses, but work for others. Interviewees said that those employed by Afghan businesses are paid set wages and their employer gets them a visa. Those working for Arabs, typically as drivers, gardeners or guards, get visas through other channels.

Estimates suggest that, by the end of 2021, nearly six million Afghans were living abroad. Among these, only 2.7 million were registered as refugees (see this UNHCR report). The number of Afghans living as economic migrants was estimated by the World Bank in 2015 to be 2.25 million. However, the real figures are undoubtedly much higher, particularly when it comes to migrants in the Gulf, given that Afghans working there often arrive on Pakistani passports. As to how many Afghans are working in the Gulf, the numbers are not robust, but most put the population there in the hundreds of thousands.[6]

Sending money home

Migrating for work is clearly important for individuals, families and the nation, given the money migrants send home, but how much they send is impossible to say. Robert Holzmann warned in 2018 that “No reliable data exist on remittances in Afghanistan” and that is still the case. Long years of conflict, he said, have weakened and limited the development of the formal financial sector and so:

[A] significant share of remittances in Afghanistan are transferred through a well-developed network of informal brokers, called “hawala” dealers, that are not monitored and included in official statistics. Furthermore, responses in household surveys with regard to money are typically biased downward as mistrust leads people to underreport their money transactions. As a result, official data … understate the real magnitude of remittances to and from the country. 

Obscuring the statistics further is the fact that Afghans returning, at least, from the Gulf usually carry large sums of cash. Those who have major businesses frequently travel back to Afghanistan, transferring their profits as cash in their luggage. While it is legally outlawed in many countries to take large sums of money out, Afghan migrants have still managed to bypass monitoring systems at airports. One interviewee claimed that he once brought over 100,000 US dollars into Afghanistan after he “placed it inside [the baby’s] nappies,” making it undetectable to the electronic checking system at airports.

Nevertheless, attempts to estimate or extrapolate give a sense of the scale of the money involved. The World Bank estimated total remittances in 2022 to be 1 to 1.2 billion USD and that this was a doubling of the money sent home in 2019. As a means of comparison, in 2022, UN shipments of dollars used to pay for humanitarian aid were 1.8 billion USD (according to the same World Bank report). ACAPS reported that in 2020, 10 per cent of Afghan households received remittances and that this comprised, on average, almost 59 per cent of the household budget for those who received them. Quoting 2016-17 research by the Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey, it said that poverty rates among ‘receiving’ families were substantially lower than the norm, something the next section of this report will illustrate. First, though, the author wanted to give a sense of how much Afghans can earn in the Gulf. Their descriptions give an idea of the remittances they send home and the money they invest back in their villages.

Several Afghan business owners in the UAE said the general wage they pay for newcomers starts at around 1,000 dirhams (367 USD). One interviewee who owns a furniture business in Saudi Arabia said the initial wages for new labourers start at 1,800 riyals [480 USD] a month. Take-home pay increases after the individual has paid back his visa costs and acquired skills in his profession. One interviewee claimed he had received or at least knew of workers who get wages of up to 4,000 dirhams (1,090 USD) per month in the UAE and 5,000 riyals (1,330 USD) in Saudi Arabia.

The smallest amount Afghan workers make is twice what they can earn from the same job inside Afghanistan. One interviewee gave this example: “If you work as a waiter in a restaurant, you make 7-10,000 afghanis (roughly 100 to 120 USD) per month, but if you work as a waiter in Dubai, the least you make is more than 25,000 and the most 35,000 afghanis.” He said that a taxi driver in the UAE “can make over 40,000 afghanis [roughly 600 USD] in a month” whereas taxi drivers in Afghan cities “struggle to make even 15,000 (roughly 200 USD),” a month.

After spending some years and becoming experts in their field of employment, the salary migrants receive increases, sometimes by as much as two-fold. One interviewee said he initially started on a salary of 1,200 dirhams (380 USD) as an assistant cook, and after three years, his salary had increased to 2,500 dirhams (700 USD). One cost they do face is accommodation and food.

The second category of Afghan migrants is the businessmen. From owning construction and transport firms to restaurants, bakeries, auto part dealerships, car showrooms, and hawalas, Afghans have invested in different fields. Some, as our interviewees said, have even established joint businesses with locals. One stated that he worked with an Arab to obtain visas from the Gulf states, which they then sold on to both Afghans and non-Afghans at a much higher price. Another interviewee described his situation:

Our people have great businesses in Dubai and Saudi. We own two shops of mafrushat (furniture) and carpets. We can make 20,000 riyals [5,300 USD] to 40000 riyals [10,600 USD] in a month. Our [business] has now declined due to huge taxes and other problems. I remember, in the past, in the three months of saifia [the summer holidays], we made 50,000 [US] dollars. 

An interviewee from Kandahar, who has businesses in the UAE with his brother and cousins, also described the profits his family and friends make:

My cousin is in the UAE and has two shops selling auto parts. In three years, he bought a house worth 200,000 [USD] in Kabul. Another of our villagers has an abaya business. When he first went to Dubai, he didn’t even have a rickshaw. But now, he has two [Toyota] Fielders, has built a new qala [villa] and got his three brothers married. 

The impact of remittances money for households

For those households that have someone working abroad, remittances may be the main source of income. In rural areas, while agriculture and livestock cover basic needs, remittances can then be used to cover other substantial needs, as one interviewee explained:

Many things we eat, including flour, come from our lands and livestock. But there are too many other necessary things that can only be bought by money. When you take even one step, you should pay money. Agriculture and livestock can only cover the substantial needs, and nothing remains for the other needs. People in cities have jobs and salaries. But for people of the countryside, it’s foreign [remittances] money that covers the additional costs of life. If there were no remittances, people would be as poor as they were 20 years ago. 

Another interviewee, aged 34, from Paktia, also explained how remittances are used:

If you don’t have money, you have nothing these days. And money can’t be earned in farming because the market [for selling the harvest] isn’t good, the drought is heavy, and land is scarce. So basically, you can’t do anything – because everything requires money. For example, unlike in the past, you need to eat different things – it’s become a tradition – not just beans and potatoes. And for that, you need to buy stuff, which needs money. You have to follow dozens of new traditions established in the villages, so you’re not out of the race, and that all needs money. I told you this to give you the picture that everything requires money and there is no money inside Afghanistan. Except flour, beans and potato and milk and yogurt, everything else comes from the bazaar and requires money. And people still afford all these needs and live an improved life, not because they’ve earned money here [in Afghanistan] but because all this [money] comes from Arab countries. 

One of two brothers who work in Sharjah in the UAE said they send home 1,300 dirhams (390 USD) each month, able to save so much because their employer pays for most of their food and accommodation costs. All the unskilled workers do the same, he said: “We spend very little money there and send most of it here [to Afghanistan].” A third interviewee living in Ghazni province has two sons in Dubai, each earning 1,800 dirhams a month.

They send their wages every month. I use a portion of that to purchase necessary goods from the bazaar. The remaining money is spent in several ways such as getting the two [boys] married, digging a well, buying solar panels and a motorcycle. I save some of the money for medical treatment and other emergency costs. 

Most Afghan migrants in the Gulf live as individuals with their families staying in Afghanistan, coming back and forth between their host country and home. This means that the vast majority of what they earn is sent to Afghanistan. Even the small number that have their families with them, also send money back to Afghanistan, as one interviewee explained:

My family lives with me in Saudi Arabia. But my brothers and uncles live here [in Afghanistan]. I send them money on a monthly basis. In addition, except for family expenses, I invest all my money in Afghanistan because we have a saying in Pashto that ‘Someone else’s bed is only yours till midnight’ [ie if something does not belong to you, don’t expect to be able to use it forever].[7] Foreign countries never become home, so it’s always safe to invest in your own country and when you are forced to go back, you’ll also have something there. 

To a great extent, our interviewees said, remittances had helped their communities remain independent of government and fluctuating political developments within the country. Money sent home has meant not having to look to the state for a job or rely on it for services, thereby maintaining these communities’ autonomy. Especially in the southeast, where many of our interviewees are from, such autonomy was much prized historically and is still valued today. Also, when Afghanistan’s economy encounters occasional contractions, such as following the Taleban takeover of 2021, which resulted in an overnight cut in foreign aid, and sanctions suddenly applied to the whole country rather than an armed opposition group, those with access to remittances were better able to ride the disaster. One interviewee, owner of two markets in Kabul, who also has an active business in the UAE explained the dynamics:

I remember there were a lot of rumours in 2014 that the Americans [military forces] were withdrawing and ending their aid to Afghanistan. They didn’t [fully] withdraw, but the money did shrink and many people working for them lost their jobs. I had a friend who was responsible for logistics in a few of the bases and when the Americans withdrew, he and his entire workforce lost their jobs. My friend then asked me to get him a visa for Dubai. For us, it didn’t matter whether aid was shrinking or the Americans were withdrawing. Our businesses don’t have a connection with such things and continue in the same way to this day.

Another interviewee from Paktia said something similar:

When the Taleban came [to power], a lot of people lost their jobs. Just in our village alone, more than ten youths who’d worked in the Republic became jobless. Even those who didn’t lose their jobs had their salaries decreased significantly. I know a lot of people who saw their businesses collapse. But praise be to Allah, those who are abroad haven’t faced such challenges and continue their businesses as normal. 

When the afghani lost its value against foreign currencies in late 2021 and prices shot up as a result, interviewees said those households with access to remittances were the least affected. One interviewee, a migrant in the UAE, said when the price of five litres of oil jumped from 500 to 800 afghanis (roughly 80 to 110 USD), he still had no problem with that, given that he exchanged dirhams for afghanis at a higher rate: one dirham for 20 afghanis (roughly three USD) before and for 28 (roughly five USD) after the increase in prices. Furthermore, informal channels for transferring money have kept working. In 2021, when sanctions struck banks and money transfer companies, hawalas still functioned normally. Afghans abroad could still send their money home with little or no trouble.

Apart from allowing households to stay standing in the face of political and economic disaster, remittance money also protects households from natural disasters, such as drought or floods or sudden costs, such as for medical treatment. It would be fair to say that it is remittances that keep agriculture alive in many parts of southern and southeastern Afghanistan. As the level of groundwater declines, farmers find it difficult to irrigate their fields as wells dry up. In most of southeastern Afghanistan, farmers rely on irrigation water and as drought persists, it becomes difficult to continue farming. However, families who have someone abroad use remittance money to dig deeper wells, buy fuel for water pumps or install solar panels. This happened to one of our interviewees:

Last year, the level of water declined to 35 metres. It’s gone down by seven metres. The well we’d dug dried up. To irrigate the fields, I had to dig a new one. I called my brothers who were in Dubai to send money. They sent 15,000 afghanis [roughly 200 USD] and I spent it all on [digging a new] well, and buying pipes and other tools. 

Of course, eventually, given the climate crisis, the aquifers will drop further if they are not replenished by rain. It could be argued that those with resources are enabled to take an unfair share of what water there is, with their poorer neighbours falling even further behind.

Similarly, in times of natural disasters such as floods, it is again remittance money that assists households. When Andar district in Ghazni province was hit hard by floods in 2022, for example, many farmers lost their harvest. One interviewee from the district, who was cultivating wheat and beans on a little over 20 jeribs [one hectare] of land, lost almost everything to the flood: “I didn’t have flour to eat for the year ahead,” he said. However, two of his brothers were in the UAE and sent money to buy flour.

Remittances also have significantly larger geographic effects: a community elder from Khost described its role in keeping the province’s economy afloat as “oxygen.” He said that several of Khost’s districts rely solely on remittances as their main source of income and that without “Arab money,” they would be in the same dire economic situation that Afghanistan was in decades ago, or would have collapsed because of successive economic shocks.

The cultural impact of remittances

Migration has not only had an economic impact on Afghans but has also had a sociopolitical effect. Interviewees felt that Afghan society, particularly in rural areas, had been isolated – protected or cut off – from urban trends and global developments. Their communities, they said, had persisted with the same norms and traditions they had had for decades, possibly centuries. They felt that migration to the Gulf, especially during the last two decades, had spurred change in their areas.[8] Returning or visiting migrants have become familiar with a life far different from what is conventional in their own communities. They have seen a richer economy and living standards, and different ways of living which are still very much Muslim. They may challenge the established norms and old traditions at the family and community level, want education for their children, including their daughters and sisters, want to ‘improve life’ in their villages and have the money to spend, whether on schooling for younger siblings or installing internet connections in their villages.

Historically, it was the head of the family, the father or grandfather, who was in charge of decision-making both within the family and together with other elders in the village. But with migration, this dominance can be dented, as one interviewee, who has two brothers as migrants, explained:

In the past, it was the head of the family that had control over everything because they had the money in their control. But nowadays, it’s the young men that make money and thus control the family. When an elder tells them: Don’t do a particular work, they do it! If he [the elder of the family] resists, the [son] then doesn’t send money. And the elders become toothless. 

Another interviewee described what happened when his Dubai-based friend came home and wanted to buy a car.

His father didn’t allow him, telling him there were other important things to buy first. But as he had no control over the money his son earned, his son bought a car. For a few days, his father didn’t talk to my friend. Then, one day, he needed some money and asked for it from his son. My friend gave him enough money and then their problem was solved. 

In another instance, an interviewee described how the young men in his village decided to repair the old village mosque. However, the older people resisted the idea, saying the old mosque was fine. As the young men had their money collected both in the village and from their fellow villagers in the Gulf, they started repairing the mosque regardless of what the elders were saying.

In another example, a group of younger men in Khost’s Tanai district decided to have dinner in every house in the village during Eid. They had excluded the village elders from their plan. In response, the elders threatened to cancel the programme. However, the young men argued that, in the words of one interviewee, “It’s us who earn and it’s us who decide how we spend the money.” Another man in his 40s described the effects of migration on social norms:

In the past, when someone was getting married, he wouldn’t know his spouse unless they were wed. No one consulted them about their choice, nor did they themselves dare to talk about their future wife. But nowadays, they call their parents from Dubai and tell them to go and ask for a [particular] girl’s hand for them. Many parents are obliged to ask their sons whether he wants to marry a particular person or not.

This does not necessarily mean that elders in the home or village have entirely lost control over these young men, but it is true that their power has significantly waned when it comes to many decisions.

Exposure to other societies has also led migrants, in the words of one interviewee, “to comprehend the value of education.” Many Afghan migrants in the Gulf, interviewees said, are poorly educated or illiterate and struggle to cope with everything that needs reading and writing. One, for example, said he had difficulty activating a bank account, reading bills or finding his way when doing business. He claimed he lost a lot of money because he could not read or understand the rules. He regretted his lack of an education, saying he could have earned much more money as a literate man. One head of a family who had migrated to Saudi Arabia described education as akin to eyes and ears in this modern age.

If you don’t have it, you’re deaf and blind. I myself work outside my country just because I don’t have an education and can’t find a good job in Afghanistan. Even in Saudi, I can’t do anything other than labouring and business because I have no education. There are Pakistanis with us there that have good education and they’re hired by companies, have much higher salaries and easy work. But our labourers need to work mightily, day and night. Personally, I didn’t know how important it was before coming here and now I sometimes feel huge grief for why we’re unable to have an education and a comfortable life in our own country. 

Another man, also the head of a family, who has his younger brothers in the UAE, similarly described how migration had influenced their thinking towards education:

My younger brothers didn’t go to school here. They didn’t like it. So, I sent them to Dubai to work. After spending some years there, they repeatedly regret that they didn’t go to school. One of them said that: “Our time has passed, but let’s not allow the children to remain illiterate.” At their insistence, we rented a house in Gardez for the children and sent the boys there to study. Now, one of them has finished university and got a job with an NGO. 

Migration has not merely influenced attitudes towards boys’ education. Several migrants also expressed a desire to get the girls in their families educated. Though the dominant thinking in these parts of rural Afghanistan has not changed much and still impedes greater progress in girls’ education, there are growing incidents that indicate attitudes towards education, including for girls, are now quickly changing. The contribution of migration to this, and the exposure to other ways of living in other Muslim countries, cannot be underestimated.

More recently, one interviewee, who has eight brothers and one nephew in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, described how they gathered their whole village together and spoke to them about establishing a ‘community-based class’, run by an NGO, in their village. “In the beginning,” he said, “they didn’t like it. But after some time, they became content with the idea. We all went to the educational department in the province and requested them to ask an NGO to establish a class in our village.” The interviewee succeeded after several attempts to secure the establishment of the class. Now, he said, girls from all over his village study up to the sixth grade. Another interviewee, who has migrated to the UAE, said he encouraged girls in his family to take part in a radio-run education programme.

A friend of mine told me that a [local] radio station had several [educational] programmes for girls. They have [specific] books and one should go to places they have [authorised] to register. The [girls] even take exams. So I told all my [female] family [members] to take part. I bought them books and notebooks. And it’s now almost a year they are following the programme. They can now read and write. 


For Afghans, getting to the Gulf is proving increasingly difficult. Currently, no state, except Oman, gives out visas. Those Afghans who already have visas and work permits also report problems. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has placed multiple strict regulations on non-Arab businessmen. Our interviewees also said they have increased taxes and the price of residence permits. Acquiring a Pakistani passport and migrating to Saudi Arabia has also become difficult, if not impossible. In October 2023, the Saudi Arabian authorities reportedly retrieved more than 12,000 Pakistani passports from Afghan nationals and informed Pakistani authorities about the scam (see this Express Tribune report). Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior constituted a committee to investigate this issue. This could potentially affect the status of Afghan migrants in Saudi Arabia.

The UAE, for its part, stopped giving visas to Afghans and the nationals of 13 other Muslim majority countries four years ago, reportedly for ‘security concerns’ (see media reporting here and here). Our interviewees also concurred that a key reason for Afghan nationals being included in the list is, in fact, security concerns because some Afghan nationals were said to have contacts with the Taleban, including fundraising for them, and were sharing jihadi and ‘extremist’ content on social media. They described hundreds of Afghan migrants being deported or blocked from entering the UAE. The ban has also negatively affected traders who could not renew their expired visas and are stuck in Afghanistan. (See media reporting on a protest Afghan traders staged against the ban and its effect on businesses here). That denial of visas to Afghans has endured even after the re-establishment of the IEA in 2021; the UAE has an ambassador in Kabul and the Islamic Emirate has a consular presence in Dubai (see media reporting here and here). Currently, with the exception of Oman, the migration of new Afghans to the Gulf has stopped entirely. Only those who already have visas can travel back and forth between their host countries and Afghanistan.[9]

The fear also remains that, as one of our interviewees warned, Afghans cannot rely on foreign hosts being friendly forever. The most glaring example of foreign countries only providing ‘beds till midnight’ is the mass forced ‘return’ of Afghans living in Pakistan, up to half a million, according to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR (as of early January 2024).

The need to migrate for work is stronger than ever, given the dire state of Afghanistan’s economy and the need for ‘oxygen’ – the remittances that are a lifeline for households, communities and, indeed, the national economy. As legal means of travel shrivel up, Afghans have turned to illegal migration. It is next to impossible, or at least very expensive, to go to the Gulf. However, many are still trying to take the difficult option of getting to Iran and Pakistan, despite the threat of forced return, and the West. The long and perilous journey to Europe is not undertaken lightly, given the threat of arrest and even torture and other violence (one example of media reporting, out of many, by the BBC here) and of push-backs along the way (see recent reporting from AAN here). Even so, many feel they still have to try to go elsewhere: “When you stay here [in Afghanistan],” one interviewee said, “you can’t find a job, so if you want to stay alive, the only option is to go abroad.”

Edited by Kate Clark


1 To read about the wider migration trend from British India to work in the early oil industry in the Gulf, see Gennaro Errichiello’s ‘Foreign Workforce in the Arab Gulf States (1930—1950): Migration Patterns and Nationality Clause’, published in The International Migration Review, Vol 46, No 2 (Summer 2012).
2 Saudi Arabia and the UAE had been, along with Pakistan, the only countries to recognise the first Islamic Emirate, before cutting relations following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001.
3 The exchange rate of currencies to USD used throughout this report is from early January 2024.
4  The national literacy rate in Afghanistan was 31 per cent in 2011 and 37 per cent in 2021 (see this World Bank data chart), but much lower in rural areas as they are affected by conflict, poverty and lack of resources and access. Per a study in 1997 (see here), the literacy rate in rural areas was only 8.8 per cent compared to 25.9 per cent in urban settings.
5  The author has not been able to find written sources for this, although regional bases for migration are referred to in some of the literature, for example, the ACAPS report: “In some rural districts of Afghanistan, labour migration to Gulf Arab countries has traditionally been very high even before 2021.”
6 ACAPS, in a 2023 report, ‘Afghanistan – Remittances: the scale and role of private financial transfers’ quoted UN figures from 2020: “An estimated 617,110 Afghans lived and worked in countries such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, including labour migrants and permanent but foreign-born residents.” Robert Holzmann’s 2018 report for the World Bank, ‘Managed Labor Migration in Afghanistan: Exploring Employment and Growth Opportunities for Afghanistan’, quoted numbers from 2015: 

The number of Afghan migrants abroad was estimated at around 4.8 million in 2015. By country of destination, indicative data from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA 2015) suggest that neighboring Iran (2.35 million) and Pakistan (1.6 million) host more than 80 percent of the total Afghan population abroad, while the rest currently reside in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries (460,000) and Saudi Arabia (360,000). Finally, some 50,000 Afghans live in other countries, mainly in India and Central Asian countries.

It can be concluded that even though ACAPS and Holzmann were quoting migrant numbers overall, certainly those for the Gulf would be predominantly migrant labour and male. In a 2013 study, ‘Labour migration for decent work in Afghanistan: Issues and challenges’, written for the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Piyasiri Wickramasekara and Nilim Baruah focussing on migrant labour specifically found that two-thirds of Afghan labour migration was to or returning from Iran, while 12 per cent was to or from the Arabian Peninsula.

7 The interviewee suggested with this Pashto proverb that foreign countries do not belong to Afghans and therefore can afford only a temporary home.
8  Returning refugees from Iran and Pakistan have also brought back different attitudes, for example, often a greater desire for school education for their children. Such an influence has included members of the Taleban who have lived in Pakistan’s cities or the Gulf, as the author explored in an earlier report.
9 There is almost no way to travel to the Gulf illegally for work, except, as was the case in the past, by pretending to be Pakistani. In the last couple of years, some Afghans have gone to Saudi Arabia for umra, performing the pilgrimage, and then tried to stay on illegally. They were, anyhow, few in number and those who travel to Saudi for umra are required to leave a monetary guarantee to ensure they will return to Afghanistan.

Sending Money Home: The impact of remittances on workers, families and villages