Afghanistan is one of the top countries of origin of migrants to the extent that dynamics around Afghan migration have gained significance for policy makers and researchers. Concerning refugees more specifically, Afghanistan was the second largest country of origin of refugees worldwide in 2017 (UNHCR, 2018), and the third one in Europe where Afghans amounted to 7 per cent of all first-time asylum applicants (Eurostat, 2018). A significant proportion of Afghan migrants moves to neighbouring countries (primarily the Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan) and further afield through the assistance of extensive migrant smuggling networks. While information about Afghan migration flows has become more available in recent years,1 the understanding of Afghan smuggling networks remains weak, including as to how the Afghan smuggling “business” operates, how it has evolved over the course of the Afghan displacement, and the factors that motivate smugglers.
To address these gaps, this paper aims to analyse smugglers’ perceptions of themselves and their relationships with their communities in Afghanistan. Qualitative primary data collection took place to support the analysis; 23 smugglers have been interviewed in three sites in Afghanistan. The study focuses on the microlevel; it considers community dynamics and low-level smugglers rather than high-level organizers of smuggling networks. The analysis in this paper is intended to provide insights on how smugglers see themselves, their role in society and the evolution thereof. The paper also provides an analysis of factors that affect perceptions of and trust in smugglers among Afghan society.
The paper highlights that smuggling networks have a long-standing and respected place in Afghan culture. Migrant smuggling networks have roots in Islamic pilgrimage and Afghan trade networks and the “profession” of smuggling has been passed from father to son. As such, communities have historically high levels of trust in smugglers. In recent years, according to smugglers, the profession has become less reputable, as the legal context changed and new smugglers with a more purely financial orientation entered the business. This paper concludes with recommendations to support policy responses and programming concerning migrant smuggling and migration in Afghanistan.