My research shows that, until recently, many Afghans, especially young men, did not necessarily head to Europe to become refugees. Many of the young men I worked with in Afghanistan and Turkey in 2017 and 2018 had other, more mundane motivations for migration. These young Turkmen-speaking men from northern Afghanistan embarked on dangerous journeys through Pakistan and Iran to reach Turkey. There, they found jobs in the country’s construction and service industries, or as cooks, waiters, and cleaners. A few worked in a garment factory, and the clothes they made were exported to markets in the Middle East and Europe.
These men had strong social ties to their communities back home in Afghanistan, meaning hardly any were interested in migrating to Europe. Instead, they worked illegally in Turkey, under exploitative conditions and in constant fear of deportation. They aspired to masculine ideals – wanting to be the breadwinner, to provide for their families, and to achieve the social status and prestige that comes with marriage. An arranged marriage, in which the bride is chosen by the groom’s parents, is still considered the most prestigious route to matrimony and household formation in Afghanistan.
And so they sent remittances home to support their families and saved some money on the side towards a bride price. The marriage market has changed, and Afghan rural household resources, based on land and agriculture, are no longer sufficient – cash is instead required to pay a hefty bride price. Large, expensive weddings have also increasingly become the norm. After five to six years, the men would return to their villages to get married and start families. This circulatory mode of itinerant existence – working in Turkey and providing for families back home in Afghanistan – has come under intense pressure due to the pandemic, closed borders in the region, and armed conflict in Afghanistan.