Afghanistan is the only country in the world prohibiting female education beyond the primary level. Since the Taliban takeover on 15th August 2021, girls have not been allowed to attend school and universities. Women and girls have been systematically excluded from public life with their rights being extremely violated.
EU’s response to the Afghanistan crisis was an immediate evacuation of foreign nationals and Afghans at risk by ensuring their safe departure. Besides that, among the top priorities were the prevention of smuggling and human trafficking, control of migratory flows and EU external border protection. Justice and Home Affairs Council (JHA) adopted a Statement on the situation in Afghanistan. Also, financial support and humanitarian aid for the Afghan population have been provided.
According to 2021 data of migration flows to Europe based on nationality, 11439 Afghans arrived in Europe comparing to twice smaller number – 6536 in 2020. While one year after the Taliban takeover, this number was even bigger - 18283. Germany accepted the most asylum applicants. Higher education in Europe became a pathway to protection for young Afghans. Seeking education as a route to protection has been recognized under the Global Compact on Refugees (UN, 2018). If before the Afghanistan’s crisis Afghan students rarely studied at the European universities due to inability to cover high education costs and complicated visa procedures, after August 2021 the situation has changed. Many European universities adopted scholarship programmes for Afghan students and scholars and facilitated application process to express their support for Afghan people seeking education abroad.
The aim of this study is to examine the relation between the Taliban’s ban on female education and young Afghan’s migration flows to Europe after August 2021. Since arrivals of Afghan nationals to European countries increased twice after the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan, the research question (hypothesis) whether the Afghanistan crisis has a direct link to young Afghans’ migration flows to Europe and an increase in their enrollment at the European universities arises.
The withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan after 20 years of war was followed by the Taliban takeover of Kabul on 15th August 2021. The United States troops were present in Afghanistan for two decades after 11th September 2001 when terrorists linked to the Islamic extremist group al Qaeda attacked against targets in the US. During that 20-year period there have been no terrorist attacks on Allied soil from Afghanistan. In addition, much was done to improve Afghan women’s rights including schools opening their doors to girls, women return to work, an establishment of a new Constitution in 2003 preserving women’s rights and an adoption of Law eliminating violence against women in 2009. All these new implementations were abolished with the return of the Taliban’s regime in August 2021. Since then, the fundamental rights and freedoms of Afghan females have been extremely violated: from a ban on girls’ secondary education and women from universities as well as from working at local and international NGOs, to a strict dress code when in public and a prohibition to make long-distance journeys alone (if traveling more than 75km, women are required to have a male chaperone). The Taliban has systematically excluded women and girls from public life by strictly limiting their freedom of movement and compelling to stay at home. Moreover, the rates of child marriage have increased with families selling underaged girls into forced marriages due to extreme hunger. In exchange to young daughters, parents receive a dowry paid by the groom to the bride’s family. Girls in Afghanistan are usually given to marriage when they reach puberty which generally occurs 8-13 years old. Since girls beyond the sixth grade have not been allowed to attend school, they are most vulnerable to being set up for marriage with family building forcibly becoming their top priority. As the focus of this study is the ban on female education leading to young people’s migration to Europe, some personal stories of Afghan female students forced to leave universities are presented in the following section.
On 20th December 2022, the Taliban banned women from universities including not only students but also female teachers and professors. They have not been allowed to attend the classes anymore and those who had already completed all the requirements for degree attainment, have their diplomas being withheld just because of gender. This is a story of a young student M.H. (she requested anonymity because of Taliban fear) who graduated high school at 15 years old and has dreamed of becoming an engineer. Just several days after she completed requirements for a civil engineering degree, the Taliban banned women from universities. All M.H. hopes and dreams of becoming a successful engineer and helping to rebuild Afghanistan were destroyed in a moment. She can’t continue her education in master’s because of diploma absence. The only alternative the student sees is earning a second bachelor’s degree, just this time by taking online classes in computer science from a university in the U.S. A four-year medical student Sabra had only one year left to graduate from university. She earned money from embroidering and weaving carpets so could attend university and one day become a doctor. While another female student, Sakina Sama, had to persuade her father for three years to let her enrol in a university after graduating from a secondary school. Maryam, a 23-year-old political science student was in her last semester and preparing for the exams scheduled in the coming days when her fiancé called to say that the Taliban had banned all women from universities. She was not able to take her final exams and graduate. These are only a few stories out of thousands of Afghan female students given up their dreams to seek education and help to build a better future for their country. The ban on female education will have a negative long-lasting impact not only on Afghan girls and women but also on Afghanistan’s economy at large since half of the population is excluded and unable to contribute to their country’s future.
On 17th August, two days after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, European Union ministers of foreign affairs gathered for an extraordinary meeting to discuss the latest events in the country. Security became a major concern thus the need to ensure the safe evacuation of EU citizens and local staff was stressed. Also, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR/VP), Josep Borrell, expressed the necessity to facilitate the safe departure of foreign nationals and Afghans at risk. Because women, children and people belonging to ethnic and religious minorities have been considered especially vulnerable with their fundamental rights being violated at first place, it was agreed that an enduring solution to the conflict should be established through meaningful negotiations based on democracy, the rule of law and constitutional rule rather than force. Therefore, cooperation with any future Afghan government should be conditioned on a peaceful and inclusive settlement. All these ideas were presented in the Declaration by the High Representative on behalf of the European Union.
On 24th August 2021, the Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7 Leaders) met virtually to further discuss the situation in Afghanistan. They made a joint Statement on Afghanistan. The evacuation processes and targeted and coordinated approaches to humanitarian aid and migration took the focus in the meeting. Everyone agreed on the importance of terrorism prevention in the country by further working with NATO allies. G7 leaders tried to convince the US administration of President Joe Biden to extend the withdrawal of troops beyond 31 August, however, their calls were rejected. Despite of military absence, Europe's leaders vowed to continue trying to help the Afghan people and prepare the ground for the refugee flow towards west. The European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a package of humanitarian aid for Afghanistan worth €200 million. Later on, on 7th October 2021, the Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson and High Representative Josep Borrell hosted a High-Level Forum focusing on providing protection to Afghans at risk with a new humanitarian aid package of over €300 million being introduced. This package will cover different initiatives such as humanitarian assistance for the most vulnerable part of population and support to neighbouring countries in helping to create conditions allowing the displaced Afghans remain closer to their homes. At the Forum, the participants also discussed safe and legal pathways to protection in the EU for Afghan nationals considered most at risk, as well as reception and integration measures for Afghan evacuees. The Commissioner Ylva Johansson proposed to put such measures in a Support Scheme for Afghans at Risk.
Scholarship Programmes for Afghan Scholars and Students Seeking education as a route to protection is considered a ‘complementary pathway’ that has been recognised under the Global Compact on Refugees (UN, 2018):
Other contributions in terms of complementary pathways could include humanitarian visas, humanitarian corridors, and other humanitarian admission programmes; educational opportunities for refugees (including women and girls) through grant of scholarships [emphasis added] and student visas, including through partnerships between governments and academic institution.
Since 2021, the number of Afghans arriving to Europe has been increasing. Before the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, Afghan students rarely studied at the European universities, mainly because of inability to cover high education costs and complicated visa procedures. However, after 2021, the situation has changed. Many European universities adopted scholarship programmes for Afghan students and scholars, an application process was facilitated to encourage young Afghans to seek education abroad. In addition, the support and advocacy charity Scholars at Risk (SAR) published an urgent appeal to European governments and the EU on 22nd August, calling for bigger resettlement quotas, faster legal pathways, visa waivers and more dedicated fellowship schemes for Afghan scholars with a special attention given to women and those from minority ethnic groups.
Hameed Hakimi, who is Associate Fellow at Chatham House and Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, did research on higher education in Europe as a pathway to protection for Afghans. Data collected from the interviews and desk research is presented in the following section of case studies of Italy, Germany, and Sweden.
Since the withdrawal of the military troops of Western countries and the beginning of the devastating crisis in Afghanistan, various Italian universities started mobilizing for Afghan students. Such highly ranked Italian higher education institutions as the Sapienza University of Rome, University of Turin, University of Padua, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, and some others have been offering special scholarship programmes targeted at Afghans. For example, Ca’ Foscari allocated specific funding for scholarships to support Afghan students wishing to study at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice during the 2021/2022 academic year. Each student was entitled to a scholarship equal to 5000€ and to the exemption from Ca' Foscari's tuition fees. One of the students being granted this scholarship is Rohullah Safi. He is an IT graduate taking the MA in Computer Science - Software Dependability and Cyber Security at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Rohullah travelled from Kabul to Mashhad (Iran) by taking buses and taxis, his long journey lasted 26 hours. This is just one success story of a guy who managed to escape from Kabul, however, there are still many students being stuck in Afghanistan.
DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst) or the German Academic Exchange Service has been the main channel for Afghans to access higher education in Germany since 2002. With the Taliban’s return, DAAD announced that support for students from Afghanistan would be repackaged due to the absence of international organisations and the withdrawal of international military troops in the country. The repackaged version of support included 4 main areas: increasing funding for Afghan students in Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries (also in Turkey); providing funding to ‘particularly vulnerable’ Afghan students and researchers who were already in Germany; developing programmes for leadership to prepare the young Afghan generation for a post-Taliban era; maintaining and expanding existing programmes within Germany which aim to integrate refugees at German higher education institutions. Even though many Afghan students successfully secure a place to study in Germany, they must take a risky journey to their destination. The process of acquiring visas is very slow due to the absence of any Western diplomatic missions in Afghanistan. Therefore, Afghans at risk need to enter a neighbouring country such as Pakistan or Iran before finally traveling to Germany.
Unlikely Italy and Germany, Sweden doesn’t offer any scholarship opportunities or educational routes specifically for Afghan students. Although, the Swedish King Carl Gustaf Scholarship at Uppsala University lists Afghan citizens among the eligible categories, the scholarship is only for master’s programmes and only for students who live in risky and unsafe environments affected by conflict or natural disasters. The applicant must provide documents proving his/her unique vulnerability and the need for a safe environment at Uppsala University. I
n September 2021, the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, in cooperation with, and with funding from, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), established Afghanistan Programme. The programme has 4 goals: to enable more Afghan academics and professionals to pursue a career in human rights promotion and protection; to create high-quality human rights research and to make it widely available; to support academics and professionals from Afghanistan in public outreach on human rights and gender equality in Afghanistan; to support better-informed strategies and initiatives among key stakeholders to promote and protect human rights in Afghanistan. Afghanistan Programme plans to achieve its 4 goals though 3 key strategies including A Visiting Professor, Afghan Research Fellows, and Dialogue Forums.
Two years have passed since Afghanistan’s takeover by the Taliban. Even before the withdrawal of NATO allies, Afghanistan has been among the poorest countries in the world with high dependency on foreign aid. After the events in August 2021 followed by a huge loss of most international aid and Taliban’s diplomatic isolation, the situation in the country became much worse. While in the past years conflict has been the main reason of humanitarian needs, the drivers of the devastating crisis in Afghanistan today are rapid economic decline, inflation, drought, hunger and risk of malnutrition, an increase in poverty rate both in urban and rural areas, a near-collapse of the national public health system, a stifling of the media and civil society sectors, and almost-total exclusion of half the population – women and girls – from public life. Two thirds of Afghanistan’s population need urgent humanitarian assistance to survive. High levels of unemployment and sustained inflation of key commodity prices have led to an increase in household’s debt. In addition, Afghanistan has been facing an exodus of professionals which has particularly affected the health, education, security, and judicial sectors. Thousands of highly skilled and educated Afghans have left the country causing a brain drain. Fearing the long-lasting consequences of mass skilled workers’ emigration, Taliban with its acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi in front, on 8th May 2023 called on Western countries to stop evacuating and resettling educated and skilled Afghans abroad:
The world should also listen to this message that they should not open [immigration] cases for Afghans under the impression that their lives are at risk here. They should not hurt Afghanistan's talents, Afghanistan's scientific cadres and Afghanistan's prides, and should not take them out of this country.
The absolute majority of Afghan evacuees are experts and educated people. Given the current situation, they are unlikely to return. With the spread of the brain drain process, Afghanistan is losing its four basic and fundamental capitals: human capital (educated and young generation), spiritual capital (professors in the fields of humanities and experts in the fields of experimental sciences), material capital (millions of dollars spent to achieve advanced degrees) and an increase in hopelessness (when the country and people witness the escape of its elite, motive and hope for the future will decrease). Afghanistan urgently needs young and experienced experts to save the country from total collapse. However, the escape of brains is inevitable unless the security of their lives and jobs is ensured as well as their involvement in the macro– level management of the country, so that they feel their contributions are valued.
Together with the Taliban’s return to power, all the US implementations improving Afghan women’s rights such as an ability to seek education and work, were abolished. The schools and universities closed their doors to female students, women are not allowed to work at local and international NGOs anymore, a strict dress code when in public and a prohibition to make long-distance journeys without a male chaperone brought Afghanistan back to 1996-2001 – the period of Taliban rule before US invasion.
In response to the Afghanistan crisis, European Union organized an immediate evacuation of foreign nationals and Afghans at risk from Kabul. In addition to their safe resettlement, a humanitarian aid package of over €300 million was announced during the High-Level Forum hosted by the European Commissioner for home Affairs Ylva Johansson and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell. The package is aimed to cover both humanitarian assistance for Afghan population and support to neighbouring countries in helping to provide a refuge for the displaced Afghans.
Another pathway to protection which has been officially recognised under the Global Compact on Refugees (UN, 2018) is education. After August 2021, many European universities adopted scholarship programmes for Afghan students and scholars to express their support and encouragement for Afghans to seek education abroad. As a result, the number of Afghans enrolling at the European universities has been increasing. Therefore, it can be said that the Afghanistan crisis has a direct link to young Afghans’ migration flows to Europe and an increase in their enrolment at the European universities.
The current situation in Afghanistan is worse than ever: rapid economic decline, inflation, hunger, and an increasing poverty rate both in urban and rural areas are among the push factors motivating people to emigrate. Thousands of highly skilled and educated Afghans are leaving their country causing a brain drain. If the Taliban won’t change its current policy excluding half of the population from public life and putting people’s lives and jobs at risk, Afghanistan’s collapse is inevitable.
[2023 - Summer]
Research paper for Junior Research Felloship Program during Internship at Riga (Latvia)
Per la foto: credits Gintare Bieliauskaite
 International Organization for Migration. Displacement Tracking Matrix. Migration Flow to Europe: Arrivals, available on: https://dtm.iom.int/europe/arrivals. Accessed June 21, 2023.
 Eurostat. Asylum quarterly report, available on: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=File:T2_First-time_asylum_applicants_(non-EU_citizens)_to_the_EU_Member_States_and_EFTA_countries,_October-December_2020_to_October-December_2021.png. Accessed June 21, 2023.
 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Global Compact on Refugees, New York 2018, p.38. Available on: https://www.unhcr.org/media/37797. Accessed June 21, 2023.
 Constitution Net, The Constitution of Afghanistan, available on: https://constitutionnet.org/sites/default/files/final_draft.constitution_eng.pdf. Accessed July 21, 2023.
 International Labour Organization, Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) Law, available on: https://www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/docs/ELECTRONIC/102060/123253/F2103117289/AFG102060Eng.pdf. Accessed July 21, 2023.
 United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. Afghanistan: UN experts say 20 years of progress for women and girls’ rights erased since Taliban takeover, available on: https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2023/03/afghanistan-un-experts-say-20-years-progress-women-and-girls-rights-erased. Accessed July 21, 2023.
 Robyn Huang, “‘I’ll be sacrificed’: The lost and sold daughters of Afghanistan”, Aljazeera, August 14, 2022. Available on: https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2022/8/14/ill-be-sacrificed-the-lost-and-sold-daughters-of-afghanistan. Accessed July 21, 2023.
 Ruchi Kumar, “The Taliban ended college for women. Here's how Afghan women are defying the ban”, NPR, February 24, 2023. Available on: https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2023/02/24/1158546120/the-taliban-ended-college-for-women-heres-how-afghan-women-are-defying-the-ban. Accessed July 23, 2023.
 Zahra Joya, “‘Being a girl is a heavy crime’: Afghan women in despair over university ban”, The Guardian, December 21, 2022. Available on: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2022/dec/21/afghanistan-women-react-university-ban-taliban. Accessed July 23, 2023.
 Ruchi Kumar, “‘My heart is bleeding’: Afghan women devastated by university ban”, Aljazeera, December 21, 2022. Available on: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/12/21/afghan-women-devastated-by-taliban-university-ban. Accessed July 23, 2023.
 European Documentation Center (EDC) of the University of Almeria. First EU measures in response to the Afghanistan crisis, September 9, 2021. Available on: https://www.cde.ual.es/en/first-eu-measures-in-response-to-the-afghanistan-crisis/. Accessed July 24, 2023.
 European Council, Afghanistan: Declaration by the High Representative on behalf of the European Union, Brussels 17 August 2021. Available on: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2021/08/17/afghanistan-declaration-by-the-high-representative-on-behalf-of-the-european-union/. Accessed July 24, 2023.
 Monika Pronczuk, “After Chaotic Evacuation, Afghans in the Netherlands Struggle to Find Stability”, The New York Times, December 26, 2021. Available on: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/26/world/europe/afghans-netherlands-migrants.html. Accessed July 24, 2023.
 The European External Action Service, G7 Leaders Statement on Afghanistan, Brussels 24 August 2021. Available on: https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/g7-leaders-statement-afghanistan_en. Accessed July 24, 2023.
 Alasdair Standford, “Europe's leaders vow to help Afghanistan despite Biden's refusal to delay US pullout”, Euronews, August 25, 2021. Available on: https://www.euronews.com/2021/08/25/europe-s-leaders-vow-to-help-afghanistan-despite-biden-s-refusal-to-delay-us-pullout. Accessed July 24, 2023.
 Jack Parock, “'EU must intervene before Afghan refugees arrive at external borders' warns EU Home Affairs chief”, Euronews, August 25, 2021. Available on: https://www.euronews.com/my-europe/2021/08/25/eu-must-intervene-before-afghan-refugees-arrive-at-external-borders-warns-eu-home-affairs-. Accessed July 24, 2023.
 European Commission, High-Level Forum on providing protection to Afghans at risk, 6 October 2021. Available on: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_21_5088. Acessed July 24, 2023.
 European Parliament, Evacuation of Afghan nationals to EU Member States, 8 November 2021. Available on: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/thinktank/en/document/EPRS_BRI(2021)698776. Accessed July 24, 2023.
 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, supra note 3.
 Ben Upton, “‘Over 100 European institutions ready to host Afghan scholars’”, Research Professional News, August 24, 2021. Available on: https://www.researchprofessionalnews.com/rr-news-europe-universities-2021-8-over-100-european-institutions-ready-to-host-afghan-scholars/. Accessed July 26, 2023.
 Hameed Hakimi, “Higher Education in Europe: A Pathway to Protection for Afghans?”, Ecre, December 2, 2022. Available on: https://ecre.org/working-paper-higher-education-in-europe-a-pathway-to-protection-for-afghans/. Accessed July 26, 2023.
 Insurance Italy, The mobilization of Italian universities for Afghan students, September 27, 2021. Available on: https://www.insuranceitaly.it/mobilization-universities-afghan/?lang=en. Accessed July 27, 2023.
 Joangela Ceccon and Federica Scotellaro, “From Kabul to Venice with Ca' Foscari's scholarship: Rohullah's story”, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, December 11, 2021. Available on: https://www.unive.it/pag/16584/?tx_news_pi1%5Bnews%5D=11578&cHash=12feca7a05252408c82ee600d40e2280. Accessed July 27, 2023.
 Hakimi, supra note 21.
 Uppsala University, The King Carl Gustaf Scholarship at Uppsala University for Individuals living in Risky and Unsafe Conditions, Scholarships.af, October 14, 2022. Available on: https://scholarships.af/opportunity/the-king-carl-gustaf-scholarship/. Accessed July 27, 2023.
 Raoul Wallenberg Institute, Afghanistan Programme. Available on: https://rwi.lu.se/afghanistan-programme/. Accessed July 27, 2023.
 UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Afghanistan Humanitarian Needs Overview 2023, January 23, 2023. Available on: https://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/afghanistan-humanitarian-needs-overview-2023-january-2023. Accessed July 28, 2023.
 Michael Scollon, “Brain Drained: Exodus of Professionals Since Taliban Takeover Leaves Afghanistan Starting From Scratch Again”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, August 12, 2022. Available on: https://www.rferl.org/a/afghanistan-taliban-brain-drain-workforce-anniversary/31983884.html. Accessed July 28, 2023.
 Akmal Dawi, “Taliban Call for Stop to Afghan Brain Drain”, Voice of America, May 30, 2023. Available on: https://www.voanews.com/a/taliban-call-for-stop-to-afghan-brain-drain-/7115958.html. Accessed July 28, 2023.
 Center for Strategic and Regional studies. A Look at Afghanistan’s Brain Drain Crisis and Its Consequences, August 8, 2022. Available on: https://csrskabul.com/en/?p=4925. Accessed July 28, 2023.
 Hashmatullah Aslami, “Afghanistan’s Brain Drain”, Hasht-e Subh Daily, May 24, 2023. Available on: https://8am.media/eng/afghanistans-brain-drain/. Accessed July 28, 2023.