Research Office
24 January 2019

“There is Death in Immobility”: The Identification Process of Transnational Young Hazaras

What does it mean today to be exposed to multiple expulsions and constantly on the move? In her (auto-)ethnographic PhD thesis on young Hazaras in Iran, Afghanistan and Europe, Khadija Abbasi destabilises the binaries home/host countries, migrants/refugees, voluntary/forced migration, and opens new windows in understanding human mobility.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

I am one of the people I have tried to study in my research. I have taken an auto-ethnographic approach in undertaking my PhD research, in which the distinction between ethnographer and the “other” is blurred. I was born in a Hazara refugee family in Iran and until today I have only lived for three years in my so-called “home country”, Afghanistan. The issue starts when I, and people of my generation, are expected to live there.

My PhD journey was a cathartic experience and a personal quest in search of meaning for my life trajectory. My case is far from unique. I am part of a generation who inhabits mobility, whose identity is more linked to a trajectory – both spatial and social – than to a specific place of origin. 

Can you describe the purpose and major findings of your research?

I tried to demonstrate how a shared history of exclusion and sufferings defines a generation and its constant mobility. I started with a brief history of the exclusion of the Hazaras from Afghanistan in the late 19th century. Although people of various ethnic categories were affected by the military subjugation at the time, the Hazaras experienced violence and marginalisation on a larger scale. The thesis also shows how the Afghan state created and reinforced ethnic and religious boundaries and gaps, whose adverse impacts continue to date. This history of marginalisation is manifested in the transnationality of the Hazaras, who chose migration as a surviving strategy. I used accounts from my parents of their harsh life in central Afghanistan and their motive for abandoning their homeland forever and migrating to Iran.

In the next section, I brought in accounts from second-generation Afghan refugees in Iran showing how they struggle for recognition and develop a sense of belonging in their birth country. I used the derogatory term Afghāni to cast light on the exclusion of those refugees, who are predominantly Shia Persian-speaking Hazaras. The second and third generations of refugees in Iran are recruited to fight in Syria but are denied the right to purchase a mobile phone under their own name, let alone their recognition as citizens of their birth country. 

The exile continues once refugees are forced to leave Iran and “return” to Afghanistan, a new country for many Iran-born and Iran-raised young Hazaras. Here, I used the pejorative term Irānigak, i.e., “little Iranians”, to demonstrate how the so-called returnees are perceived and rejected by local Afghans. Afghanistan, with its fragile state, is not capable of providing security and prospects for its citizens. Many Afghans continue to leave the country for farther and riskier destinations in the West. Some second- and third-generation Afghan refugees in Iran do not come to Afghanistan and leave for Western countries directly, where they claim for asylum as Afghans. I followed this generation to the West and demonstrated how they use music and digital media not only to express themselves, but also to construct their identities and communities, and maybe “home”. For this generation, mobility is not only a way of life but also a surviving strategy for a better life in an unequal world. 

What are the policy implications of this fact? 

First, UNHCR’s three durable solutions to the “refugee problem” – voluntary repatriation to the “home country”, local integration in the host country, resettlement in a third country – are not reflective of today’s human condition, which is mobility. The Iranian government and public pressure made local integration impossible for Afghan refugees in Iran, thus forcing them to use the “voluntary” repatriation schemes of UNHCR to return to Afghanistan. But they continue to leave Afghanistan as the country, plagued by insecurity and poverty, is unable to provide them with a safe haven socially, economically and politically. Mobility therefore becomes part of their social landscape. In mobility, they develop multiple senses of belonging which transcend geographical and national boundaries. So, the solutions developed by UNHCR are not reflective of the bitter realities on the ground.

Second, repatriation is a political process and should be contested as such. Many Afghans left the country for political reasons, and repatriation should ensure that refugees have access to national protection, which Afghanistan is unable to provide to its citizens on account of its political instability. But these durable solutions reinforce the idea that the political links between nation and state, and the cultural relations that associate people and place, are natural rather than constructed. The Iran-born and Iran-raised Afghan refugees need to re-learn, through a complex process of socialisation coupled with local rejection and stigmatisation, to construct an attachment to their new country. 

Afghans continue to be amongst the largest refugee population in the world. Their deportation or forced repatriation from the West and Iran to Afghanistan is not the solution. 

Do you plan to pursue you research further?

I’m trying to publish some academic articles out of my PhD and, if the situation allows it, I hope to turn my PhD thesis into a book. My research plan would be to continue to study Afghans in mobility and cast light on the struggles of their lives. 

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Ms Khadija Abbasi defended her PhD thesis in Anthropology and Sociology of Development in October 2018. Professor Shalini Randeria presided the committee, which included Professor Alessandro Monsutti, thesis director, and Professor Shahram Khosravi, from the Department of Social Anthropology of Stockholm University, Sweden.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Abbasi, Khadija. “‘There is Death in Immobility’: An Auto-Ethnography of the Identification Process of Transnational Young Hazaras.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2019.

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Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Front illustration by Barth Bailey on Unsplash