Taliban opium ban fuelling migration of destitute Afghan farmers to Europe, says expert

Consultant tells The National the West must change how it deals with the Taliban or face choice between 'drugs or people'

The Taliban plough up a poppy field in Washir district, in the southern Afghan province of Helmand, as part of a campaign to stop opium and heroin production. AP
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The Taliban’s ban on growing opium has increased the pressure on rural communities in Afghanistan, a leading expert on the country’s drug trade has said.

David Mansfield linked the economic problems facing farmers in Afghanistan to the rise in the number of migrants making their way to the UK.

He told The National that unless the UK and other nations fundamentally changed the way they dealt with the Taliban, then there will be a choice between “drugs and people” in their countries.

Experts have said that the UK needs to look beyond its borders to address wider problems of global poverty and instability if it wants to stop people crossing the English Channel in small boats.

Mr Mansfield has been researching the illicit economy of Afghanistan for 25 years and works as an independent consultant advising a wide range of organisations, including the UK government, the World Bank and Germany's GIZ development body.

In April 2022, the Taliban’s leader Haibatullah Akhundzada issued a religious decree prohibiting the cultivation of opium. Mr Mansfield says this has led to production falling by 80 per cent this year in parts of the country.

There is now evidence that young Afghanmen already making their way across Iran and Turkey, and the numbers could increase dramatically if the measures persist for a second year, says Mr Mansfield.

Farmers, particularly in the east, who have less than a hectare of land and don’t have stocks of opium “are suffering badly”.

“This is new,” said Mr Mansfield, the author of A State Built on Sand: How opium undermined Afghanistan.

“If you go back to the days of the Afghan republic [before the Taliban retook power in 2021], these are areas that have experienced intermittent bans on poppy cultivation.

“What they used to do in the absence of poppy was send their son, or multiple sons to the Afghan National Army. Maybe another son to work in Kabul in the construction industry.”

But with the opium ban, families need non-farming income because their land isn’t big enough and “if there’s not one [income] in-country, then you send someone out of the country to find one”.

He said “growing numbers” are selling gold or cars and already “some families already have two sons on the move”.

Afghans now make up the largest single nationality of people crossing the English Channel by small boat and claiming asylum, the most recent Home Office statistics show.

There were 8,429 arrivals in the year ending March compared to 2,466 in the same time period the year before. The six refugees who died in the English Channel when their boat capsized at the weekend were Afghans.

Meanwhile, the increased number of Afghans already in Britain is reflected in 2022 birth figures in England and Wales. These were released by the Office for National Statistics on Thursday.

Afghanistan was the seventh most common country of birth for non-UK-born mothers – appearing in the top 10 for the first time since reporting began in 2003.

This reflects the increase in Afghan arrivals to the UK through government resettlement schemes in the wake of the 2021 Taliban victory, said officials.

Mr Mansfield said that while the opium ban was a “push”, the presence of an Afghan diaspora in the UK and Europe, was acting as a “pull”.

“Many have finished school, and if you talk to them, they’ll say: ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got four family members in France, I’ve got a family member in Germany, I’ve got two in England, other people from my village are in England. I’m going to London.'

“There’s multiple families who claim to have families en route to Turkey and Europe.”

The question now, he believes, is whether the Taliban will reverse its policy, which would be difficult given it came as the result of a religious edict.

“If the ban goes into a second year, the numbers leaving could increase dramatically,” he said.

Many are planning to leave on the basis the ban will continue ahead of winter, when snow will block many routes.

Do you want the drugs or do you want the people?
David Mansfield

Mr Mansfield asked: “At what point do people start to panic and leave?

“Do they wait until the planting season or do they start to judge the Taliban will continue its efforts against drugs and decide, ‘this is getting worse, they’re going to impose a second season, we need to leave now before the winter sets in'.”

Mr Mansfield said there was a choice for western countries: “Do we want drugs or do you want the people?

“You cannot change this without fundamentally changing your relationship with the Taliban authorities in Afghanistan, both diplomatically and financially.

“A reduction in the poppy and not having a dramatic increase in out migration would require a fundamental shift in the relationship with the Taliban. You would be talking about a reconstruction effort.

“You would be talking about more than a decade of significant funding and initiatives aimed at creating a large number of jobs to absorb those displaced from poppy cultivation.”

The question of the extent the UK should engage with the Taliban remains a controversial one, with senior Conservative Party MPs divided on the matter.

Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the House of Commons defence select committee, recently sparked controversy when he said in a now deleted video that security in Afghanistan has “vastly improved” and “corruption is down” since the extremists took over.

He also called for Britain to reopen its embassy in Kabul.

The former defence minister, who was an army officer, later apologised but is facing a no-confidence motion as committee chairman.

Speaking this week at a London event organised by the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association, a charity group that supports the Afghan diaspora in the UK, Mr Ellwood said many do not want to “confront the toughest of questions” on Afghanistan.

“And as I found out after my own visit, no one it seems right now is ready to confront the toughest of questions of whether our current strategy of shouting from afar is actually working. Or do we dare to consider leveraging greater influence through engagement.”

Alicia Kearns, chairwoman of the foreign Affairs select committee told The National that “Tobias and I are not in agreement”, but acknowledged that “there is an active debate among the international community about how we engage with the Taliban”.

“Obviously, there has to be some level of dialogue about how we get humanitarian aid in and how we work to mitigate the worst excesses of their warped beliefs,” Ms Kearns said.

“But that does not mean legitimising them in any way sense of form.”

Updated: August 17, 2023, 6:55 PM