Is it safe for Europe to force Afghan migrants to return home?

Why We Wrote This

Safety fears are a primary reason people flee their homes. Now rising violence in Afghanistan, even in Kabul, is calling into question a 2016 agreement for EU countries to forcibly repatriate Afghan migrants.

Massoud Hossaini/AP
Afghan security forces blocked the road at the site of a suicide attack in Kabul Nov. 20. Deepening insecurity is raising questions about the ethics of sending migrants who’ve made it out of the country back to an active war zone.

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Declaring at least parts of Afghanistan safe enough, a 2016 deal between the European Union and the Afghan government allowed European countries to forcibly repatriate Afghans whose appeals for asylum were repeatedly denied. But in 2017 the United Nations reclassified Afghanistan from a “post-conflict” country to an “active conflict” one. And guidelines published Aug. 30 by the UN’s refugee agency said indiscriminate attacks in Kabul would expose returnees to “serious risk to life, safety, liberty or health.” According to a leaked EU memo, even back in 2016 European countries were “aware of the worsening security situation and threats to which people are exposed” in Afghanistan. Under the deal, more than 1,000 Afghans have been sent back to Kabul. “There is of course a great irony in these [European] governments, who won’t come out of their embassies in Kabul, and when they do they are in armored cars wearing full body armor, saying it’s safe for people to be returned,” says Patricia Gossman, Afghanistan associate director for Human Rights Watch. “We think, because of the deteriorating security situation, they shouldn’t [repatriate Afghans]…. It is not a good idea right now.”

Abdul Ghafoor knows what it’s like to be forced from the relative safety of Europe back into the perilous cauldron of Afghanistan.

A former resident of Ghazni Province who was threatened by the Taliban and fled to Europe in 2010, he was forcibly returned from Norway in 2013 – even before a controversial 2016 repatriation deal between the European Union and the Afghan government.

Upon his return he found himself in Kabul with no family or other support network, and ever since has been on a mission to improve the lives of fellow returnees to an Afghanistan that is only becoming increasingly dangerous.

“I had no one,” recalls Mr. Ghafoor, about his surprise return to his home country. “It was a strange feeling, I was traumatized.”

But the deepening insecurity in Afghanistan, which has limited the success of Ghafoor’s mission, is also raising questions about the ethics of sending migrants back to an active war zone. The 2016 deal had declared at least parts of Afghanistan safe enough.

Ghafoor set up the Afghanistan Migrants Advice and Support Organization in 2014 to give returnees a safe haven and help them reintegrate. “I try to let them know that deportation is not the end of the world,” he says.

But every one of the 50 or so men he hosted in his shelter from mid-2016 to late 2017 are no longer in Afghanistan.

Some could not find jobs; others had grown up as Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran and were lost in Afghanistan. All were affected by the ongoing war and the toll of suicide attacks.

Several times bombs blew up when he was meeting returnees in his Kabul office, and through the window they saw the fire and rising smoke.

Once a blast took place soon after a returnee had left the office, prompting Ghafoor to make a panicked call to make sure the man was safe.

Omar Sobhani/Reuters
Afghans, whose asylum applications had been rejected, arrive from Germany at Kabul airport in Afghanistan, March 28, 2017.

Such incidents “put a lot of trauma in the heads of returnees who have never seen anything like this in their whole lives,” says Ghafoor. “These are factors that encourage people to get out of the country.”

The number of Afghans arriving in Europe has shrunk since columns of would-be migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, and elsewhere marched toward Europe’s borders in 2015 and 2016.

In 2016, 180,000 Afghans applied for EU asylum, but only a quarter of that figure, 45,000, did so in 2017. Today fewer Afghans are willing to pay smugglers thousands of dollars for a chance at getting to Europe – given stories of ill treatment, dangerous journeys, and uncertain results, as apparent in high-profile forced returns wrought by the EU deal with Kabul.

Under the deal, more than 1,000 Afghans have been sent back to Kabul, despite the growing risks from the violent conflict here.

Such risks have only intensified since a restricted EU memo written in March 2016 was made public. It stated that 200 million euros in funding were “intended to be made migration sensitive,” and contingent upon Afghanistan accepting a migration deal at an October 2016 summit, according to The Guardian newspaper.

The memo also noted the EU was “aware of the worsening security situation and threats to which people are exposed” in Afghanistan. Yet it added: “Despite this, more than 80,000 persons could potentially need to be returned in the near future.”

'Serious risk to life'

In 2017 the UN reclassified Afghanistan from a “post-conflict” country to an “active conflict” one.

More recently, the risks have been spelled out by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which published its latest guidelines on Aug. 30. The 100-plus page report cited “negative trends” and the “highest levels of civilian casualties” from indiscriminate attacks in Kabul. It found that, even in the capital, returnees would face “serious risk to life, safety, liberty or health.”

Likewise, the US military’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) noted “several discouraging developments” in its quarterly report on Oct. 30. Afghan security force casualties from May to October were the “greatest it has ever been during like periods,” the report noted, and Afghan government control or influence in all districts of the country stood at just 55.5 percent, down from more than 70 percent in late 2015.

And in another gauge of risk to Afghans, SIGAR reported 13,940 “enemy-initiated attacks” from January to mid-August this year, and a 38 percent increase in suicide attacks, which often result in civilian casualties.

On top of the returnees from Europe, Kabul has also since 2016 had to cope with hundreds of thousands of returnees from Iran and Pakistan. Afghan officials have earmarked $750 million specifically to boost basic services for all returnees, from education and health to water and sanitation.

Yet the decision by European countries that it is safe enough to forcibly repatriate Afghans, contrary to widely accepted humanitarian principles, has brought pressure on EU capitals.

Afghanistan “is getting obviously worse in terms of security,” says Will Carter, program head of the Norwegian Refugee Council in Kabul. “It’s perplexed us as to why so many governments around the world have changed and have a very optimistic outlook for the safety of the people in the country, because it is certainly not what we see.”

The Afghan government has a vested interest in demonstrating improved security and showing that it can deliver to weary citizens – key points pushed by President Ashraf Ghani ahead of presidential elections next spring. But challenges abound, as exemplified by the fate of returnees.

“For years now, we’ve seen this narrative of the country rebuilding and things getting better, and that this has been the payoff of all the development assistance and [positive] military impact,” says Mr. Carter. “But the flip-side is a worsening humanitarian crisis…. We’ve got higher-than-ever levels of internal displacement, and worse-than-ever levels of conflict. So the two don’t hang together.”

Full body armor in Kabul

Legally, there are no restrictions on European countries repatriating Afghans, as per the 2016 EU-Afghan deal, which is meant to target only those whose asylum requests have already been repeatedly rejected. But there should be other standards, says Patricia Gossman, Afghanistan associate director for Human Rights Watch.

“There is of course a great irony in these [European] governments, who won’t come out of their embassies in Kabul, and when they do they are in armored cars wearing full body armor, saying it’s safe for people to be returned,” says Ms. Gossman, contacted in Brussels.

“We think, because of the deteriorating security situation, they shouldn’t [repatriate Afghans]. We don’t call for it on legal grounds, but on moral grounds, it is not a good idea right now,” she says.

With Europeans forcibly deporting a fraction of the 6,000 to 10,000 per week who are being repatriated from Iran, for example, the EU moves are “largely symbolic,” Gossman adds. The repatriations serve as a deterrent to future would-be Afghan migrants, and demonstrate action on the hot-button immigration issue for internal European political consumption.

President Ghani has made migration a priority, officials say, and appointed a high-ranking committee to lay out measures for reintegrating returnees, and ultimately to convince them that they can and should stay home.

“This is every Afghan’s country, and the government will do everything it can to create conditions for people to return,” says Khyber Farahi, a senior adviser to the Afghan president on migration issues.

“To be realistic, we know that the conditions will not so easily be made favorable, whether it’s large number of returns from Iran and Pakistan, or smaller numbers from Europe,” says Mr. Farahi. “So now to come back, having spent all their savings…. They are coming back to a country that is even more insecure than when they left.”

Plucked off the street

Critics of the EU repatriation deal abound, noting that some migrants from Germany, for example, were plucked off the street or even from their jobs with no notice.

“On one flight I found a guy from Paktia [Province] who still had on the jacket of the security firm where he worked in Germany, and was not allowed to pack anything,” says Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul.

That returnee had a job, paid his taxes in Germany, had an apartment, and even had a car that was left parked on the side of the road – and he was not the only one apparently picked up by authorities to meet a quota, says Mr. Ruttig.

“It is violating German law, or at least bending German law, and it’s violating international duties of protection,” says Ruttig, a German citizen. “These are broken lives, often already broken lives when they arrive in our countries. But also the way they are treated makes the situation worse.”

Still, “when you don’t even feel safe in the capital of a country … you want to get out, you want to go somewhere safe,” says Ghafoor, who set up the shelter for returnees.

“So until the security in Afghanistan gets better, I don’t think [the exodus] will stop,” he adds. “But the moment people feel there is hope for them, and things are getting better, then people will come back by themselves.”

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