by Margarida Teixeira
As Europe struggles to manage the influx of refugees at its borders, some arrivals are given preferential treatment while others are ostracized. The European Union relocation scheme, designed to channel refugees from Greece and Italy to other European countries, includes Syrians, Iraqis and Eritreans but does not apply to Afghans. Many instead are deported back to Afghanistan.
Although the recent refugee crisis is largely attributed to the Syrian conflict, this understanding tends to obscure the experiences of countless refugees from other countries who are not awarded the same media attention or overall support. Some groups, such as Eritreans, qualify for the European relocation scheme and enjoy a high possibility of receiving asylum on the continent although the conflicts and conditions they are escaping do not grab international headlines.
Others don’t fare as well, above all Afghans. These refugees are most likely to be deported back to their home country, despite the fact that many of them have never set foot in Afghanistan as a result of living in exile for generations, mostly in Pakistan or Iran.
For Afghans, this is a never-before-seen crisis. During the Soviet war in the 1980s and the Taliban government in the nineties, many Afghans were able to find a new home in North America or Europe. But now, being elderly, educated, well-integrated, or capable of speaking a European language is not taken into consideration during the deportation process. If you are Afghan, the odds are disproportionately stacked against you.
In October 2017, Amnesty International accused Europe of being blind to the plight of Afghans, noting that forcible returns had skyrocketed as civilian casualties continued to rise in Afghanistan.
While the Western media regularly documents terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, the West’s immigration policies, in large part, have not recognized Afghans as victims of an ongoing armed conflict, despite continuing record high casualty rates being inflicted on the Afghan civilian population, according to figures released by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).
Many countries in Europe do not accept Afghans at all since they are not eligible under the EU relocation scheme. This is due to a process of eligibility that amounts to a vicious cycle: Only asylum seekers from sending countries with a high percentage of refugees already in EU countries are accepted.
Thus, European countries either send Afghans back to Afghanistan, or these refugees remain stranded in countries such as Greece and Croatia. EU border countries, which refuse to accept Afghan asylum seekers, rarely make an effort to deport them safely.
Advocating for Afghans
In 2014, due to the increasing number of Afghan returnees, the Afghanistan Migrants Advice and Support Organization (AMASO) was established. The organization documents the stories of Afghans who were forced to go back to Afghanistan and advocates for their right to stay in safety in Europe and Australia. The organization also provides support and counseling for recent returnees in Afghanistan.
For Abdul Ghafoor, the organization’s director, Afghanistan is still a war-torn country fighting many insurgent groups (such as the Taliban, Hizb-e-Islami, ISIS). In fact, the security situation has deteriorated quickly. It is now far more dangerous in the country than during the NATO invasion in 2001.
“More and more, provinces are falling into the hands of the Taliban and ISIS, and the government is losing ground,” he explains in an email. “The capital of Afghanistan, Kabul, has turned into one of the most dangerous provinces of Afghanistan, where people lose their lives on a daily and weekly basis. Minorities are at great risk after ISIS gained ground in the country. The recent attacks on the Shiite mosques in the west of Kabul are an indication of that.”
People fear dying in suicide attacks on a daily basis. The national economy is crumbling under the pressure of war and violence: Investors are not interested in a country where no one can live safely. Meanwhile, according to Ghafoor, regional powers still consider Afghanistan a battleground, with Russia and Iran becoming increasingly involved in the country’s affairs since the rise of ISIS.
In addition to these common hardships, returnees face unique adversities back home. According to the current President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, Afghans who flee deserve no sympathy. (Of course, rampant corruption within his own government may have exacerbated the dire conditions that forced many Afghans to leave.) An agreement with the EU concluded in October 2016, which supports the deportation of Afghans, has not succeeded in convincing Afghans to remain in the country. A 2017 survey by the nonprofit Asia Foundation finds that 38.8 percent of Afghans would leave the country if they were given the opportunity. Many consider the government to be completely inept at providing security and stability for the general population. The President’s recent appointment of the infamous warlord Gul Agha Shirzai as Minister of Border and Tribal Affairs was seen as yet greater proof of the government’s disrespect for its own people.
For Ghafoor, the European Union’s strategy of targeting Afghan refugees as a way to dissuade them from seeking asylum is yet another illustration of the Afghan government’s weakness and corruption. It is important to note, however, that not all countries conduct demographically balanced deportations. Germany, for example, deports mainly adults, while Sweden and Norway — traditionally welcoming countries — are increasingly accelerating the deportations of 18-year-olds and possible minors who are unable to pass the age assessment test. The situation is thus quite bleak as entire families face the risk of deportation.
Another problem posed by the deportations is the amount of Afghans who already live as refugees in Iran or Pakistan. In those bordering countries, the local populations have become increasingly hostile to their presence. These refugees, too, are being sent back to Afghanistan and are, according to Ghafoor, the most vulnerable group.
“With no network and no source of income, it is almost impossible to survive,” he argues. “As a result, the majority of those deported leave the country as soon as they can and return back to Iran, Turkey and further on.”
Afghans who are deported, in accordance with the EU’s agreement with Ghani’s government, are supposed to receive two weeks of accommodation and financial assistance through packages. But obtaining aid is difficult.
“The packages need to be obtained through a very tricky process with a lot of document submissions,” Ghafoor says. “Some [returnees] get tired and even quit [receiving the packages] because it is a lot of paperwork, and without a network it is impossible to meet those requirements.”
Many returnees do not have any family members remaining in Afghanistan and the provinces from which their families originally came can be hard to access due to ongoing fighting. Without access to these packages or any other kind of financial assistance, the returnees cannot afford to feed themselves or their families.
The returnees therefore stop being refugees and instead become internally displaced persons, with almost no prospect of employment. If the EU and the Afghan government think this is the way to inspire young Afghans to fight for their country against insurgent groups, Ghafoor firmly disagrees.
“Hardly any returnees stay in the country, so I don’t think they can make any difference but [instead] turn into a burden,” he maintains.
For Ghafoor, the best way to combat this problem is to inform Europeans on a daily basis of the tragedies experienced by the Afghan people. Awareness-raising campaigns and a change of policy which includes Afghans in the EU relocation scheme could prove very useful and keep thousands of people from being deported back to Afghanistan. It is time for Europe to take its share of responsibility for the situation in Afghanistan and welcome the refugees of a war European powers helped to create. ♦
Margarida Teixeira is a graduate student of human rights and humanitarian action at Sciences Po.
Featured image: An Afghan refugee in Belgrade, Serbia, in March 2017. [Frode Bjorshol/Flickr]