Six European Union member states have warned against halting deportations of Afghan asylum seekers despite major advances by Taliban fighters in the war-torn country.
The Taliban, fighting to reimpose their strict interpretation of Islamic law after they were removed from power in 2001, have stepped up their campaign to defeat the government as US-led foreign forces pull out, capturing a sixth provincial capital on Monday.
“Stopping returns sends the wrong signal and is likely to motivate even more Afghan citizens to leave their home for the EU,” Austria, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece and Germany said in the letter to the EU’s executive, dated August 5 and seen by Reuters.
“This is why we urge you and your teams at the Commission to intensify talks with the Afghan government on how returns to Afghanistan can and will continue in the coming months.”
The European Commission said it had received the letter and would reply in due time.
Asked if it considers Afghanistan a safe country to return to, a spokesman for the EU executive said it is up to member states to make that judgement.
“At an EU level there isn’t a list of countries considered safe relating to asylum applications or for returns. It’s up to each member state to assess … the country of origin and the situation of the person concerned,” he told Reuters.
‘No catch-all label’
The deportation issue is expected to come up at an online crisis meeting of EU domestic affairs ministers on August 18, which was arranged mainly to discuss a surge of border crossings from Belarus to Lithuania.
Since 2015, approximately 570,000 Afghans have requested asylum in the EU, the letter from the six EU countries noted, including 44,000 in 2020 alone, making Afghanistan the second-largest country of origin last year.
“We fully recognise the sensitive situation in Afghanistan in light of the foreseen withdrawal of international troops,” the countries said, adding that an estimated 4.6 million Afghans were already displaced, many of them in the region.
The six EU members urged the bloc to support refugees in neighbouring countries by increasing cooperation with nations such as Pakistan and Iran.
Belgium’s state secretary for asylum and migration, Sammy Mahdi, defended the initiative against criticism.
“That regions of a country are not safe does not mean that each national of that country automatically is entitled to protection,” he tweeted on Monday.
“Afghans that, after a thorough and independent investigation, obviously do not need asylum, cannot remain in Belgium.”
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the Netherlands’ Safety and Justice Ministry said that if individuals had the right to asylum they could receive it, but there should be no catch-all label for one country.
“The situation is very worrying, it’s always under review,” said spokeswoman Charlotte Hees.
The position of the six countries clashes with EU member states Finland, Norway and Sweden, which recently announced they were suspending deportations to Afghanistan, owing to the deteriorating security situation in the country.
The moves came after Kabul urged European countries in early July to halt forced deportations for the next three months.
More than 30 NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, Save the Children and Oxfam, have also called on EU members to immediately stop the practice.
“The security situation in Afghanistan does not allow to return people to the country without putting their life at risk,” the group said in a joint statement.
Last week, the European Court of Human Rights temporarily halted the imminent deportation from Austria of an Afghan whose request for asylum was turned down.
The court cited Afghanistan’s stance on deportations and the violence in the country as factors. Its ruling applied only to the man in question.