Currently, there are around 2.6 million registered Afghan refugees across the globe. In 2020, Afghan refugees were the second largest group of asylum seekers in continental Europe, having fled Afghanistan for a variety of reasons including persecution, conflict, economic hardship, and climate induced displacement. Each person has a different reason, in many cases multiple reasons, for leaving in search of safety.
In late 2020, the European Union and the government of Afghanistan entered into negotiations to extend the “Joint Way Forward” – an informal agreement they signed in 2016 to facilitate the repatriation of Afghans who came to Europe to seek protection.
The deal, which essentially ties aid for Afghanistan to assurances that it would streamline the return of Afghans whose asylum claims were rejected in Europe, has been controversial since its inception. Countless human rights organisations, refugee advocates and migration experts insisted since the beginning that the Joint Way Forward would only result in vulnerable people being returned to a volatile and increasingly hostile environment.
The European governments and agencies are also aware of the many dangers posed by the agreement. In a leaked document from March 2016, EU agencies acknowledged Afghanistan’s “worsening security situation” as well as the “record levels of terrorist attacks and civilian casualties” in the country. However, they insisted that “more than 80,000 persons could potentially need to be returned in the near future”.
Since the signing of the Joint Way Forward, European governments repatriated tens of thousands of Afghan asylum seekers, including young adults and children, with devastating consequences. Several refugees have faced attacks by the Taliban and other armed groups after being deported from Europe to Afghanistan, and many others are living with the threat of violence, hunger and death to this day.
Members of Afghanistan’s minority Hazara community would be particularly vulnerable to violence and persecution if they are forced to return to the country. Comprising roughly a quarter of Afghanistan’s 38 million population, Hazaras have long been persecuted for their Shia faith in the Sunni-majority country racked by deep ethnic divisions.
Recent survey data from the Mixed Migration Centre shows that among 1,255 returnees from Europe to Afghanistan interviewed between July 2020 and January 2021, 41 percent intended to re-migrate when the COVID-19 situation allows. A further 38 percent were uncertain, and only 18 percent intended to remain in Afghanistan.
Despite all this, the EU still appears to be determined to repatriate as many Afghan refugees as possible. While the amendments, if any, that will be made to the deal as a result of last year’s renegotiation have not been made public yet, it is apparent that the EU will continue to use the Joint Way Forward to pressure the Afghan government to readmit its nationals in the coming years.
But this is not the time to focus on repatriation. For many Afghan refugees in Europe, and particularly Hazaras, returning to the homeland is more dangerous today than ever before, for several reasons.
A volatile and increasingly hostile environment
The conflict in Afghanistan is far from over and the situation in the country is still extremely volatile. In 2020, the Global Peace Index has ranked Afghanistan as the least peaceful country in the world for a second year in a row.
Afghanistan has the second highest level of emergency food insecurity in the world, with nearly one in two children under-five expected to face acute malnutrition in 2021. In addition, almost 70 percent of the population live below the poverty line. Insurgent groups in the country have escalated their targeted killings of women, minorities and progressive thinkers in recent years. The Taliban is gradually increasing its power and leverage over the country.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic put increased pressure on the country’s long-struggling economy and crumbling health infrastructure.
In February 2020, the United States and the Taliban signed a landmark deal to “bring peace to Afghanistan”, but the move did nothing to curtail the attacks on Afghan civilians. In fact, there was a spike in violence during the first six months of 2020, with an increase in the number of civilian casualties, particularly in the northern and northeastern regions.
Earlier this month, US President Joe Biden announced his intention to withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. As the Taliban and the Afghan government are not anywhere near reaching a political settlement, the violence and instability in the country are expected to increase after the exit of American troops.
If the EU continues to repatriate Afghan refugees under these circumstances, it would not only be risking their lives, but also further eroding Europe’s already crumbling image as a bastion of human rights.
A continuing environmental crisis
Thousands of Afghans did not embark on a dangerous journey towards Europe only because of the continuing conflict, and the conflict is not the only obstacle in the way of their return.
Afghanistan’s population is also facing a growing array of environmental problems, from unrelenting deforestation and land degradation to uncontrolled urbanisation and inadequate solid waste disposal. Due to climate change, the country is also experiencing more frequent and severe floods, landslides and droughts.
In a country where a significant percentage of the population lives in rural areas and depends on farming to survive, droughts have a devastating effect. They not only leave millions of people without sufficient food and water, but also hinder efforts to improve sanitation, and increase the population’s vulnerability to disease outbreaks.
A drought in 2018 affected 22 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and internally displaced at least 300,000 people. According to the United Nations, “13.5 million people were facing ‘Crisis’ or worse levels of food insecurity in September 2018” due to the drought. Another moderate-to-high intensity drought, which could lead to more instability and new waves of internal displacement, is expected in Afghanistan later this year.
In this context, it is unacceptable for the EU to even consider sending refugees back to Afghanistan. Between the ongoing conflict, political uncertainties and the myriad environmental challenges facing the country, it is impossible for the returnees to lead safe, secure and dignified lives in Afghanistan.
The urgent need for policy change
Currently, the EU’s policies on Afghan refugees and asylum seekers are focused on returning as many of them as possible to their home country, as soon as possible. However, to ensure that the human rights of these long-suffering people are not violated, a more equitable and multi-dimensional approach is needed. Until Afghanistan as a country is back on its feet and able to provide safe and dignified living conditions to all of its citizens, the EU’s focus should be on strengthening its asylum system and welcoming more Afghans in need.
Beyond putting its own repatriation efforts on pause until conditions in Afghanistan improve, the EU should also provide more help to countries that are hosting the largest numbers of Afghan refugees.
Indeed, the number of Afghan refugees in the EU, and in the Western world in general, is minuscule compared with the numbers currently residing in countries in Asia.
Today, about four million Afghan refugees are believed to be in Pakistan and Iran. Turkey is also hosting a large number of Afghan refugees. Many refugees in these countries are living in dire conditions with limited access to food, safe water and healthcare. Moreover, their status in these countries is very precarious.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), from January 2020 to December 2020, there had been 806,300 returns from Iran and Pakistan to Afghanistan including deportations. Since January 2021, a further 286,618 returns from Iran and Pakistan were recorded. While these are not exact numbers, as many refugees have been deported multiple times, they still demonstrate the scale of the problem.
Afghanistan currently does not have the capacity to welcome hundreds of thousands of returnees and offer them humane living conditions. The EU, in collaboration with the rest of the international community, should work with Iran, Pakistan and other countries hosting large numbers of Afghan refugees to ensure they are not forced to return to an unsafe environment. Moreover, they should help these countries to provide dignified living conditions for these refugees.
Sending Afghan refugees and asylum seekers back to Afghanistan may provide short-term political gains to the governments of host countries, but it will also exacerbate Afghanistan’s multifaceted crisis and the immense suffering of its people.
The EU can, and should, host more Afghan refugees, not fewer. Rather than using aid money as leverage to pressure the Afghan government into supporting repatriation efforts through the so-called Joint Way Forward, it should put its energy and financial resources into strengthening its asylum system, and increasing its migration quotas.