KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – Thousands of Afghan refugees have been returned to the country from Europe at a time when the number of civilians killed and injured in the ongoing conflict continues to reach record levels.
According to a new report from Amnesty International, “Forced Back to Danger: Asylum-Seekers Returned from Europe to Afghanistan,” between 2015 and 2016, more than 9,460 Afghan refugees were returned from European countries. That figure represents a nearly 300 percent increase from the prior year.
These returns, a mixture of deportations and so-called “assisted voluntary returns,” place the refugees directly in the line of fire, said Amnesty, which called for an immediate moratorium on the deportation of Afghan refugees.
“Afghanistan is deeply unsafe, and has become moreso in recent years,” the London-based rights group said of the situation in the country.
They point to a recent UN assessment as proof of that danger. According to the United Nations, the first eight months of 2017 saw more than 16,290 security-related incidents throughout the country. Among these incidents were three separate attacks on mosques since August 1. Two of those bombings targeted worshipers during Friday prayer ceremonies in Kabul, which is regarded as a “safe” zone by many European governments.
Along with the armed opposition — a mixed bag of nearly 20 groups including the Taliban and fighters claiming allegiance to the Iraq and Syria-based so-called Islamic State — Afghans are also susceptible to attack from other parties in the 16-year conflict. In August, the United Nations confirmed that 15 civilians, all women and children, were killed in a U.S. airstrike targeting anti-government forces in the western province of Herat. Two days later, another 13 civilians were killed by a U.S. airstrike in Logar province, in the east of the country.
To Afghans, both in the country and abroad, these recent incidents prove yet again that nowhere in the country is safe from attacks by the armed opposition, intimidation, and widespread torture from groups allied with the Kabul government and increasing aerial strikes (including drones) conducted by foreign forces.
The pervasiveness of the danger throughout the country is borne out by two recent phenomena. In their mid-year report on civilian casualties in the country, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan found that Kabul, the city where nearly all refugees are deported, suffered the highest rate of civilian deaths and injuries in the first six months of 2017. Further troubling for many Afghans is the fact that in the last year, the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, regarded as the most secure urban center in the country, has come under attack twice.
Shortly after the first attack on Mazar-e Sharif last November, Gholam Reza, an Afghan refugee in Athens, said the Taliban-claimed assault on the German consulate in the city proved that nowhere in the country was safe from the effects of the war.
“Where in the country is there not explosions and bombings? How can these governments say Kabul or anywhere else is safe?” the 26-year-old, who fled the Afghan capital in the spring of 2015, told ThinkProgress.
Maqboul Sidiqi, who has worked with Afghan refugees in Greece and Germany since 2009, said these facts are rarely considered when deciding the asylum cases of Afghan refugees in Germany.
Sidiqi said the refugees he has spoken to have repeatedly complained of discrimination at the hands of German officials.
“Their cases are never considered on an individual level. They aren’t given the proper time to be decided,” Sidiqi told ThinkProgress. “Instead, they are all grouped together and their cases are decided based on the current conditions in the country, not their individual cases.”
According to Amnesty’s research, conducted in coordination with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration, the average recognition rate for asylum status among Afghan refugees dropped from 67 percent in 2015 to 56.7 percent in 2016.
The difficulty for Afghan refugees, said Sidiqi, is that Berlin, along with other European capitals, holds that there are “safe areas” of Afghanistan to which failed asylum seekers can be deported.
This belief dates back to at least 2015, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said her government would only accept Afghans in “acute” danger, with a particular emphasis on those Afghans who worked alongside German forces in the country.
Merkel went on to imply that Afghans are economic migrants, rather than refugees fleeing an ongoing war.
“Where refugees come hoping for a better life — and I know that this hope is big for many — that is no reason to get asylum status or residency status [in Germany],” the German Chancellor said at a December 2015 press conference.
It was this line of thinking by European leaders, who have been facing growing anti-refugee sentiments in their own countries, that led to signing of the Joint Way Forward agreement between the 28-member bloc and the Kabul government the following year.
The Joint Way Forward allows for an unlimited number of refugees to be deported from the European Union and requires the Kabul government to cooperate with the EU member states to ensure that a failed asylum seeker is deported back to Afghanistan within four weeks of the initial request.
In its report, Amnesty referred to the agreement as a “callous” disavowal of the worsening security situation in the country.
“Notwithstanding the Joint Way Forward’s rhetoric of solidarity and cooperation … The agreement puts pressure on Afghanistan to accept large numbers of returns,” said Amnesty.
The organization points to a statement by the nation’s minister of finance, Eklil Hakimi, as proof that the Joint Way Forward was seen as a precondition for the European Union’s continued financial support to the Kabul government.
“If Afghanistan does not cooperate with EU countries on the refugee crisis, this will negatively impact the amount of aid allocated to Afghanistan. Germany cannot provide aid money and deal with the refugees at the same time,” Hakimi said during an October 2016 parliamentary hearing.
The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) — a pan-European alliance of 98 non-governmental organizations protecting the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced persons — said the Joint Way Forward saw the European Union “strong-arm” Kabul into accepting the deportation of Afghan refugees in exchange for continued aid.
Though Germany placed a brief moratorium on deportation of Afghan refugees following a May 31 suicide truck bombing in Kabul that left 150 people killed and more than 460 others injured, Berlin resumed its deportations of suspected criminals and asylum seekers who failed to comply with identification procedures less than a month after what was called the single worst attack in the Afghan capital in 16 years.
In 2016, Germany returned at least 3,440 Afghan refugees, the highest rate of any European Union member state.
Sidiqi, the refugee aid worker in Germany, said the unexpected success of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in last month’s federal election, will only make matters worse for Afghan refugees.
For the first time since its founding in 2013, the AfD, which secured 13 percent of the vote in the September 24 polls, will have seats in the Bundestag, the German legislature. The party came to prominence on a largely anti-refugee platform.
“It’s more or less about domestic politics here in Germany, and now with the AfD in parliament and the interior minister’s anti-refugee stances, Afghans will become the easiest targets of any sort of anti-refugee policies,” said Sidiqi.
As for the “assisted voluntary returns,” which can see families being given up to 10,700 euros for their willing return to Afghanistan, Sidiqi, as well as refugees in Istanbul and Athens that have spoken to ThinkProgress over the years, all say that they are far from voluntary.
Instead, they point to conditions on the ground in several of the countries as the leading to factor to such returns.
In Greece, often the first EU nation to receive Afghan and other refugees, Afghan refugees say they are relegated to living in camps on the outskirts of Athens. With Greece’s neighboring states having closed their borders last March, thousands of Afghan refugees have been forced to live in these camps for months at a time. These camps often lack access to proper health care, education for their children, clean living spaces, privacy, and leave refugee families susceptible to attack both by fascist groups and others in the camps.
Similarly, in Serbia, Afghan refugees are forced to live in makeshift camps, often in the squalor of abandoned buildings and military facilities outside Belgrade.
In Germany, said Sidiqi, Afghans face several layers of discrimination, which he said is part of “a psychological campaign to get Afghans to leave at any cost.” This discrimination, said Sidiqi, ranges from lack of proper attention to the asylum cases of Afghan refugees to the refusal of German authorities to allow Afghans to take German-language courses, a right which is afforded to Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
Omar Waraich, Deputy Director for South Asia research at Amnesty International, said that the returns are anything but voluntary. As many Afghans have sold nearly everything they own to pay for the journey to Europe, Mosadiq said Afghan refugees are often strong-armed into accepting the financial incentives offered by the EU member states.
“As far as Amnesty International is concerned, these terms are not voluntary and are in fact in violation of international law,” Waraich said at a Kabul press conference.
Horia Mosadiq, Amnesty’s Afghanistan researcher, said the Kabul government must accept that they are in no way obligated to cooperate with the deportation of Afghan refugees who have faced tremendous obstacles and made it to Europe.
“We want the Afghan government to stop cooperating immediately,” said Mosadiq. “No Afghan should be returned to Afghanistan.”