During the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan in early October, an important aid-pledging event, the EU and the Afghan government entered into a contract that binds the latter to accept 80,000 asylum seekers whose claims in the EU fail. The process of deportation has already begun, despite serious concerns raised by Afghan and foreign organizations about security and human rights. While it is reasonable to accept that a fraction of these refugees are probably economic migrants seeking a better life in the EU, the majority are genuine refugees and qualify as such under international humanitarian laws – should these laws be interpreted and applied without discriminating against certain groups and are informed by accurate information. Moreover, under international refugee and international human rights laws, any country can deport failed refugees provided that their cases are judged equitably and the home country is not dangerous. In the case of the Afghan refugees, however, there is a serious danger for a large proportion of refugees of being caught in the nexus between restrictive laws in the EU and reality on the ground in Afghanistan.
For more than a year, the issue of returning failed Afghan asylum seekers has been a bone of contention between the Afghan government and the EU, and also among Afghan institutions. The EU has consistently pressured Kabul to sign the deal, and ensured that the deportation process of failed refugees would take effect quickly. Both President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah accepted the agreement. However, the ministers in charge of drafting the agreement and signing it refused to do so. They argued that Afghan refugees should be allowed to stay, as Afghanistan is unable to take them back and provide the assistance required to establish the basics of living. They further argued that this permission must be extended to all Afghan refugees, regardless of whether their claims for asylum were accepted or not, without discrimination. Now, as the deal is struck, it is and will continue to result in serious implications for thousands of to-be-deported refugees who are unable to access the minimum necessities for living in Afghanistan. Equally, the government, despite making bold claims on taking care of its returnee citizens, has struggled to provide adequate security and employment opportunities for those who have voluntarily returned from neighboring Pakistan and Iran. According to refugee agencies, those who returned in the early years after the demise of the Taliban have fled again and those still in the country are desperate to do the same.
More than any other country in the world, Afghanistan has generated a huge outflow of refugees since the communist coup in 1978, and today stands second only to Syria in the number of refugees it produces. According to recent estimates, more than a quarter of a million Afghan refugees sought asylum in European countries in 2015 and 2016. Germany received the bulk of this influx, with 180,000 asylum applications by Afghans over an 18-month period to mid-2016.
The refugees have invariably undergone some horrific physical and mental experiences, with lifelong repercussions. Yet, their stories are often misunderstood, misinterpreted, and worst of all politicized and manipulated for exigent ends. Media commentary is all too often glossed over with much triumphed achievements such as development, reconstruction, and education, which often don’t extend beyond the large cities and into the peripheries from where most of these refugees originate. Even in the large cities, the achievements are fragile and frequently a source of deception at best. This flawed presentation of the situation in Afghanistan has culminated in a failure of the foreign media and agencies to capture the real voices of those who are leaving Afghanistan in desperate and dangerous bids to seek refuge in Europe and other Western countries. To understand the plight of these refugees, it is critical to understand the factors that force them to flee the country, even while recognizing the extreme risks that come with that path. It is equally important to appreciate that leaving the country is not an easy option, particularly for those with female members and young children. Most critical of all is understanding the uniqueness inherent in the individual stories and circumstances of these refugees. The refugees coming from minority groups, particularly the Shite Hazaras, have their own stories to tell and unique reasons for embarking on perilous journeys. The Hazaras have long been prosecuted on the grounds of their ethnic distinctiveness by the Taliban and other radical Islamic insurgent groups and now, with the emergence and expansion of the Islamic State, their suffering continues and appear unlikely to end anytime soon.
On a trip to Afghanistan in November, I spoke at length with a large number of people who had been deported, either from mainland Europe or while caught on the way to Europe. While each individual has a particular tale to tell, with different stories, different experiences, and different individual circumstances , security was clearly the chief reason driving them to seek asylum. In more recent years, the Taliban have demonstrated an unprecedented capability to wage violence against the Afghan government. The recent succession of bloody attacks in Kabul alone, which killed large numbers of civilians and military personnel, underscore the rapidly deteriorating security situation. The emergence of the Islamic State, which has waged complex and sophisticated attacks on numerous occasions, further adds to the security implications and pressures. Shrinking employment opportunities, increasing corruption, deepening social cleavages, and growing political instability, are just some of the other challenges that Afghans must face daily.
Making a decision to flee the country, either alone or together with other family members, is a torturous enterprise. Making it to an EU country, given the tight border security measures, complex journey necessities, and ultimate outcome that is marred with uncertainty, often comes at a high cost. The people who intend to flee sell their properties, household items, and borrow money from friends and relatives to finance their journey. This hard decision comes with an understanding that the bid is highly likely to fail, and compensating for the subsequent loss is almost impossible. After being informed on their claims’ failure, the refugees experience yet another cycle of ordeal, trauma and agony. Stories of “refused” refugees committing suicide or getting trapped in a deadly mix of problems such as depression, anxiety, and psychological frustration are regular news items.
After their deportation, their world is shattered and their hopes of a peaceful and prosperous future evaporate. The government of Afghanistan has consistently failed to provide adequate security and employment opportunities for its citizens and will again fail to do so for the deportees. The implications are of greater significance for deportees who come from the distant areas that are either controlled or besieged by insurgent groups.
What is clear is that the refugee crisis is being politicized and refugee rights and laws undermined. For Afghanistan, in the medium and long run, the growing number of deportees and mass returns of refugees from Pakistan and Iran will add a serious complexion to the already complicated and fragile security conditions – as most of these people disenfranchised by the state will ultimately end up in the camps of insurgent and other radical groups. Moreover, this crisis will place an additional burden to the shrinking economy, and will overburden already fragile and inadequate services, especially education and health.
Arif Sahar is a scholar at University College London. He specializes in the political economy of state-building in post-2001 Afghanistan. Also a researcher at the University of Derby, he has been widely published in peer-reviewed academic journals, most recently in Central Asian Survey and Asian Journal of Political Science. Arif tweets @ArifSahar2