Today, with 2.5 million registered refugees, Afghans make up the largest refugee group in Asia and the second largest in the world. Around 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees are currently living in Pakistan and 3 million (both registered and unregistered) in Iran. Afghanistan’s neighbors are thus the immediate hosts for the greatest number of Afghan refugees.
On April 26, the European Union signed a Joint Declaration on Migration Cooperation (JDMC) with Afghanistan, replacing the previous Joint Way Forward (JWF) agreement, which facilitates the deportation of Afghans whose asylum applications have been rejected in the EU member states. The new agreement amends the JWF and proposes new changes, such as a maximum number of 50 returnees per flight and up to 500 deportees per month. However, the situation for returnees remains increasingly unwelcoming on the ground.
The Joint Way Forward (JWF)
The EU’s readmission arrangements with third countries have been kept mostly confidential and not fully revealed to the public. This holds true for EU declarations with Afghanistan that were disclosed by Statewatch and criticized by human rights activists afterward. The JWF was drafted by the European Commission and European External Action Service (EEAS) and signed during the Brussels donor conference in October 2016. It explicitly mentions Afghanistan’s dependency on foreign aid, proposing that it could be used as “possible leverages across Commission-EEAS policy areas to enhance returns and effectively implement readmission commitments.”
As it is today, the Afghan government was unstable when the JWF was signed back in 2016. The reasons for the instability were then viewed as mainly due to the withdrawal of International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) and their supplying companies in 2014, which shocked the post-Taliban economy. Additionally, the contentious presidential elections in 2014 resulted in political instability and deteriorating security, which led to the establishment of the U.S.-brokered National Unity Government (NUG) dividing power between Ashraf Ghani as president and Dr. Abdullah as chief executive. The NUG was in need of foreign aid and this was clearly echoed in the statements of Afghan officials at the time. As Afghans represented the second largest group seeking asylum in Europe in 2015, the EU was looking to find hasty solutions to relieve the burden on its member states. This was reflected in the preparation of the draft of the agreement and the instrumentalization of the development aid in the EU’s externalization of migration policy. Both declarations emphasize the EU’s commitment on developing and funding reintegration programs for Afghan returnees.
Afghanistan, the EU’s Major Aid Recipient
The EU has provided billions in development aid to Afghanistan since 2002, which makes Afghanistan one of the EU’s top global aid recipients. Next to other areas of cooperation, migration is one of the areas included in the EU-Afghanistan Cooperation Agreement on Partnership and Development (CAPD), which was signed in 2017. This was followed by the EU Strategy on Afghanistan, adopted in the same year, which emphasizes the “return, readmission and reintegration of irregular migrants” from the European Union member states to Afghanistan. Prior to this, however, readmission was already facilitated through the Joint Way Forward.
As mentioned, the JWF was signed during the Brussels donor conference in which the EU and its member states committed to pledge 5 billion euro collectively and 1.2 billion euro from the EU budget in development aid between 2016 and 2020 to Afghanistan. The EU renewed its contingent financial assistance once again in 2020 during the Geneva conference in which Afghanistan was expected to receive 1.2 billion euro in development support over the period 2021-2025. However, it seems that the EU deliberately postponed signing the Joint Declaration on Migration Cooperation (JDMC) to a later stage, as the JWF received widely negative media coverage in both Afghanistan and the West, when it was signed in parallel to the Brussels conference.
The Challenges of Reintegration
On April 14, 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden announced a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan starting on May 1. Washington plans to put an end to the United States’ longest war by September 11, 2021. The decision was soon followed by similar announcements by NATO and the German government that they would pull out their troops before American forces leave the country. The conditionality of EU financial assistance to the Afghan government also covers a peace settlement with the Taliban. However, it is not clear how the EU will be able to manage its future relationship with the government of Afghanistan without the U.S. and NATO military presence if peace negotiations fail. Even today, the Taliban’s presence beyond Afghanistan’s major cities has made it difficult for national and international NGOs to implement their projects, including reintegration programs. Regardless of the current fragile situation, the JDMC had predicted an increasing number of deportees in its new arrangements compared to JWF.
Both declarations emphasize the EU’s commitment to developing and funding reintegration programs for returnees. The JWF included a separate section tasking the International Organization for Migration (IOM) with implementation of reintegration in collaboration with the Afghan government. Following the first agreement, IOM launched the Reintegration and Development Assistance in Afghanistan (RADA) project, which currently covers eight provinces that include Baghlan, Balkh, Herat, Kabul, Kandahar, Kunar, Laghman, and Nangarhar. The RADA scheme, which was envisaged to be supported by the Afghan government at national and sub-national levels, was challenged because of limited Afghan government capacity, its dependency on international actors, and an imbalanced power relationship.
Proper housing and resettlement of returnees is another major challenge after repatriation. Keeping this in mind, the Afghan government launched the Land Allocation Scheme (LAS) in 2005, which granted landless returnees and internally displaced persons plots for housing. Sixty sites were identified for the resettlement of returnees in Afghanistan. These sites, commonly known as Shahrak Mohajerin (refugees’ towns), were located mostly in the outskirts of major cities. They have become partially dysfunctional not only because of a lack of basic services, but also due to the increasing Taliban presence outside such cities. Additionally, population density based on cultivable land is high, which makes land and property grabbing a major driver for conflict. The repatriation and reintegration process for those who have been away for a long time from their villages and hometowns is not smooth.
Returnees are prone to radicalization and they may be forced to join anti-government groups. A study published in November 2019 by the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization (AHRDO) indicates that Afghan deportees are susceptible to radicalization and likely to act as anti-state forces. Many of the deportees from Europe also end up as internally displaced persons, since they cannot return to their place of origin due to internal conflicts and violence. According to IOM, more than 1 million Afghan migrants returned or were deported to Afghanistan from neighboring Pakistan and Iran in 2020. However, as there are little prospects for the future, a survey found last year that 42 percent of returnees were planning to migrate once the COVID-19 situation improved.
EU-Afghanistan cooperation on migration, as reflected in both declarations, indicates a great deal of power asymmetry. The existing policies ignore the realities on the ground, jeopardize the principles of human rights, and impose new obligations on the Afghan government that it is unable to fulfill due to political instability and institutional constraints. Its heavy dependence on international donors, lack of coordination, and conflicting approaches in setting joint priorities between international and national actors have challenged the implementation of reintegration programs. The EU’s paradoxical approach to state-building, instrumentalization of development aid, and short-term migrants’ readmission policy reveal the current shortfalls and complexity of the EU’s externalization policy. While the future of EU-Afghanistan cooperation remains uncertain after the U.S. and NATO military withdrawal, the EU’s push for the return of Afghan asylum seekers to Afghanistan seems less justifiable under the current circumstances.