Last year, the EU signed a deal with the Afghan government to start deporting failed asylum seekers back to “safe areas” in Afghanistan. But Sayed Jalal Shajjan asks, how safe are the “safe areas”? In recent months the security situation has deteriorated, and it is unlikely that Donald Trump’s Afghan policy will do much to improve this in the near future. In continuing the deportations, the EU is willfully turning a blind eye to the realities on the ground in Afghanistan.
General John W. Nicholson Jr., commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, recently described the current security situation in Afghanistan as a “stalemate”. This situation has forced the insurgents to turn their focus on terrorising the civilians in relatively safe areas in Afghanistan: recent attacks in Mazar-e-Sharif, Kabul, Herat and now Sari-Pul are examples of these changing patterns. A memo prepared for an internal discussion of EU and Afghan Government was leaked just days before the Brussels donor conference on Afghanistan in October 2016. In the document leaked by the Guardian reporter based in Kabul, it was revealed that EU has secretly planned to deport 80,000 Afghan asylum seekers back to Afghanistan. If neither side is winning the war in Afghanistan, how feasible it is to force the refugees to return?
At the beginning of the month of Ramadan 2017, President Ashraf Ghani asked the militant groups to stop violence out of respect. The Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said via his Twitter that “the Mujahidin of Islamic Emirate places special attention on protecting civilian lives during all months of the year. Call for stopping Jihad in this holy month is ignorance of religion. Hurting civilians during Ramadan and otherwise is a crime. Our fight is Jihad & obligatory worship, the reward for every obligatory act of worship is multiplied by 70”. A few days later, there was an attack in Kabul which proved to be the deadliest in 17 years. The Taliban did not claim responsibility, but Afghanistan’s intelligence agency via its twitter account claimed that the explosion to be the work of Haqqani, an affiliated group of the Taliban (although the Haqqani Chief also recently denied the allegation).
The recent attacks by different terrorist outfits (Daesh/ISIS or Taliban) waging brutal assaults in various parts of Afghanistan, as well as the Afghan Government inability to respond effectively means that there will be no winner in the near future, and the level of casualties will continue to rise. The events in Afghanistan in the past few months, started with the USA dropping the largest non-nuclear bomb, which was known as “the mother of all bombs” in Nangarhar Province, shows that the main losers are innocent people. Many of whom had to take the perilous journeys to reach Europe in search of better life.
The number of asylum seekers from Afghanistan in 2015 reached 193,000 (from 23,000 in 2013 and 39,000 in 2014). Faced with the mounting pressure from its member states, the EU decided in 2016 that migrants whose applications for asylum had been rejected by European countries would be sent back. However many national and international laws prohibit refugees from being deported to their countries’ of origin if it is not safe. For example, according to Article 16a3 of German Basic Law safe countries of origin are defined as:
“In which, on the basis of their laws, enforcement practices and general political conditions, it can be safely concluded that neither political persecution nor inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment exists”.
Since Afghanistan clearly does not fit the criteria of the safe country concept, a solution was needed to send back the migrants. The EU, therefore, came up with the concept of “safe areas” within Afghanistan. The European Asylum Support Office (EASO) drew on their own country of origin information analysis to establish the “safe areas” in 2016. Yet, neither the documents nor the deteriorating events in recent months give the slightest indication that these areas are suitable for migrants to return to. On the contrary, the recent UN Mission in Afghanistan released data on civilian casualties, which showed that the civilian casualties are on the rise in the first quarter of 2017 (Amnesty International, 2017). Kabul, which is considered to be one of the “safe areas” has the highest number of civilian causalities. Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif are also listed, yet both have been targeted since EASO published its report.
The European Union and Afghanistan signed a deal just days before the Brussels conference to deport the Afghan migrants to “safe areas” in Afghanistan. The deal is called “EU-Afghanistan Joint Way Forward on Migration Issues” and concentrates on supporting the return and readmission of Afghan migrants whose asylum applications were rejected. According to the agreement, the Afghan Government is required to “ readmit its citizens who entered into the EU or are staying on the EU territory irregularly, after the due consideration of each case by the member countries”. Based on the terms of the deal, EU member states are allowed to return migrants more quickly and in larger numbers. The first wave of the migrant deportations took place on 15 December, when 34 failed asylum seekers were repatriated. Since then, the deportations have included Afghan nationals who travelled to Europe, whereas having lived most of their life in Iran and therefore have no connections or roots to return to in Afghanistan.
While opening the Kabul Process Conference on 6 June 2017, President Ashraf Ghani reminded the international community of the danger of terrorism and the threat it poses to everyone. The question that arises here is that how the future will look: President Ashraf Ghani said that his government is fighting over 20 international terrorist groups in Afghanistan, and between 2015 and 2016, over 75,000 Afghans were killed or wounded. One of the most violent groups is the brutal Deash (ISIS) whose fighter number has dramatically increased to include around “11,000 fighters over the past two years.”
America’s longest war is nowhere near to its end in Afghanistan. A report published by Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction stated that as of February 2017, the Afghan Government controls only 60 per cent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts. The report Indicated that the Afghan Government is still struggling to control the Taliban insurgency which begun a decade and a half ago, at the same time as facing new and expanding terrorist groups.
Against this backdrop, the question of how safe are the “safe areas” for refugees to return should be asked repeatedly. EU leaders may not want to acknowledge it, but the policy is clearly unfit for purpose and denying Afghans their human rights.
Cover image: Refugees arriving in Greece. Credit: Natalia Tsoukala/Caritas International CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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About the Author
Sayed Jalal Shajjan is a development practitioner based in Kabul focusing on social and economic development, migration, peace, and terrorism. He holds an MSc degree in Anthropology and Development from the London School of Economics and Political Science and can be followed on twitter @jsaeedsh.