The current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, now both beyond their fifteen year, are the enduring conflicts of the twenty first century. The latest UN figures for civilian casualties in Afghanistan in the first half of 2018 listed 5122: 1692 deaths and 3430 injured. “More civilians were killed in the first six months of 2018 than in any year since 2009 when UNAMA started systematic monitoring”, with Kabul, Helmand and Kandahar among the most dangerous provinces.
While UN figures for civilian casualties in Iraq show a fall in recent months in both fatalities and injuries, the situation remains volatile. Ongoing protests against poor living standards in the country show that civilians will be met by brutal repression by their own security forces. Furthermore, with the US-led coalition onslaught against ISIS for 9 months in Mosul in 2016-2017, among others, “Civilian casualties from US-led strikes appear to be at their highest levels since Vietnam, and yet there is little or no official effort made to track the overall death toll from urban fighting.” The Associated Press (AP) put the death toll in the city at somewhere between 9000 and 11000. Bodies continue to be pulled from the rubble.
One of the main products of decades of conflict is millions of people displaced within (internally displaced persons, IDP) and without (refugees and asylum seekers) national borders. According to the most recent UN global refugee statistics for 2017, “Afghanistan is the source of the second-largest refugee population globally with 2.6 million people having fled by the end of 2017”. Afghans filed the highest number of asylum claims in 2017 around the world, even though that is only about half the number of those filed in 2015. Asylum claims by Iraqi nationals were the third most common after those made by Syrians. Nonetheless, in Germany, in 2017, applications from Iraqis fell by 77% on the previous year and by 87% for Afghans.
Although Afghans filed claims in 80 different countries in 2017, only 9% of Afghan refugees live outside of Iran and Pakistan and 5% of Iraqi refugees live outside the Middle East region. Given how long both conflicts have lasted, many Afghans and Iraqis have only ever experienced life as refugees in other countries or IDP camps and have no personal experience or knowledge of their home countries or regions.
In addition, 4.8 million Afghans are internally displaced as are 3.3 million Iraqis, although the latter figure does not include the total number of already displaced people who are forced to move again within Iraq.
In recent years, as European states continue to wage wars abroad that create refugees, they are also engaged in equally dangerous domestic policies to push them away from their borders. 2015, the year in which more than one million refugees and immigrantstravelled to Europe by sea routes alone, signalled a turning point in European policy. Deterrent policies such as the open prisons of “hotspots” in Greece and Italy, plans and deals to stop immigration via Turkey and Libya by building detention facilities there and deterring sea crossings focus on preventing entry via the European Union’s external borders.
At the same time, since 2015, European states have been actively engaged in removing large numbers of failed Iraqi and Afghan asylum seekers back to their country of origin. In 2016, 785 Afghans were returned from the UK; in 2017, 174 were deported from Germany. This is in spite of a steep fall in the number of claims being made.
Limited legal aid and access to legal assistance mean that the rate of successful asylum claims has fallen: “the rate of recognition of asylum applications from Afghanistan dropped from 68% to 33% in the EU between 2015 and 2016”. In 2017, 80% of asylum claims by Iraqis were rejected at the initial stage in the UK.
Failed asylum seekers are consequently subject to both forced deportations and “assisted voluntary return and reintegration (AVRR)”, or just assisted voluntary return (AVR), facilitated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The latter process is seldom “voluntary” given the few options and the lack of resources available to asylum seekers. They are sometimes coerced into accepting such return schemes.
EU-Afghanistan Joint Way Forward
Although forced removals are not unfamiliar to members of either refugee communities, after a brief respite, a win in the Court in Appeal in March 2016 allowed the British government to resume deportation flights to Afghanistan on the basis that while the violence in the country was increasing, some areas, such as Kabul, could be deemed safe enough for return, even though many returnees are not from Kabul or have never lived in Afghanistan before.
The number of Afghan asylum seekers arriving in Europe in 2016 was 80% less than the previous year. Nonetheless, in October 2016, the EU and the Afghan government signed the Joint Way Forward on migration issues leading to the mass return, often forced and via scheduled charter flights, of failed Afghan asylum seekers. A leaked memo ahead of the deal being made revealed that the Afghan government was forced to admit deportees or risk having its aid cut; the memo set the number of deportees that had to be accepted at “more than 80,000 persons”. Afghanistan remains highly dependent on donor aid. The EU has since been questioned over whether £184 million in state-building aid was dependent on the success of this deal.
A year later, in a damning report, Amnesty International found that between 2015 and 2016 the number of Afghans deported from Europe (including Norway) had tripled to almost 10,000 people. In 2017, the IOM said that 500 Afghans were deported and more than 3000 voluntarily returned that year from Europe. In February 2018, the EU statedthat 23 charter flights set off from six member states between December 2016 and December 2017, deporting 358 people.
Safe war zones
Applying the concept of the “Internal Flight Alternative” (IFA) or the idea that there are “safe” areas in Afghanistan, failed asylum seekers are returned to these places, regardless of the fact that given the religious, ethnic and social makeup of a country like Afghanistan, or Iraq, such “safety” is tenuous. Women, children and the LGBTI community are particularly vulnerable, regardless of where they may be sent. As a result of applying the IFA, the number of successful asylum applications has plummeted. Courts in some EU countries, like the Netherlands, have ruled it is “safe” and thus legal to return failed asylum seekers to Afghanistan.
More than 11 countries are involved in mass deportations. Germany, Sweden and Finlandalso have country-to-country agreements with Afghanistan; the Afghan government has been accused of selling out Afghans fleeing violence and persecution. The Amnesty report concluded: “At present, given the grave security and human rights situation across the country, all returns to Afghanistan constitute refoulement.”
While individuals such as the pilot who prevented a deportation by refusing to fly and the student who prevented a deportation on her holiday flight draw attention to the issue, such deportations continue without much notice. The most recent mass deportation flight from Germany took off from Munich on 3 July with 69 deportees, 51 of whom were failed asylum seekers.
Along with the crude remark by German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer that 69 Afghans were deported on his 69th birthday as he presented his “migration masterplan”, German authorities stated that most of the returnees were “voluntary repatriations”, a claim denied by some of those forced to return to Afghanistan. In June, restrictions on deportations to Afghanistan were lifted, opening the way to many more such deportations.
Germany has since had to admit that it wrongfully deported at least one man on this flight, whose asylum claim was lawfully ongoing, and was now in the process of bringing him back to Germany. Another man killed himself within a week of being returned to Afghanistan. One injured himself seriously, but unsuccessfully, with a knife to avoid deportation.
It is not just EU countries that are involved: in recent months, prior to the June presidential elections, Turkey announced it has deported 15,000 Afghans. Amnesty International criticised these mass deportations and the manner in which they were reported to have been carried out. However, the Afghan Analysts Network disputes this number as possibly having “been exaggerated” as the official numbers provided by different authorities do not match up and would be in breach of Turkey’s own laws against refoulement. It offers “three possible answers to this: the sudden media storm surrounding the arrival of Afghans from Iran; the upcoming elections on 24 June 2018; and, a desire to extract more funding from the EU.” It is nonetheless indisputable that Afghans, and others, are being deported from Turkey and that asylum seekers and refugees are often treated as pawns in political games.
European countries have also been criticised for the large number of Afghans who arrived as unaccompanied children who are deported upon reaching adulthood. Norway and Denmark are currently proposing to take this a step further: as the EU debates setting migrant processing centres in Libya, they are proposing to set up a centre to host unaccompanied failed child asylum seekers who are deported to Afghanistan. Aimed at 15-18 year olds, they are currently in talks with the Afghan government. Presented as “education and care centres”, they are simply a way for these governments to avoid responsibility through “deportation orphanages”.
In view of the most recent casualty figures for Afghanistan, Amnesty International has called on all governments, including those outside Europe, “to halt forced returns to Afghanistan”.
This is part I of a two-part study on mass removals of Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers from Europe. Although apparently separate issues and countries, the two should be read together to inform current trends on asylum policy and practice in Europe. Part II on Iraq can be read here.
Aisha is a human rights activist who blogs here https://onesmallwindow.wordpress.com