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Afghanistan to the Aegean: why thousands make this journey each year

For decades, people from Afghanistan have made journeys to Europe, fleeing war, persecution and conflict in the hope of reaching sanctuary. Today almost 50% of displaced people in the Aegean islands are Afghans, and across the EU they continue to represent the second largest group of people seeking asylum in the EU after Syrians. Nevertheless, the numbers of Afghans reaching Europe to seek asylum has been falling, in line with a declining rate of asylum applications generally. 48,135 applications for asylum were made by Afghan nationals in 2020, a significant reduction compared to the peak of 183,430 applications by people from Afghanistan in 2016. It is also only a fraction of the over 2 million registered Afghan refugees currently living in Iran and Pakistan.

Whilst fewer people are making it from Afghanistan to Europe in search of safety, the country remains one of the deadliest in the world, where at least 50% of the population lives in areas highly impacted by armed conflict. A surge of violence in recent weeks has seen more news focus on Afghanistan, and international outcry following explosions that killed 85 people and injured over 150 at Sayed Ul Shuhada School in West Kabul on 8 May 2021. Most of the victims were schoolgirls and many were part of the Hazara minority community, living in Kabul after fleeing violence in central Afghanistan. Several days later, a bomb ripped through a mosque in Kabul during Friday prayers, killing 12 worshippers.

But whilst violence may currently be intensifying, conflict and death has been the reality for Afghans for over 40 years. A ceasefire for three days over Eid is just the fourth pause in fighting in two decades.

People stand at the site of a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan May 8, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

As the USA and NATO start formally withdrawing troops from the country ahead of a deadline for full withdrawal by 11 September 2021, the Taliban have warned they are no longer bound by an agreement not to target international troops. Yet in the face of a conflict that shows no sign of abating and in fact is getting worse, Europe continues to deport people to Afghanistan. Under the “Joint Way Forward” (JWF) agreement with Afghanistan, in return for aid from the EU, Afghan authorities agree to streamline the return of citizens who have been rejected for asylum by EU member states. The JWF was initiated in 2016, despite a leaked EU document at the time acknowledging the “record levels of terrorist attacks and civilian casualties in the country.” In the past 10 years, fighting between the Taliban and Afghan government has resulted in the death or injury of over 100,000 people. In 2019 alone, an estimated 461,000 people were internally displaced by the conflict and violence. Nevertheless, the EU’s border agency Frontex deported 1,902 people to Afghanistan between 2016 and March 2020. Individual member states have also organised private charters to deport Afghan nationals, though the numbers of people removed this way are not publicly available.

Various national and international laws stipulate that people cannot be deported back to their country of origin if that country is not safe. Yet despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the EU and individual member states has concocted the concept of ‘safe areas’ within Afghanistan in order to justify deportation flights. After a temporary hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic, countries resumed deportations to Afghanistan in the winter of 2020, with Austria, Germany, Sweden, Bulgaria and Hungary all organising return flights. Many of the countries that are forcibly deporting people back to Afghanistan on the grounds that some areas are ‘safe’ have at the same time issued travel advice to their own citizens advising against all travel to the country. So, while member states are willing to acknowledge the threat the Taliban poses to their own citizens, they do not extend this concern to Afghan nationals asking for protection from that same threat.

Moreover, after undertaking interviewees with 1,255 deported Afghans, the Mixed Migration Centre found that 41% intended to re-migrate when COVID-19 restrictions are relaxed, while 38% were uncertain. Only 18% intended to remain in Afghanistan. EU member states are forcibly returning people to countries where they are not safe, and do not intend to stay. Yet the deportations continue.

Afghan campaigners and refugee rights groups have consistently called out the illogical and hypocritical lengths that EU countries appear willing to go to to deport people to Afghanistan. A recent tweet by Afghan author, campaigner and refugee Gulwali Passarly, thanked the Swedish embassy for its solidarity following an attack on a girls’ high school in Kabul, but questioned the morality of Sweden continuing to deport Afghans:

Europe Must Act agrees that Europe is risking people’s lives and placing them in harms way by deporting them to Afghanistan. We stand with Afghans under attack in their country, in camps on the Aegean islands and across Europe. We support calls for deportations to Afghanistan to be halted immediately, and we continue to campaign for dignified reception and rapid relocation for all displaced people on the islands. Join our movement here.

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