Britain and other European countries have been accused of breaching international law, as it emerged that the number of asylum seekers forced to return to Afghanistan has tripled at a time when civilian casualties in the country are at a record high.
According to a report by Amnesty International, unaccompanied children and Christian converts at risk of persecution, torture and death – a status that should legally guarantee asylum – have been removed from European countries.
Between 2015 and 2016, the number of people returned by European countries to Afghanistan nearly tripled, from 3,290 to 9,460. This corresponds to a marked fall in recognition of asylum applications, from 68% in September 2015 to 33% in December 2016, official EU statistics show.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has reported that 2016 was the deadliest year on record for civilians in the country, with 11,418 people killed or injured. In the first six months of 2017 alone, UNAMA documented 5,243 civilian casualties in attacks by armed groups, including the Taliban and the so-called Islamic State.
Amnesty’s report, Forced Back to Danger: Asylum-Seekers Returned from Europe to Afghanistan, further accuses European governments, including the UK, of being “determined” to return young Afghans despite being well aware of the unfolding “horrors” in the country.
It claims that in a leaked 2016 document, EU agencies acknowledged Afghanistan’s “worsening security situation and threats to which people are exposed”, as well as the likelihood that “record levels of terrorist attacks and civilian casualties” will increase. The report further claims that the agencies then stated in the document that “more than 80,000 persons could potentially need to be returned in the near future”.
It quotes Eklil Hakimi, Afghanistan’s finance minister, who told the Afghan parliament that the government needed to accept the returnees in order to guarantee aid. “If Afghanistan does not cooperate with EU countries on the refugee crisis, this will negatively impact the amount of aid allocated to Afghanistan,” he is quoted as saying.
The Amnesty report adds: “Similarly, a confidential Afghan government source called [the policy] a ‘poisoned cup’ that Afghanistan was forced to drink in order to receive development aid. The country is highly aid-dependent, with nearly 70% of Afghanistan’s annual income dependent upon international donors.”
In 2016, the five European countries that returned the most Afghans were: Germany (3,440), Greece (1,480), Sweden (1,025), the UK (785) and Norway (760).
Between 2007 and 2015, the report notes, 2,018 young people who had sought refuge in the UK as unaccompanied child asylum seekers were deported to Afghanistan. Despite Kabul being the most dangerous province for citizens, the UK Home Office’s policy guidance states that “return or relocation to Kabul is, in general, considered reasonable”.
Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, said: “By rejecting the vast majority of claims for asylum by Afghans, the UK is setting a worrying precedent which risks encouraging other countries to do likewise. If the government doesn’t stop deporting Afghans, it will have blood on its hands.”
Amnesty International researchers interviewed several families who described their experiences after being forcibly returned from European countries – losing loved ones, narrowly surviving attacks on civilians and living in fear of persecution.
The researchers highlighted the case of a woman and her family who fled Afghanistan in 2015 after her husband was kidnapped, beaten and released in return for a ransom. After travelling for a month, they arrived in Norway, where the authorities “denied their asylum claim and gave them a choice between being detained before being deported or being given €10,700 to return voluntarily”.
A few months after returning to Afghanistan, the husband disappeared and was later discovered to have been killed, presumably by kidnappers.
Anna Shea, Amnesty International’s researcher on refugee and migrant rights, said: “In their determination to increase the number of deportations, European governments are implementing a policy that is reckless and unlawful. Wilfully blind to the evidence that violence is at a record high and no part of Afghanistan is safe, they are putting people at risk of torture, abduction, death and other horrors.”
The Home Office said: “The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection. Where a decision has been made that a person does not require international protection removal is only enforced when we and the courts conclude that it is safe to do so, with a safe route of return.”