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14th Apr 2024

Six EU states want migrant returns to war-torn Afghanistan

  • The US military will complete its withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of the month after 20 years in the country (Photo: Wir. Dienen. Deutschland.)

Six EU countries have warned the EU Commission against halting forced deportations of rejected Afghan asylum seekers arriving to the bloc, despite major advances of Taliban insurgents in the country.

The Taliban has made massive gains in Afghanistan since US and Nato forces decided to withdraw from the country after 20 years, capturing five out of the country's 34 provincial capitals in less than a week.

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Local Afghan security forces, which have been trained and equipped by Western military allies in the last decades, have been overwhelmed by the Taliban's campaign.

The return of the Taliban, which was ousted in 2001 after the Islamist attacks in New York, has prompted fears of a new surge in migrants coming to Europe.

But in a letter dated 5 August, the interior ministers of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece and the Netherlands urged the EU's executive to "intensify talks" with the Afghan government to ensure that the forced return of failed asylum seekers would continue.

The government in Kabul, however, last month asked the EU to suspend "non-voluntary returns" for three months as the Taliban offensive rages.

After Kabul's appeal, Sweden and Finland halted forced deportations to Afghanistan, prompting concerns in other EU countries.

"We would like to highlight the urgent need to perform returns, both voluntary and non-voluntary, to Afghanistan," the six EU ministers wrote to the commission.

"Stopping returns sends the wrong signal and is likely to motivate even more Afghan citizens to leave their home for the EU," they added.

Asked if Afghanistan was a safe place on Tuesday, a commission spokesperson said it was up to each EU country to make an "individual assessment of whether a return is possible."

An EU official said the bloc was not facing an imminent major influx of migrants.

"We're nowhere near a migratory crisis," the official said, who was quoted by the Associated Press.

"Given the context, it is hard to imagine that we would conduct forced return operations for the moment," the official also noted, adding that around 1,200 Afghans have been deported from EU nations this year.

Most of them went willingly, with 200 having been forced to go.

However, the six EU countries argued that halting returns "sends the wrong signal" and is likely to motivate more Afghans to leave their homes.

The countries urged the commission to keep talking to the Afghan government and insisting on continued forced returns.

The issue is likely to be discussed at an emergency meeting of EU home affairs ministers on 18 August, which will mainly focus on the surge of migrants crossing from Belarus to EU members Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.

The International Organisation for Migration (IMO) said in a statement that 359,000 people have been newly displaced this year due to the fighting in Afghanistan.

Over 5 million people were already displaced internally.

The head of the IMO, Antonio Vitorino, said he was "extremely concerned by the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, particularly the impact on mobile and displaced populations, including returnees."

He added that Afghanistan was "in the throes of a third wave of Covid-19 and a severe drought," leaving almost half the population in need of emergency assistance.

Since 2015, around 570,000 Afghans have requested asylum in the EU, the letter from the six EU countries noted - 44,000 in 2020 alone - making Afghanistan the second most important country of origin last year.

Belgium's state secretary for asylum and migration, Sammy Mahdi, defended the letter, which met with criticism.

"That regions of a country are unsafe does not mean that each national of that country automatically is entitled to protection," he said on Twitter.

Afghans in 2020 made up 10.6 percent of asylum seekers in the EU, or just over 44,000 out of some 416,000 requests, the second largest behind Syrians on 15.2 percent, according to EU data, AFP reported.

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Thousands of people are being returned from Europe to Afghanistan as the country undergoes some of its worst violence in years. Amnesty International is accusing the EU of "willful blindness" for backing the returns.

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Last week, six EU countries, including Germany, and the Netherlands, said forced returns must continue despite violence in Afghanistan. Now they have changed their mind. Belgian Greens are also criticising the decision.

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Several EU member states are worried that the Taliban takeover would trigger a replay of the 2015-16 migration crisis when the bloc has seen the arrival of over one million asylum seekers in a matter of months.

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