'Joint Way Forward' deal puts Afghan refugees in danger

'Joint Way Forward' deal puts Afghan refugees in danger
The deal allowing the EU to deport an unlimited number of Afghan asylum seekers puts untold numbers of lives at risk, reports Mohammed Harun Arsalai.
7 min read
11 October, 2017
Afghan refugees in Germany face growing racism and the threat of deportation [AFP]

Just over a year after it was signed, the EU-Afghanistan "Joint Way Forward" agreement, which has allowed for the EU to deport an unlimited number of Afghan asylum seekers back to Afghanistan, has been deemed illegal by Amnesty International.

Amnesty's scathing 44-page report, titled Forced Back to Danger: Asylum-Seekers Returned from Europe to Afghanistan calls for a moratorium on all deportations to Afghanistan and blasts the EU-initiated deal as "willingly blind" to the immediate danger faced by Afghan asylum seekers, including unaccompanied children, upon deportation.

"Given the grave security and human rights situation across the country, all returns violate the international legal principle of non-refoulement," reads the report - a damning conclusion that should cause alarm in the Afghan government. But Afghan activists who have been fighting against EU deportations worry that President Ashraf Ghani will continue to ignore their calls and further capitulate to the EU in order to secure future aid and development funding.

President or puppet?

"At the cost of Afghan refugees' inalienable right to security and dignity, President Ghani prioritised economic aid over a humanitarian crisis," says Suraia Sahar, a Toronto-based Afghan activist.

"This comes as no surprise, given his close ties to the World Bank, an organisation widely criticised by the developing nations they've exploited through financial aid agreements conditioned on the privatisation of industry by foreign corporations that extract wealth. Ghani allows other powers to exploit Afghanistan, making him a tool of neo-colonialism - he is literally selling out Afghan refugees."

In a 2016 interview with the BBC, before the deal was agreed, Ghani caused outrage among refugee and migrants rights activists by stating he had "no sympathy" for Afghan refugees. Ghani has also been reluctant to challenge the EU's narrative that Afghans are not refugees fleeing violence, but are simply leaving Afghanistan due to economic pressure - labelling them "economic migrants". This has paved the way for EU countries to disregard international laws pertaining to the rights of refugees under the Geneva Conventions.

There are thousands of Afghans who are holding negative decisions mostly because they were not able to prove their identities

In Sweden, Afghans fighting for the rights of asylum seekers are also calling on Ghani to sympathise with his fellow country people who have opted to leave.

"President Ghani has no clue that many documents from Afghanistan, including Tazkiras - Afghan national identification - are not accepted," says Ahmad Aklil Khalil, head of the migration affairs committee at the Afghan Association of Sweden.

"He believes that the asylum cases of Afghans are not correctly examined... the Swedish Migration Agency looks at Afghan cases as numbers, not as people fleeing war and security threats."

The Afghan president is not solely to blame for the problems faced by asylum seekers outside his country. Government agencies inside Afghanistan are also failing to fulfil their stated obligations, says Khalil.

"The Minister of Refugees and Repatriation has no idea that Afghans are not able to prove their identities in the first steps of the asylum application, and this ends up in routine negative decisions. There are many Afghan asylum seekers who have received negative decisions even before the embassy opened in Stockholm.

"It means there are thousands of Afghans who are holding negative decisions mostly because they were not able to prove their identities [as Afghans]."

The abandonment comes as Afghan asylum seekers find themselves in a situation growing ever more dangerous, as far-right political parties and neo-Nazi groups use the influx of refugees and their precarious existence in the EU to rally voters, and in many instances to attack refugees physically.

Afghan activists vs the far-right

Networks of Afghan activists coordinating around the globe have been working in conjunction with Afghan refugees on the ground throughout the EU for the past several years, culminating in a recent burgeoning of Afghan refugee movements across Europe.

In many instances, it is Afghan youth who have been leading the fight against EU deportations.

Since August 6, 2017, a social strike initiated by students and youth from Afghanistan currently facing deportation from Sweden has gained steam and captured the attention of the Swedish public. The Afghan youth refugees started their protest with around 50 people, some holding signs inviting others to join: "If you agree that I should not be sent to my death, come sit with me."

The efforts of young Afghans in Sweden were supported by local activists and others within the Afghan community, but also caught the attention of European racists. A few days into the sit-in, on August 9, the Afghans were attacked by right-wing extremist group Nordisk Ungdom (Nordic Youth).

"I saw around 20 of them," said Sweden-based Afghan journalist Mohammad Reza Oriya. "They began shouting at us and telling us to 'leave their country'... they threw small bombs at our demonstration, injuring three people.

"It was very chaotic and frightening, but the demonstrators reacted very well and with strength - we did not allow the Nazis to deter us from our cause."

The protest in Sweden is still ongoing.

The gains of the AFD have forced other German political parties to take a more right-wing stance on refugees

Far-right political parties have made significant recent gains throughout Europe, and anti-refugee hate crimes have skyrocketed in recent years, with a 40 percent increase in the UK after the Brexit referendum. In Germany, more than 3,500 attacks on refugees took place in 2016, leading to 560 people being injured, among them 43 children - a shocking amount of violence that would should have served as a forecast for the recent election wins of the anti-Muslim and anti-refugee Alternative for Germany party (AFD).

"The gains of the AFD have forced other German political parties to take a more right-wing stance on refugees, to win elections," said Germany-based Afghan activist Sarmina Stuman.

"That is why the German government has not stopped the deportations to Afghanistan, even though the German embassy in Kabul was attacked in May and was unable to operate until recently. The German government is now trying to justify these deportations, by claiming that they are only deporting criminals, which gives the far-right even more popularity, since Afghan refugees are villainised."

Forced back to danger

In strongly worded detail, the new Amnesty report backs up claims made by Afghan activists and journalists who have been challenging the legality of the JWF deal.

"There are EU nations that consider Kabul the safest area of Afghanistan," said Omar Wairach, Amnesty International's Deputy South Asia Director. "Some nations believe that because there are provinces that are considered safe, like Panjshir and Bamiyan, Afghan refugees can be deported there, no matter where they're from.

"As far as Amnesty International is concerned, these ["voluntary assisted returns"] terms are not voluntary and are in violation of international law."

A year into the implementation of the JWF, the basic aid that was agreed upon to support deported Afghans has also not been provided, according to Wairach.

"Nothing has been done by the Afghan government to improve the lives of deportees, who face grave risks when returned to the country."

Ahmad Aklil Khalil agrees with Wairach's assessment.

"There are thousands of Afghan refugees being forcibly deported from Pakistan and Iran, but are still on the roads - Afghan ministers have several times confessed that they were never able to provide shelter to all those returning - how could they possibly provide help and support to those being deported from Europe?

"The Afghan government should first of all try to help those who are coming back from Pakistan and Iran with at least security and shelter, and then think about signing an agreement on the return of Afghan asylum seekers from Europe."

Horia Mosadiq, Amnesty's Afghanistan researcher, put it clearly:

"There is no part of Afghanistan that can be considered safe... It is reckless and dangerous to put people in harm's way. Put a moratorium on deportations."

Mohammed Harun Arsalai is an independent journalist and political activist from the Bay Area of California, and co-founder of the independent media project, Documenting Afghanistan. Currently based in his native Afghanistan, Mohammed's recent work focuses on refugees, the War on Terror, and militant groups operating inside Afghanistan. 

Follow him on Twitter: @ArsalaiH