"Instead of erecting barbed-wired fences and walls, European politicians should show true leadership and acknowledge that it is the men, women, and children of Afghanistan – not Europe’s external borders – that need protection," writes Danish Refugee Council's Charlotte Slente.
Among several European politicians, the situation in Afghanistan has raised fears of an imminent crisis. That is also the case for the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), an organisation that has been working in Afghanistan for more than 20 years. Sadly, however, the fear expressed by European politicians is neither about the alarming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan nor the fact that recent political developments have increased internal displacement, leaving more than 18.4 million people — half of the entire country's population — in need of urgent humanitarian assistance and struggling with the consequences of deep poverty and instability, compounded by a nationwide drought and new waves of COVID-19.
Instead, European politicians have had a disturbing focus on securing the EU's external borders and ensuring that Afghan refugees are being kept out of Europe. Disguised by arguments of “security” and avoiding “a repeat of 2015”, leading political figures seem to forget that the situation playing out in Afghanistan right now is a crisis for its people, not for Europe. As a very tangible example, the statement from the extraordinary EU Home Affairs Council on 1 September speaks of Afghans as "illegal" migrants — and not as refugees seeking protection from human rights abuses and persecutions. In a situation where these same European countries have also facilitated mass evacuations of at-risk people from Afghanistan, it seems contradictory that those left behind and fleeing by their own means should be doing something "illegal."
The fact is that protection needs do not end with evacuations. And seeking asylum is a basic human right — not an illegal act. That ought to be the real focus.
Neighbouring countries bear the brunt
Looking beyond Europe, the vast majority of displaced people in Afghanistan and elsewhere never cross any borders at all. It is risky, difficult and costly to flee; it is often the last resort, and never a decision that is taken lightly. It is, therefore, a stark reality that due to conflict and violence 48 million people are internally displaced worldwide, meaning they have fled their homes and sought refuge within the borders of their own country. Those who see no alternative other than leaving their home country primarily seek asylum and protection in neighbouring countries, which host 73% of the world’s refugees. In total, 86% of all displaced people (internally displaced and refugees combined) are hosted by low-income countries.
This is also the case for Afghanistan, where 40 years of conflict have forced millions to leave their homes, often multiple times. In a country with a population of 40.4 million, around 3.5 million are currently believed to be internally displaced and an estimated 9 out of every 10 Afghan refugees are hosted in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan — countries that are also struggling with their own development challenges, but which have nonetheless shown great responsibility and hospitality over the years.
These days, the Taliban controls Afghanistan’s borders with Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and visas are extremely hard to obtain for Afghans wishing to leave. Thus, for many Afghans, it is not even possible to seek protection in neighbouring countries.
In this light, the European discourse seems both disproportionate and disconnected from reality.
Illegal pushbacks in Europe
It is crucial that EU Member States ensure that Afghan refugees arriving at Europe’s borders are given rapid access to a fair asylum procedure. This is in line with obligations under EU and international law. Disappointingly, this is not always the case. In two reports released earlier this year, DRC and six civil society organisations documented that during the first half of 2021, authorities of EU member states illegally prevented 5,565 men, women, and children, many of whom are Afghans, from seeking protection within the European Union. These illegal expulsions, known as "pushback", were recorded at several border crossings in Italy, Greece, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, and Hungary. Many of the documented pushbacks involved rights violations such as denial of access to asylum procedures, physical abuse and assault, theft, extortion, and destruction of property at the hands of national border police and law enforcement officials.
Most recently, our team in Bosnia and Herzegovina have collected testimonies at the Bosnia-Croatia border, documenting 60 cases of Croatian authorities pushing back Afghan asylum-seekers between 16 and 29 August, in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. According to the victims, the pushbacks included brutal and violent behaviour, degrading treatment and theft, and destruction of personal belongings. Half of the Afghans who were pushed back were children.
It is extremely worrying to see that people continue to experience illegal pushbacks and border violence. It goes without saying that states must stop these violent and illegal practices and that perpetrators must be held accountable.
Time to back up words with actions
This December, three years will have passed since world leaders signed the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), where they agreed to work collectively to ease the pressure on host countries and ensure a more equal sharing of the responsibility for managing growing numbers of refugees. When they put pen to paper, they agreed to enhance opportunities for refugee self-reliance, to expand access to third-country solutions, and to support countries of origin to facilitate safe, voluntary, and dignified returns.
However, close to three years on, the case of Afghanistan is not a promising one when it comes to equitable responsibility-sharing. On the contrary, neighbouring countries are expected to host those seeking protection, while the EU is primarily preoccupied with securing its own borders.
Developments in Afghanistan illustrate how acute and relevant the GCR is, and now it is time for the EU and its Member States to back up their words with concrete actions. Discouragingly, these commitments are far from being kept at the moment. If European leaders do not display any solidarity, how will they convince neighbouring countries to keep their doors open and offer protection and a dignified future for people fleeing persecution, violence, and conflict?
The EU has no excuse not to take the lead when it comes to the protection of rights. And even more importantly, to support and protect Afghans — and others — fleeing war, conflict, and human rights violations. The EU must show solidarity, both by supporting neighbouring countries who take the largest responsibility for hosting refugees, and by also hosting a fair share of refugees who need protection. Building walls and fences and seeking to simply keep asylum seekers out is not, and can never be, a solution.