The plight of Afghan migrants and asylum seekers in deportation procedures across the globe has received renewed attention since U.S. and other international military forces completed their evacuations from the country in August 2021, effectively ceding control of the country to the Taliban. In recognition of the vulnerabilities these people would face back in Afghanistan, UNHCR issued a “non-return advisory” in mid-August, calling “on States to suspend the forcible return of nationals and former habitual residents of Afghanistan, including those who have had their asylum claims rejected.” (See the GDP’s Afghanistan Situation Report, 8 September 2021, https://www.globaldetentionproject.org/afghanistan-situation-report.)
However, criticism of Afghan deportations had already begun growing in the months before the military evacuation due to concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on the safety and health of Afghans in return procedures across the globe. On 16 December 2020, after a nine-month interruption in deportation flight arrivals due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 11 Afghans arrived in Kabul after being deported from Austria and Bulgaria. Other European countries—including Germany, Sweden, Bulgaria and Hungary—also began deportations at about that time. After Germany, which had suspended deportations to Afghanistan from March 2020 to December 2020, resumed deportation flights in early 2021, the German human rights organisation Pro Asyl said that it was “completely irresponsible to stubbornly continue this flight into the unknown despite a national lockdown.”
In July 2021, the Afghan government called on European states to suspend deportations for at least three months as security forces battled Taliban offensives. Afghanistan’s refugees and repatriation ministry said that “the escalation of violence by the Taliban terrorist group in the country and the spread of the third wave [of COVID-19] have caused a great deal of economic and social unrest, creating concerns and challenges for the people. The government’s decision emphasises that host countries should refrain from forcibly deporting Afghan refugees for the next three months.”
In response, the German government said it would consider Afghanistan’s request but that it planned to hold discussions with European partners first. On the other hand, due to the worsening security situation in the country, Finland suspended deportations in July 2021. Sweden quickly followed and stopped all deportations to Afghanistan in July stating that conditions had deteriorated “after the Taliban movement [took] control of large parts of the country.” At the end of July 2021, thirty NGOs including, Save the Children, ECRE, and several national refugee councils, called on the European Union to suspend deportation flights of Afghan nationals and also asked national asylum authorities to “re-examine all final negative decisions for Afghan asylum seekers still present in European countries in the light of the current situation in Afghanistan and foreseeable risks of future persecution being identified as a result of this new situation.”
Meanwhile, Greece announced shortly after the announcement of the U.S. pull-out from Afghanistan that it was constructing a 40-kilometre wall and surveillance system along its border with Turkey, vowing that it would not be a “gateway to Europe” for Afghan refugees. According to UNHCR, 45 percent of migrants arriving in Greece in June 2021 were from Afghanistan. Since Greece announced in June that Turkey was a “safe third country” to which asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, and Bangladesh could be safely returned, the majority of Afghans in Greece have been rejected and are awaiting return back to Turkey.
Data released at the end of August 2021 showed that the UK refused 400 Afghan asylum cases in the previous year and returned 13 Afghan nationals back to Afghanistan (5 of them since the start of 2021). 497 Afghans were placed in immigration detention during this period, 130 of them since April 2021 when the Taliban had already began its advance. Refugee advocates and lawyers in the UK have argued that given the fundamental change in circumstances in Afghanistan, all Afghans in the UK should be granted full refugee protection, including expedited rights to family reunification; that those forcibly returned in the past year should be brought back to the UK; and that those in immigration detention pending deportation should be immediately released.
Back in Afghanistan, prior to the takeover by the Taliban, the COVID-19 pandemic had taken a considerable toll on the population. As of 7 September 2021, the country had recorded 153,626 cases and 7,144 related deaths. The WHO fears that due to the Taliban’s hostility to vaccinations, there could be a rapid and uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 in Afghanistan. In an update, the WHO said: “Disruptions at [the] airport are delaying urgently needed essential health supplies. Crowding at health facilities and IDP camps, due to rising conflict in the country will limit implementation of infection prevention protocols, increasing the risk of COVID-19 transmission and outbreaks of other diseases.” While the country has begun a national vaccination campaign, it had only administered a total of 1,872,268 doses by 14 August out of a total population of 40 million people.
(For a fuller update on the situation of Afghan refugees in countries across the globe, see the GDP’s Afghanistan Profile Page, https://www.globaldetentionproject.org/countries/asia-pacific/afghanistan)
- M. Bulman, “UK Returned 13 Afghans in the Past Year and Refused Asylum to 400, New Official Figures Show,” The Independent, 26 August 2021, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/afghanistan-refugees-uk-deport-asylum-seekers-b1909047.html
- Global Detention Project, “Afghanistan Country Report,” September 2021, https://www.globaldetentionproject.org/countries/asia-pacific/afghanistan
- A. McGuinness, “Afghanistan: UK Should Grant Afghans in Country Leave to Remain and Bring Back All Those Forced to Depart, Campaign Group Says,” Sky News, 17 August 2021, https://news.sky.com/story/afghanistan-uk-should-grant-afghans-in-country-leave-to-remain-and-bring-back-all-those-forced-to-depart-campaign-group-says-12383867
- B. Bathke, “European Countries Resume Deportation Flights to Afghanistan After 9-Month Coronavirus Break,” Infomigrants, 16 December 2020, https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/29138/european-countries-resume-deportation-flights-to-afghanistan-after-9month-coronavirus-break
- M. MacGregor, “Germany Will Continue Deportations to Afghanistan, Finland Announces Suspension,” Infomigrants, 13 July 2021, https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/33554/germany-will-continue-deportations-to-afghanistan-finland-announces-suspension
- K. Siegfried, “The Refugee Brief – 27 August 2021,” UNHCR, 27 August 2021, https://www.unhcr.org/refugeebrief/the-refugee-brief-27-august-2021/
- The New Humanitarian, “Afghan Refugees, COVID-19 Surges, and a New Phase in Tigray: The Cheat Sheet,” 16 July 2021, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news/2021/7/16/Afghan-refugees-COVID-19-surges-Tigray-Cheat-Sheet
- P. Loft, “Afghanistan: Refugees and Displaced People in 2021,” 3 September 2021, https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-9296/
- M. MacGregor, “Sweden Follows Finland, Suspends Deportations to Afghanistan,” Infomigrants, 19 July 2021, https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/33684/sweden-follows-finland-suspends-deportations-to-afghanistan
- ANSA, “NGOs Demand Europe Stop Deportations to Afghanistan,” Infomigrants, https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/33783/ngos-demand-europe-stop-deportations-to-afghanistan
- Reuters, “Half a Million Afghans Could Flee Across Borders,” 27 August 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/half-million-afghans-could-flee-across-borders-unhcr-2021-08-27/
- C. Gall, “Afghan Refugees Find a Harsh and Unfriendly Border in Turkey,” The New York Times, 23 August 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/23/world/europe/afghanistan-refugees-turkey-iran-taliban-airport.html
- K. Fallon, “Greece Will Not Be ‘Gateway’ to Europe for Afghans Fleeing Taliban, Say Officials,” The Guardian, 26 August 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/aug/26/greece-will-not-be-gateway-to-europe-for-afghans-fleeing-taliban-say-officials
- E. Henderson, “Experts Fear Rapid Spread of COVID-19 in Afghanistan Given Taliban’s Hostility to Vaccinations,” Medical-News, 20 August 2021, https://www.news-medical.net/news/20210820/Experts-fear-rapid-spread-of-COVID-19-in-Afghanistan-given-Talibans-hostility-to-vaccinations.aspx