The EU recently reached an agreement with Turkey to send asylum seekers back to Turkey if they come to Europe illegally. The deal will mostly affect Afghan citizens who make up the second-largest group of asylum seekers. The Telegraph reported a few days ago that EU has a secret plan to deport 80,000 Afghan citizens.
Such developments are undoubtedly worrisome for tens of thousands of refugees who risk life and limb to flee terrorism, persecution and systematic discrimination to take refuge in the West. Human rights organisations have already condemned the Turkey deal. Amnesty International calls it 'a historic blow to human rights'.
The irony is that the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, dubbed the 'mayor of Kabul' due to his limited writ in other parts of Afghanistan, said in his latest interview with the BBC on 31 March that he had 'no sympathy' for Afghan refugees. He had earlier criticised Afghan citizens who risk their lives to reach Europe by saying that 'they (the refugees) think streets of Europe are paved with gold'. Ashraf Ghani, who is accused of being too soft on the Taliban in the name of encouraging peace talks, has reportedly agreed with European countries that Afghanistan will receive all Afghan citizens if they are deported. 'If a person is expelled from another country then you have to accept your own citizens when they return', Ghani told Swedish Radio.
Approximately 146,000 out of the 800,000 asylum applications received by EU member countries from 1 January to 31 October 2015 were Afghans. In Sweden alone, the number of asylum seekers from Afghanistan has increased dramatically. Statistics released by Swedish Migration Agency show that 41,564 Afghans applied for asylum in Sweden in 2015, of which more than half (23,480 applicants) were unaccompanied minors, as compared to 2014 when only 3104 Afghans applied for asylum. In 2010 the figure was 2393 Afghan citizens.
There are many factors behind the rapid increase in number of Afghan refugees.
The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan
Various reports suggest the security situation has drastically deteriorated in Afghanistan since withdrawal of NATO forces in 2014.
The Taliban has captured new territories even in the northern part of the country, previously believed to be a government stronghold. The taking of Kunduz city by the Taliban in late 2015 proved its increasing influence and boosted its confidence despite demise of leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
The UN's 2015 Annual Report on Afghanistan reports 'a 20 per cent increase in armed clashes' over the previous year. The report further reads: 'In order to assert their influence over the civilian population, anti-government elements continued to conduct targeted killings and abductions'. Between 1 August and 31 October, UNAMA documented 3693 civilian casualties, an increase of 26% compared with the same period in 2014.
Abductions and killings of Hazara civilians in Afghanistan
Hazaras, the third-largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, have been persecuted by successive Afghan regimes. The Taliban killed them en masse in central and northern Afghanistan from 1998 to 2002, as has been documented by human rights groups like HRW. The Hazaras welcomed foreign intervention in Afghanistan 2001 and the subsequent removal of Taliban regime. They wholeheartedly cooperated with international forces for the establishment of a democratically elected government in Afghanistan.
Now, after over a decade of fighting costing billions of dollars, hundreds of soldiers, and thousands of civilian lives, NATO countries have left the people of Afghanistan at the mercy of Taliban. Soon after the withdrawal of NATO from Afghanistan in 2014, the Taliban rapidly gained footholds in many parts of the country, with little to no resistance from Afghan security forces. Mass kidnappings and killings of ethnic Hazaras started once again. Attacks against Hazaras increased in southern and central provinces under Taliban control such as Ghazni, Zabul, Urozgan, Wardak and others.
Taliban factions compete with each other in killing civilians, mostly Hazaras, as a proof of their brutality, with the aim of terrorising the entire country.
UNAMA has reported 'a sharp increase in the abduction and killing of civilians of Hazara ethnicity by Anti-Government Elements'. UNAMA cites a number of examples, such as one incident on 23 February, when 'anti-government elements abducted 30 Hazara passengers from two public buses in Zabul as they were travelling from Heart to Kabul'. UNAMA and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have detailed Taliban atrocities against Hazaras such as 'slit(ting) throats of civilians, including the children'.
Mass abductions, the cold-blooded massacre of civilians, and the government's persistent failure to provide protection, has created a sense of a helplessness and hopelessness among the Hazara community. Emergence of some Taliban factions as ISIS fighters has further terrorised them. With so little hope for the future, Hazaras are leaving Afghanistan, some for Europe.
Forced expulsions of Hazaras from Iran
The Swedish Migration Agency reports that a large portion of Afghan asylum seekers comes via Iran. Various reports, including one by Human Rights Watch, confirm that the Iranian regime threatens Afghan refugees with deportation if they refuse to fight for Assad regime in Syria. The Afghans, however, escape to Turkey and further to Europe in order to avoid becoming fuel in Syrian civil war. 'Iran has not just offered Afghan refugees and migrants incentives to fight in Syria, but several said they were threatened with deportation back to Afghanistan unless they did. Faced with this bleak choice, some of these Afghan men and boys fled Iran for Europe', reports Human Rights Watch.
'The Syrian war has nothing to do with us. I can't even speak their language. Why should I take part in their war? What has Assad done for me that I risk my life defending him?' Said an Afghan asylum seeker I interviewed in Gothenburg, Sweden. The 21-year-old had fled to Turkey and then to Sweden after, as he claims, being abducted by Iranian forces to be then transported to Syria.
Photo by Flickr user IRIN Photos.