European countries repatriated tens of thousands of Afghans in the years before their home country’s recapture by the Taliban, and even sped up deportations in the last few years.
Official statistics show that between 2008 and 2021, more than 70,000 Afghans were forcibly removed to Afghanistan from European countries including the UK, Sweden, and Germany.
After Taliban fighters entered Kabul this week and the country’s government collapsed following the withdrawal of US and other international troops, harrowing scenes were witnessed at the capital’s international airport as thousands of Afghans desperately tried to escape the Islamic fundamentalist militants. In Europe attention is turning to the situation faced by refugees, with French President Emmanuel Macron drawing criticism for his calls to protect France from “irregular migratory flows”. In the House of Commons on Wednesday, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested that Afghans already in the UK would not be deported, saying, “We will not be sending people back to Afghanistan and nor by the way will we be allowing people to come from Afghanistan to this country in an indiscriminate way.” The UK has said it will resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees, although only 5,000 people will be allowed into the country in the next year.
Matteo Villa, a research fellow at the migration programme of Italian think-tank ISPI said, “Over the past 12 years, European countries have deported 71,065 people back to Afghanistan. This has occurred despite the situation on the ground being fragile, with an average 20 percent of Afghan districts under Taliban rule and 40 percent contested between Talibans and the Afghan government between 2015 and 2020. European governments perfectly knew this, and resorted to designate specific parts of Afghanistan as ‘safe areas’ as the country could not be considered safe overall, in order for deportations to continue.”
Far from the number of deportations decreasing as Afghanistan became increasingly unstable, they actually increased in recent years. There was a spike in deportations in 2016, when the EU signed an agreement with the Afghan government allowing EU countries to deport an unlimited number of refugees and obliging Afghanistan to accept them. In negotiating the deal, the EU suggested stripping Afghanistan of aid if it did not cooperate. The deal was signed at a time of military stalemate between NATO forces and the Taliban, meaning the Taliban were targeting civilians to sow terror and gain an advantage.
There were 5,100 deportations in 2020, the year in which the US withdrawal was negotiated by President Donald Trump’s administration.
Villa said, “Deportations even increased over the past few years, as it became clear that the US under Trump would withdraw from the country, with more than 16,000 of those 71,000 deportations being carried out between 2018 and 2020.
“As European governments scrambled to show that they could repatriate rejected asylum seekers to a wary public opinion, a complacent Afghan government was the target of choice. It is clear (now more than ever, but it was clear already years ago) that this policy has been a failure, condemning many that had made it to Europe to go back and live under what has now turned into an oppressive regime.”
The UK, a key military ally in the US-led invasion in 2001, repatriated 15,755 Afghans from 2008 to 2020 – the most of any European country. In 2016, former UK Prime Minister Theresa May, then UK Home Secretary, won a legal battle to be able to resume deporting people including children to the war-ravaged country even as civilian casualties rose, after a brief ban ordered by UK courts.
Sweden deported 9,970 people to Afghanistan, Germany deported 8,665, Greece 6,890 and France deported 6,115 from 2008 to 2020.
Satbir Singh, Chief Executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said, “As one of the wealthiest regions on earth, Europe has the means and the duty to provide protection to those fleeing danger.
“But despite a small minority of the world’s refugees fleeing to Europe, too often our governments turn vulnerable people away, including Afghans whose lives have so clearly been in danger. The UK, in particular, has a shocking record of shutting the door to those in need – refusing asylum to around 60 percent of Afghans since 2008. And to this day almost 3,000 Afghans are still in limbo, waiting to see whether their claims for asylum are accepted.
“It’s clear the UK and the rest of Europe must do legions more to provide protection to people fleeing danger. Instead of pulling up the drawbridge, the UK and other European nations should come together to welcome Afghan refugees and support those already here with immediate grants of asylum.”
According to Villa, the focus must now be on those Afghans whose asylum applications were rejected, but who were not returned to Afghanistan: “Over the same 12 years, 600,000 people applied for asylum in European countries. Of these, 290,000 were rejected. The number of returnees implies that there are at least 220,000 Afghans in European countries whose asylum application was rejected but who have not yet been returned to Afghanistan. European governments should urgently grant them with humanitarian visas, and with a credible path to legally remain here, rather than resume deportations and bring them to a country whose regime shows total and utter disrespect for basic human rights.”