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Is the EU doing enough to protect Afghans escaping the Taliban?

‘Right now, Afghans don’t know what support is available for them. There are no clear steps.’

Illustration picture shows people getting out of the plane at the arrival of a chartered Air Belgium airplane Airbus A340 carrying evacuated people from Afghanistan, at the military airport in Melsbroek, Belgium, Thursday 26 August 2021. Nicolas Maeterlinck/Belga Photo
Afghans arrive on an evacuation flight to Melsbroek military airport in Belgium in August 2021. Around 41,500 Afghans have been evacuated to the EU since the Taliban returned to power.

Nearly two years after the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, the number of vulnerable Afghans who have reached the European Union through legal pathways is miniscule compared to the scale of the need, according to refugee advocacy organisations.

Meanwhile, those who have made it to the bloc – either through evacuations or by undertaking irregular journeys – are often given short-term protection, leaving their long-term futures in Europe in question.


Last month, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) released a report saying that only 271 Afghans had been resettled as refugees to the EU in 2022. That number shows a “staggering neglect of Afghans in need of protection” by EU member states, according to the IRC 


The UN has called on EU countries to resettle 42,500 Afghans by 2026. Overall, around 270,000 particularly vulnerable Afghan refugees are currently in need of resettlement from countries such as Iran and Pakistan, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. 


Since the Taliban returned to power in Kabul in August 2021, the EU and EU member states have pledged to help Afghan refugees, and tens of thousands of others at-risk of Taliban persecution who remain in Afghanistan, access legal pathways to find protection. 


Pushing back against the IRC report’s findings, EU officials have defended the bloc’s efforts, pointing to around 41,500 Afghans who reached EU countries through evacuations in 2021 and 2022. They also say that the EU’s commitment to assisting vulnerable Afghans remains steadfast.


The European Commission, however, did not respond to The New Humanitarian’s request for comment. 


A Finnish immigration official, who asked not to be named, said exceptional measures have been taken to bring Afghans to safety since the return of the Taliban. “Exceptions such as evacuations are rare…there are no other examples in the recent past where a similar special process would have been used,” they said. 


But ad-hoc emergency evacuations – many of which took place in August 2021 – are not a suitable alternative to a “more sustainable, longer-term scheme” to bring Afghans to safety, according to Olivia Sundberg Diez, a policy and advocacy adviser for the IRC. “Member states are yet to invest in moving from emergency evacuations to a long-term expansion of safe pathways for those at risk,” Sundberg Diez told The New Humanitarian. 


Read more: Germany suspends evacuation of at-risk Afghans, leaving thousands stranded


Afghans The New Humanitarian spoke to, who have reached EU member states as evacuees or on their own as asylum seekers, also say they haven’t found the long-term protection that would allow them to feel secure and restart their lives. 


Many have not been granted refugee status, which would put them on a path toward EU citizenship. Instead, they have been given a short-term status called subsidiary protection that needs to be renewed every one to five years, depending on the country and individual case. 


In Germany, for example, which received just over 41,000 asylum applications from Afghans in 2022 – the highest number in the EU – around 78 percent of cases that were adjudicated last year were granted a "national removal ban". The status ensures they cannot be deported to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and gives them a one year residency permit, at minimum. But it does not guarantee the right to stay in Germany long-term. 


European asylum officials have defended the practice of giving Afghans short-term protections, saying it is a common way to accommodate large groups of people who are in danger because they are from a specific country. They have also downplayed concerns surrounding the uncertainty about the future stemming from the need for short-term protections to be re-evaluated and renewed. 


But at least one European official – a Finnish immigration source, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the subject – said that resuming deportations to Afghanistan in the future was not entirely off the table. 


Helsinki and other European capitals are watching the on-the-ground situation in Afghanistan very closely, the source said. “If the security and human rights situation in Afghanistan improved in the future, then under those circumstances it could be possible that the EU and Finland would resume deportations to Afghanistan,” they added.


Afghans given short-term protections — both evacuees and asylum seekers — say that their uncertain long-term status and the spectre of potential deportations in the futre plague them with feelings of uncertainty and worry.


“I don't know what the future holds for me and my children,” said Yousuf*, a former Kabul University Law Professor who was given subsidiary protection after being evacuated to Germany in 2021.


“Far from at ease”

Yousuf, his wife, and their three children were among the 124,000 civilians evacuated from Afghanistan as NATO countries withdrew and the Taliban retook control of the country. 


After nearly two years in Germany, Yousuf says he still cannot plan a stable life for his family because he keeps thinking about what will happen when their initial three-year residency permits expire in about 18 months.


“When I think about it, I lose all motivation to integrate into German society because I'm not sure if I'll be here or not,” Yousuf said. 


Azad*, 28, reached Germany as an asylum seeker in 2016 after taking a treacherous journey through Iran and Turkey. He arrived shortly after Brussels and Kabul signed an agreement that allowed EU countries to deport an unlimited number of Afghans, despite there being record-high civilian casualties from the war in Afghanistan that year. 


Fearing that he would be deported, Azad lived in hiding for five years. After Germany halted deportations to Afghanistan as NATO forces were withdrawing in August 2021, Azad was finally granted subsidiary protection. But the time in limbo has taken a toll. “I’ve lost so many years of my life to this uncertainty,” he told The New humanitarian.


Now, with short-term protection, the uncertainty hasn’t ended. "I am far from at ease,” Azad said.


Pictured is a man wearing all black. He sits in some stairs outdoors facing a building. We do not see his face.
Wadud Salangi/TNH
Like hundreds of other Afghans in the EU, Azad has been waiting for more than a year to bring his family to Germany, despite being given subsidiary protection.

He has also been separated from his wife and children for seven years. The possibility of bringing them to Germany through family reunification didn’t exist until he was given subsidiary protection. But even now that it does, Azad’s family has been waiting for two years for an appointment at the German embassy in Iran or Pakistan, he said. 


Even if they manage to get an appointment, the wait wouldn’t be over, according to Sundberg Diez, from IRC. “There are so many cases of people who have been in Pakistan waiting on their family reunifications for months, even years, at a time,” she said. 


It's not just family reunifications that have been a convoluted and confusing process, according to Afghans The New Humanitarian spoke to, who say the process of renewing their subsidiary protection status is also not so straightforward.


“It takes months of waiting and numerous email exchanges to secure a meeting" to re-evaluate your status, Azad said.


“People are left to wonder”

Germany’s entire approach to handling Afghans seeking protection is in need of an overhaul, according to Farzaneh Suleimankhil, a lawyer based in Germany, who specialises in migration and asylum cases. “It’s simply unjust,” she said. 


For example, Afghan women’s rights to recreation, work, and education have all been greatly limited by the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate government, Suleimankhil said. “Despite the dire conditions faced by Afghan women, female asylum seekers and migrants are unable to receive asylum solely based on their gender and must provide additional reasons for their asylum requests," she explained.


“Right now, Afghans don’t know what support is available for them. There are no clear steps.”


Suleimankhil has also witnessed countless instances of Afghans having to wait for up to five years for a single appointment with an asylum officer. And those long waits seem to be continuing. At the end of 2022, German authorities had yet to issue decisions on 27,594 asylum cases lodged by Afghans.


Sundberg Diez, the IRC adviser, agreed with Suleimankhil. “Afghans face disproportionate obstacles and barriers to fair asylum procedures,” she said, adding that this is still the case even after the Taliban’s return to power.


For Afghans outside of Europe searching for legal ways to seek protection, “there are so many questions that remain unanswered”, Sundberg Diez continued. 


“Right now, Afghans don’t know what support is available for them. There are no clear steps. People are left to wonder how to prove their identity, what counts as evidence that you worked with Europeans, and who to turn to if you have questions about delays,” she said. 


For those in Europe, EU countries’ history of deporting Afghans before the Taliban’s return is a source of unease. Azad, Yousuf, and other Afghans The New Humanitarian spoke to who have been granted short-term protections fear they could face deportation if EU countries and the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate end up establishing diplomatic ties. 


Currently, no EU country has diplomatic relations with Afghanistan. But the EU has a diplomat stationed in Kabul, and last month, a top UN official alluded to the possibility of finding “baby steps to put [the UN] back on the pathway to recognition” of the Taliban government. 


So far, no country outside of Europe has recognised the Taliban-led Islamic Emirate as the official government of Afghanistan either. But countries like Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey continue to deport tens of thousands of Afghans, and more than a dozen countries have handed consulates and embassies over to Islamic Emirate diplomats.


Afghans with short-term protections in Europe fear that future deportations to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan might not be as far-fetched as they may appear. The German government is already reportedly facing pressure from political parties to restart deportations of Afghans convicted of crimes. And Belgian politicians recently called for the deportation of an Afghan YouTuber they accuse of supporting the Taliban. 


Last year, Belgium denied the asylum cases of at least 500 Afghan refugees. The nation’s Commissioner General for Refugees explained the denials by saying violence in Afghanistan has reduced and is “no longer random or arbitrary”. 


"Not everybody is being targeted by the Taliban. Only certain categories of people,” he said.


Yousuf told The New Humanitarian that all these developments had led to a very acute sense of fear. He worries that, if Berlin and the Islamic Emirate can re-establish ties, his family would lose their residency, and after that, possibly face deportation. 


The fact that Afghans are still troubled by such questions nearly two years after the Taliban returned to power is proof that there is “very low commitment” from EU countries to save even the most vulnerable Afghans, Sundberg Diez said. “It is a question of political commitment,” she added.


*The names of Afghans in this article have been changed to protect their identities. 


Edited by Eric Reidy

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