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There’s a better way forward than sending Afghans home to conflict

If the international community is serious about finding lasting solutions, then responsibility sharing is key.

An Afghan woman and her son on the Greek island of Lesvos
An Afghan woman and her son outside a temporary camp for migrants and refugees on the Greek island of Lesvos in September. (Yara Nardi/REUTERS)

Many Afghans displaced outside their country are stuck in a state of perennial limbo, with no prospects for a genuine, safe return on the horizon. Yet the European Union and Afghanistan are negotiating the extension of a divisive agreement that repatriates failed asylum seekers to a country still at war.

The EU and Afghanistan signed the Joint Way Forward agreement (JWF) in 2016, in response to the so-called “refugee and migrant crisis”, when people from countries including Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq sought shelter and better livelihoods in Europe. This deal was seen by many as an attempt by the EU to shy away from their protection responsibilities, and instead, facilitate the return of thousands of Afghan nationals. Set to expire next week, on 6 October 2020, the EU is currently negotiating a further two-year extension of this agreement.

While the JWF ostensibly offers a straightforward resolution to addressing the issue of irregular migration of Afghans to Europe, the deal fails to acknowledge two crucial factors: the impact of ongoing conflict, and the unequal burden Afghanistan’s neighbours have shouldered for years.

Contrary to common belief, the vast majority of Afghan refugees do not live in western nations. Four decades of insecurity and conflict have pushed millions of people out of Afghanistan. For many, this has meant countless years away from their homeland, creating one of the world’s largest and most protracted refugee crises.

Most are hosted in neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey. At present, there are an estimated 1.4 million registered and 500,000 unregistered Afghan refugees in Pakistan, between 1.5 and two million refugees in Iran, and a further 170,000 registered Afghan refugees in Turkey. 

By comparison, approximately 250,000 Afghans made their way to Europe in search of security and safety from 2015 to 2016 – the height of a “crisis” that garnered widespread international press coverage and political scrutiny.

Most troublingly, the EU’s JWF agreement does not adequately acknowledge the fact that Afghanistan to this day is mired in conflict and faces other pressing challenges – despite ongoing peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

The EU’s JWF agreement does not adequately acknowledge the fact that Afghanistan to this day is mired in conflict and faces other pressing challenges.

In 2019 alone, conflict and violence displaced an estimated 461,000 people in 32 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. At least 158,000 more have been displaced this year, even as Taliban and Afghan government officials discussed moving forward with the peace talks. These numbers are on top of frequent displacements from floods, drought, and other disasters, which are expected to worsen as the impacts of climate change build.

There are currently more than 2.9 million internally displaced persons in Afghanistan, according to the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Meanwhile, the majority of Afghans claiming asylum in Europe are granted protection: According to the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), approximately 58 percent of asylum claimants from Afghanistan were given refugee status in EU countries in June 2020. 

These figures are a stark reminder that conditions inside Afghanistan are clearly not conducive for return, and therefore call into question the fundamental premise of the Joint Way Forward agreement.

Read more → Why Afghan returnees say they were better off as refugees

As a country marred by violence, poverty, and insecurity, it is simply untenable to suggest that the situation in Afghanistan can support returns. Instead of returning to safety, those coming back from Europe may very well face immediate displacement, either within Afghanistan or into a neighbouring country. 

Afghan displacement is complex and multi-faceted. If the international community is serious about finding lasting solutions, then it will require a comprehensive approach. Responsibility sharing is key. 

As endorsed in the Global Compact for Refugees, the international community should focus on exploring options to open pathways for resettlement of Afghan refugees in Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan, as well as supporting these host countries with continued humanitarian and development assistance. As nations that are trying to improve their own healthcare systems and general infrastructure, host countries must also receive predictable and ongoing development support.

Afghan displacement is complex and multi-faceted. If the international community is serious about finding lasting solutions, then it will require a comprehensive approach. 

Finally, governments and donors should recognise the tremendous heavy lifting being done by Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran. These nations have shouldered primary responsibility for Afghan refugees over the past four decades, and have done so with limited – often simply monetary – support from the international community. 

While Afghans in neighbouring countries have also faced pressure to return in recent years, these countries are still the main host actors in the region. For example, in Iran, there have been significant investments in healthcare and education opportunities for both registered and unregistered Afghan refugees. In Pakistan, the government has provided some refugees with permits to stay, and allowed some to open bank accounts. 

But goodwill alone will not sustain such positive developments. Instead, the international community must acknowledge this good practice, and proactively support these countries. It is essential that nations like Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey receive financial and technical support, renewed partnerships, and targeted investments. 

Durable solutions for Afghan refugees will only materialise through international solidarity and the genuine pursuit of shared responsibility. It is myopic to address the issue of Afghan displacement solely through arrangements premised around return.

The Asia Displacement Solutions Platform, established in 2017 by the Danish Refugee Council, the International Rescue Committee, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and Relief International, works on improving the lives of displaced communities in the region.

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