In 2015, around 35 thousand unaccompanied minors arrived in Sweden, of which more than 23 thousand were from Afghanistan. For many, making it to Sweden represented the ultimate goal, as they had been promised it was the best country on earth for asylum seekers. However, things did not really unfold as expected. Between 2015 and 2016, Europe nearly tripled the number of Afghans who were deported back: from 3,290 to 9,460. From the 13th of December to the 1st of May 2017, 176 rejected Asylum seekers were deported back to Kabul on chartered flights from Sweden, Germany, Austria, Denmark and Finland, according to the IOM (International Organization for Migrations). During the second half of 2017, Sweden stepped up its efforts to continue deporting despite a deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.
No matter which opinion one may hold about Afghan asylum seekers, it is clear that those who are forcibly deported are not likely to become an asset for the rebuilding of the Afghan society. Studies have shown that forced returnees rarely manage to reintegrate in Afghanistan. A report by the UNHCR and the World Bank warned that forced returns from Europe could add to instability and mass displacement.
Since 2012, the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in Afghanistan tripled: from 492 thousand to 1.5 million by the end of 2016, according to the IDMC (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre). New displacements rose to a record high of 653 thousand during 2016. The situation has been aggravated by massive returns of undocumented Afghans from Iran and Pakistan. The Afghan government is struggling to absorb the great number of returnees and, at the same time, keep control over its territory against the Taliban and the new threat of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, also known as Islamic State in Khorasan (ISK).
While deportations from Sweden continue, the government is simultaneously supporting the rebuilding of Afghan Society through aid programs. Afghanistan is the largest recipient of aid from Sweden, in particular humanitarian assistance to those affected by the conflict, including refugees and IDPs. During a debate in the Security Council on the 21st of December 2017, Sweden stressed the importance of an integrated UN approach to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan, linking together peace, development and human rights. Such an approach has also been incorporated into humanitarian response programs, as tensions often arise due to multifaceted causes. According to the UN Humanitarian Response Plan 2018-2021, returnee families and IDPs were frequently left with no other choice than to live in overcrowded informal settlements outside one of the provincial capitals, were tensions could be intensified by the increased competition for resources between incoming and host communities. Thus, creating sustainable livelihoods and long-term development is key to prevent violence from escalating. It is regrettable that Afghan asylum seekers keep being deported, as the consequences of deportation could result in even more displacement, which is directly counter-productive to the development assistance efforts financed by Sweden.
An integrated approach is not only necessary to provide sustainable solutions to the conflict, but also to understand how European governments should rethink migration policy in a corresponding fashion. The root causes of conflict are diverse, and so are the reasons for why people choose to flee. The distinction between an economic migrant and a refugee is not always very clear, as people from fragile or failing states frequently are a combination of the two. Rejections and deportations are on the rise because the national asylum laws based on the 1951 Refugee Convention are not being interpreted in holistic fashion, failing to take into account the mutually contributing factors that could put someone’s life at risk upon return; including the inaccessibility of basic services such as clean water and food security.
Afghanistan’s fluid security situation
Afghans are facing rejection because the Swedish Migration Board does not judge the security situation to be of such severity that each and everyone in the country is at risk, contrary to the case of Syria. However, security has been degrading in recent years. The past weeks have been particularly violent. For example, an attack against Save the Children in Jalalabad was launched by the ISK, leaving four people killed and several injured on January 24th. In the same week, a luxury hotel in Kabul was targeted by the Taliban. A few days later, an ambulance exploded in an area were many diplomatic missions are located, including the Swedish embassy. The latest attack left over hundred killed and 235 injured, of whom most were civilian. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), the Taliban and the ISK have deliberately targeted civilians in recent attacks.
A large proportion of Afghan asylum seekers are part of the ethnic Hazara community, the country’s shia minority. While they have historically faced severe oppression, their situation improved after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, granting them rights and political representation. Because of this, most cannot be granted asylum solely on the basis of being Hazara. However, they still feel marginalized and fear being the primary target for ISIS which is gaining ground in the country. Their fears might have been well-grounded. The past months have seen an increase in shia-targeted attacks and increased overall instability in the country. On the 28th of December, ISK attacked a shia cultural center in Kabul, leaving around 41 people killed and around 80 injured. According to the UN Humanitarian Response Plan 2018-20121, many people living in areas threatened by the ISK decided to leave their homes before they would be forced to do so – as a preventive measure.
Experts stress that the security situation in Afghanistan is extremely fluid – places which were safe yesterday could be unsafe tomorrow. Thus, it is not difficult to see why fear has spread among the Afghan population. This does not exclude that many do face personal persecution due to various reasons, such as attempted recruitment to the Taliban, land disputes or sexual abuse. A large number of Afghan asylum seekers were previously living illegally in Iran, some were even born there. In Iran, Afghans are considered second-class citizens and denied basic rights. Many young Afghan men left Iran in fear of being recruited by the Iranian government to join their troops supporting the government of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. According to Human Rights Watch, Afghan teenagers were sometimes encouraged to join the fight in Syria in exchange for a residence permit or legal status in Iran. It is therefore hard to claim that these thousands of migrants lack the need for protection.
The fight over the 18th Birthday
One of the biggest debates on Afghan asylum seekers in Sweden has been related to how the age of an applicant should be determined. Under the law, the applicant holds the burden of proving their age and identity. This may sound logical. In practice, however, it has become a bureaucratic hurdle and lacks legal certainty. Civil documentation in Afghanistan was never commonplace until recent years, especially not for women. During the lengthy war in the 1980’s -1890’s, no birth registration system was in place. A U.N. report in 2007 showed that Afghanistan was among the top 10 countries with most unregistered children. Some rural families recorded the year they were born in the Quran. Using the day and month was less common. For those who do possess civil documentation, it is usually in the form of an an Afghan ID – a Tazkira. However, the Tazkira is frequently dismissed by the Swedish Migration Board as insufficient proof of identity as it is very easy to falsify. Passports can be issued on the basis of a Tazkira, but it is rare that Asylum seekers manage to have a passport issued at the Afghan embassy.
Asylum case officers are naturally aware of these problems. Until recent years, a careful assessment over the applicant’s general credibility, coherence in their story, and any type of proof of identity could be judged as enough to determine if the applicant is underage. The situation changed dramatically in 2015, when some applicants naturally tried lying about their age, which (understandably) sparked a wave of criticism. Needless to say, it was problematic to make a legally correct judgement of the age of young males between 15-25, as the maturity in their appearances vary enormously. What happened was that the Swedish Migration Board started assigning birthdays randomly to applicants who had not provided sufficient proof that they were underage. This quickly received outrage.
Hence, medical assessments were introduced where the applicants knee bone and teeth structure were analyzed. This method has been deemed of low legal certainty by lawyers and medical practitioners. Some experts have also stated that it is virtually impossible to determine someone’s age without the risk of misjudgement. While everyone keeps fighting about which method to use for determining someone’s age, deportations keep being carried out with no assessment regarding the vulnerability of young people in general, whether they are 17 or 19.
Young westernized males
While the debate becomes more and more politicized, there is very little media attention on what actually happened to those who have been deported from Europe. When asylum seekers are rejected, they are given the choice of returning voluntarily – which entitles them to reintegration assistance: both financial, but also in areas such as vocational training. This may sound satisfactory for European governments, who have signed an agreement with the Afghan government, “the Joint Way Forward” allowing them to deport – but in practice, the system does not work as intended. This is primarily because most deportees do not return voluntarily.
First, even those who are categorized as voluntary returnees say they were frequently left with no other choice. If they are forcibly deported, they receive some financial assistance and temporary accomodation in Kabul. Then they are left on their own. Many also reject any assistance as they have very low faith in authorities or because the bureaucracy makes it too inaccessible. Some also reject it out of security reasons, as they fear returnees from European countries have become a target for the Taliban and other groups that perceive them as westernized. Carrying documentation or proof of having connections to the west can increase the likelihood of being caught at Taliban border checks along the roads if they return to their home province.
A report compiled by the international network Asylos revealed that young male deportees from European countries frequently struggle to reintegrate in Afghanistan, for reasons which reach beyond the lack of economic opportunity. For example, the risk of being kidnapped increases, as people having lived in Europe are perceived as rich. Moreover, returnees that have spent time in Europe are sometimes met with suspicion and seen as a shame or failure by their families and communities. Some have spent fortunes on sending their sons to Europe under the misconception that everyone from Afghanistan was going to be granted status. When they are deported, some families think it is because they committed crimes or behaved poorly. It is also unlikely that deportees who do not want to be there, will suddenly change their mind, start cooperating with authorities and be thrilled about contributing to a country that let them down. Risks are higher that, in the absence of networks and opportunity, these individuals will turn to drugs or other illegal activities. In the worst case, they could become an easy target for armed groups to recruit, especially as many of deportees suffer from fragile mental health after losing their dreams in Europe.
Nassim Majidi, a migration researcher at Sciences Po Paris & Wits University argues that the reintegration programs need to be aligned with role that mobility has played in Afghan society and respond to the incentive of re-migrating. Afghanistan has been characterized by decades of moving around as a survival mechanism, no matter if it is related to job opportunities or security threats. Afghans who have never lived in Afghanistan will naturally try migrating to Iran or wherever their family is. Recently, a report from the Norwegian Refugee Council showed that three quarters of returnees were unable to go back to their initial homes due to insecurity, and 72% had been displaced a second time. Former refugees often become IDPs instead.
Nassim Majidi’s research also reveals that there is a lack of cooperation and communication between the European governments and the Afghan state regarding the return & reintegration programmes provided by the IOM (International Organization of Migration) and some other actors. Returnees from Europe are usually the last priority, after IDPs and returnees from Iran and Pakistan. There is little dialogue on how to cater for the needs of this group – notably in terms of mental health, absence of social networks or hostile attitudes due to their “westernization”. Returns will continue to be driven by national interests unless real discussions take place, and there is a clear division of responsibility regarding which government is responsible for what. Until then, it is hard to see how deportees can become an asset for Afghan society and not a burden.
Afghanistan’s burden – Europe’s opportunity?
If forced deportees are unlikely to strengthen the Afghan society, granting them residence permits in Europe could allow them to become our opportunity. Most of the unaccompanied minors who arrived in Sweden in 2015 were quickly given access to schooling and language training. Some initially lived in residential care homes during the asylum process. However, when they turned 18, they moved to new residential centers for adults, sometimes too far from school. As a consequence, many Swedish families have taken asylum seekers into their homes. Understandably, deportations awake a lot of anger and frustration among families, psychologists, teachers and others who have a personal attachment to these individuals. The assistance that has been given by pro bono lawyers, foster families, teachers and psychologists is remarkable.
The integration of all recent arrivals will naturally create challenges for social cohesion. However, with so much attention being put on integration – it is regrettable that this group is being deported back after spending formative years in Sweden. A study that was done by researchers at Stockholm University showed that unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan were more quick to find employment compared to unaccompanied minors from other groups. From a purely economic perspective, it makes little sense to deport them, as Sweden has spent large amounts of money on asylum seekers while they were waiting for the outcome of their asylum application. If given a chance, these individuals would be able to start working and contributing very quickly, in comparison to migrants who arrive at a later age. Furthermore, the current policies could result in a larger cost than the investment of letting these young Afghans stay. Significant resources have been spent on costs for lawyers, judges, psychologists, medical assessments, detention centers and police in order to handle the situation.
Furthermore, the failure to address the issue on a European level could create a new shadow society, with thousands of undocumented migrants moving around the continent illegally. Few of the rejected asylum seekers are actually deported as they escape and try their luck in a new European country. The streets of Paris have become increasingly inhabited by so-called “Swedish or German Afghans”, who are frequently instructed to return to Germany or Sweden due to the Dublin process, which usually implies that the first country into which the Asylum seeker enters, is responsible for their application. With no other choice than to hide and hope that the police will not find them, the should-have-been-deported migrant only has the informal market to turn to for their subsistence. This could cost European countries large amounts of money in lost tax bases.
Asides from purely economic reasons, young asylum seekers could also represent an opportunity from a political perspective. Afghan asylum seekers in Sweden have managed to spark a movement of engaged activists: “Ung i Sverige”. The movement’s spokesperson, 17-year old Fatemeh Khavari has won prizes for her work against deportations. The group has gained a great amount of visibility and support from Swedish citizens. No matter what everyone personally thinks about the movement’s demands – it is undeniable that the capacity to organize and claim your rights in a completely new country, after such a short period of time, is a proof of drive and active political participation.
What is also remarkable, is that the Swedish civil society and individual citizens have been absolutely instrumental to the rapid integration of the enormous amount of asylum seekers over the past years. It is disappointing that the Government never addressed the challenge by working together with its citizens, especially as the Social Democrats who are in power, once pioneered the idea of partnership rather than militancy between civil society and authorities.
Missing to see the whole picture
Fundamentally, the problem is that the Refugee Convention from 1951 only represents the bare minimum of what countries could actually do in the current situation. The practical reality sometimes requires exceptional solutions. Critics argue that making exceptions for specific groups could undermine the law. On the other hand, asylum laws were already modified back in 2016, when a temporary law restricting the possibilities to be granted protection in Sweden was introduced. The UNHCR expressed regret over this decision, urging Sweden to “instead use its standing as a global advocate for human rights, democracy and solutions to continue focusing on promoting and building a coordinated European response and a unified European migration policy”. Conversely, Sweden is participating in a “race-to-the-bottom” approach by restricting the law to EU minimum levels, in the hope that more EU member states will share responsibility for taking in asylum seekers. The new approach has not produced such an outcome.
Instead, Europe needs to rethink how immigration is dealt with. Today’s conflicts are rooted in complex interactions between economic, social, ecological causes. The lines between an “economic migrant” and someone escaping war have become difficult to separate. If the only option for an undocumented Afghan boy in Iran is to choose to join the war in Syria for economic reasons, in which box does that put him? Is it acceptable to send him back to Afghanistan, a country he may never have been to? There is a real necessity to reassess our understanding of the need for protection for individuals coming from fragile states. The UNHCR:s eligibility guidelines for assessing the international protection needs of asylum seekers from Afghanistan provide a good starting point, highlighting the situation for returnees perceived as westernized or the reasonableness of relocation/internal flight alternatives in relation to the livelihood opportunities in the area for relocation. Besides, a country like Sweden, that calls itself a humanitarian superpower, should think outside the box and explore new options for different groups who may be in need for protection outside the traditional reasons stipulated in the refugee convention.
Sometimes, it is also about being practical. Currently, there is little added value to both Europe and Afghanistan to deport people back who may need protection tomorrow, when security further deteriorates. One example of a forward-thinking solution is a recent proposal by the Swedish government, granting certain unaccompanied minors who turned 18 due to the lengthy process a temporary residence permits to fulfill their studies, with the possibility of prolonging it if the applicant finds employment within 6 months of graduation. The proposal has already been dismissed by several political parties and criticized as it would be too expensive. If citizens are concerned over the costs, discussions need to be based on careful assessments rather than speculations. In this case, why not compare the cost of the proposal to an estimation on the costs of deportations and the development of a shadow economy, without getting any return on the investments made during these past three years? New solutions could also be used to find common ground with the Afghan government, perhaps by creating a system in which Swedish-educated Afghans can contribute to the rebuilding of Afghan society in their adulthood.
In 2015, all UN member states agreed on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which is all about partnerships. Swedish Civil Society and individual citizens have already helped to alleviate the situation remarkably. Why do governments do not take on the challenge by working with civil society as partners rather than adversaries? The current practises risk becoming directly counterproductive Swedish peacebuilding efforts in Afghanistan. Domestic and foreign policy must be coherent. Deportations could damage Sweden’s diplomatic soft power and reputation as a progressive advocate for an integrated approach to peace, security and development – both home and abroad. If we cannot be human, we should at least try to be pragmatic.