Why Europe must end limbo for Afghans seeking asylum

With a focus on evacuations from Afghanistan, the situation in Europe is often forgotten as thousands of asylum seekers continue to wait for their cases to be settled.

Expert comment Updated 12 April 2022 Published 14 October 2021 2 minute READ

Emily Venturi

Academy Associate, Asia-Pacific Programme

Anna Iasmi Vallianatou

Academy Associate, Europe Programme

Following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, European leaders shared messages to welcome those evacuated, but the reality of European responses to displacement in Afghanistan paints a more contentious picture. 

As of July 2021, 33,325 cases of Afghan asylum applicants were pending in Germany, in France 18,410 people were waiting on a decision, while in Greece the numbers were 13,660. 

Arguably, such numbers are manageable given European states’ size and their functioning asylum systems but, while 56 per cent of Afghans in Europe receive protection status, a large proportion is still in limbo in differing European countries’ asylum systems. 

Europe hosts fewer than ten per cent of the three million UN-registered displaced Afghans globally, as neighbouring countries carry the burden of Afghanistan’s forced displacement: Iran hosts almost one million Afghan refugees and Pakistan 1.5 million, and these numbers double when adding undocumented or Afghan passport holders.
But despite these manageable numbers, national authorities in Europe often leave people waiting for months or even years to receive an asylum decision. Deportations to Afghanistan were halted only after the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul and even then there was resistance to this from certain European countries, while Austria suggested setting up ‘deportation centres’ in countries neighbouring Afghanistan. 

Europe remains a fortress

The European Commission’s Draft Action Plan responding to the events in Afghanistan confirmed the willingness of the European Union (EU) to continue returns to non-European ‘third countries’. So Europe remains a fortress, despite pledging support for ‘the safe and orderly departure of foreign nationals and Afghans who wish to leave the country’. 

The wall by Greece at its border with Turkey and Poland’s treatment of Afghan asylum seekers trapped at its border with Belarus illustrate this hardline stance. The president of the European Council Charles Michel and EU Home Affairs Chief Ylva Johansson both confirm the priority is to secure European borders. 

This is further backed up by the European Council’s latest set of Conclusions on Afghanistan which focuses on security and ‘preventing illegal migration’ while avoiding reference to any domestic asylum efforts or the establishment of protection pathways for Afghans. 

Afghans in Europe need answers from European policymakers and, by strengthening domestic asylum responses alongside international humanitarian commitments, Europe’s actions would increasingly match its words. 

This disconnect is not new. At the national level, reports of illegal pushbacks on European land and sea borders alarmingly intensified in 2020 as authorities intercepted and sent migrants back to neighbouring countries without assessing asylum claims. 

At the EU level, development aid to countries such as Afghanistan has long been conditional on their governments’ adherence to the bloc’s migration objectives of preventing asylum seekers from reaching European borders and facilitating the repatriation of those refused asylum in Europe. 

But this latest displacement crisis from Afghanistan exposes clear inconsistencies in European approaches to asylum and humanitarianism. Migration remains a divisive issue in European politics, but European governments must act promptly to support Afghans already residing in their territories alongside establishing robust international commitments.

Time for concrete action

European countries should firstly improve the treatment of those Afghans currently in limbo within their respective asylum systems by expediting pending Afghan asylum applications and family reunification cases, re-examining rejected asylum applications, and facilitating integration.

Secondly, national authorities should not return asylum seekers to Afghanistan or any third countries deemed ‘safe’. For Europe to coordinate evacuations from Afghanistan while simultaneously deporting asylum seekers undermines the international refugee regime and threaten Europe’s global credibility. 

Time for concrete action contd.

And, alongside the provision of humanitarian aid, it is imperative European governments create legal and safe routes for those in need of protection. At the recently-concluded High-level Resettlement Forum on Afghanistan, EU member states failed to commit to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ recommendation to resettle 42,500 Afghans over the next five years. As the displacement crisis grows in Afghanistan, European countries should come back with worthy resettlement pledges, following the initial commitments of the US, Canada, and the UK.

Afghans in Europe need answers from European policymakers and, by strengthening domestic asylum responses alongside international humanitarian commitments, Europe’s actions would increasingly match its words. Such a move would not only substantiate European responses to the displacement crisis in Afghanistan but would also recall humanitarianism and solidarity into the bloc’s wider migration debates.

This is a version of an article originally published in The Independent.