Sun, Oct 09, 2016 - Page 7 News List

Europe to return refugees to Afghanistan, where war awaits them

Critics have panned the agreement as a political response to a humanitarian situation, as Afghanistan’s security, domestic and economic situation continues to regress

By Rod Nordland and Mujib Mashal  /  NY Times News Service, BRUSSELS

Illustration: Constance Chou

The EU and Afghanistan on Wednesday announced a deal that would send tens of thousands of Afghan refugees who had reached Europe back home to an increasingly hazardous war zone.

The agreement is the most specific effort yet by Europe to divert or reverse a wave of hundreds of thousands of refugees from war-torn countries, including Afghanistan and Syria.

However, unlike a major agreement with Turkey this year to have that country host more Syrian refugees, the new deal as worded would forcibly send Afghans whose asylum applications were rejected directly back to an intensifying war that has taken a severe toll on civilian life — seemingly at odds with international conventions on refugees.

“The EU and the government of Afghanistan intend to cooperate closely in order to organize the dignified, safe and orderly return of Afghan nationals to Afghanistan who do not fulfill the conditions to stay in the EU,” the agreement read.

The repatriation deal was announced alongside an international conference in which governments pledged US$3.75 billion in annual development aid to Afghanistan over the next four years.

However, few of the keynote speakers even hinted at the worsening security in the country in recent weeks, and none publicly discussed the repatriation deal, which was reportedly signed on Sunday last week.

As speakers at the conference praised improvements in Afghanistan, the very idea that even important Afghan cities could be secured was under direct assault.

Taliban fighters on Wednesday attacked Afghan security forces who were fighting for a third day to maintain control of the main government buildings in Kunduz, a vital provincial capital that briefly fell to insurgents last year.

In southern Afghanistan, another of the few remaining government-held districts in Helmand province has been seized by the insurgents this week. At no time since before the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan have the Taliban controlled more territory in the country.

“While donors are preoccupied with deterring refugee flight, they should focus instead on security force and Taliban abuses and children’s lack of access to education, and address the reasons people are so desperate to leave,” said Brad Adams, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Last year alone, 213,000 Afghans arrived in Europe, with 176,900 claiming asylum that year, according to EU data. Fifty to 60 percent of such Afghan requests have been denied so far, meaning that tens of thousands of people could be returned to Afghanistan under the deal.

European officials denied that the repatriation deal was a condition for aid to Afghanistan.

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini told reporters: “There is never, never a link between our development aid and whatever we do on migration.”

However, Ekram Afzali, head of Integrity Watch Afghanistan and part of the Afghan delegation meeting with the Europeans in Brussels, said delegates were told by both Afghan and international officials that the repatriation deal was a quid pro quo for European aid.

A leaked EU memo dated March 3 discussed openly making pledges of aid at this week’s conference conditional on Afghanistan’s agreement with the repatriation deal.

At the conference on Wednesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that US funding of civilian programs would continue “at or near current levels, on average, all the way through 2020.”

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