The swift collapse of the Afghan government and the Taliban’s military takeover came as a surprise for many in the West. The emerging images of people at Kabul airport who desperately try to flee the country show the gravity of the problem that was terribly mishandled by the international community including the EU. This piece discusses the previous EU-Afghanistan asymmetrical relations on migration and Afghan exodus that is likely to occur soon.
The ‘Afghan problem and Afghan solution’ as the U.S. president, Joe Biden, has repeatedly stated it did not lead to a peace deal but rather to a complete military takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. The drastic annihilation of the Afghan security forces after President Ghani left Kabul on Sunday, August 15, came as a surprise not only for the U.S. but also for its allies. The fall of districts and provinces made the Afghan leaders early in June to call on people and local warlords to mobilize and fight against the Taliban in districts and provinces. However, in absence of a national mobilization plan against the Taliban, the militarization of local warlords was perceived by the former President Ashraf Ghani equally risky for the future stability and peace in the country as Taliban’s return. The subsequent developments led to a disastrous situation for the Afghans and the international community. Now, an expected exodus threatens, neighboring countries and the EU if the Taliban fail to establish an inclusive government and return to their strict Sharia-based rule exercised in the 90s.
The Asymmetrical EU-Afghanistan Cooperation
Readmission of the Afghans whose asylum applications were rejected in the EU member states was facilitated through the Joint Way Forward (JWF) declaration signed during the Brussel donor conference in October 2016 in which the EU and its member states committed to pledge €5 billion collectively and €1.2 billion from the EU budget in development aid between 2016 and 2020 to Afghanistan. The EU renewed the contingent financial assistance once again in 2020 during the Geneva conference in which Afghanistan was expected to receive €1.2 billion in development support over the period 2021–2025. This made Afghanistan one of the EU’s foremost aid recipients in the world. The new Joint Declaration on Migration Cooperation (JDMC) replaced the JWF and proposed changes, for example, up to 500 deportees in a month that was subject to increase under new circumstances. The EU-Afghanistan arrangements on migration did not create only new commitments but also undermined refugees’ rights widely because of the increasingly unwelcoming situation in the country.
Looking Backward to the Joint Way Forward
The EU’s readmission arrangements with third countries are contested due to their shortcomings and lack of transparency. Similarly to some other EU declarations of cooperation with third countries (e.g. Niger), the JWF and JDMC were not disclosed to the public and leaked by Statewatch. The leaked JWF, which was drafted by the European Commission and European External Action Service (EEAS) was mentioning Afghanistan’s dependency on foreign aid explicitly, proposing that it could be used by the Commission as ‘possible leverage’ in the EU-Afghanistan cooperation on migration. The former Minister of Refugee and Repatriation of Afghanistan Sayed Hussain Alemi Balkhi criticized this in an online interview with the author early in March this year: the EU tried to force Afghanistan in 2016 to accept the return of its citizens whose asylum applications were rejected under the threat of losing the EU’s financial assistance.
Ignoring the Realities on the Ground
Following the first EU-Afghanistan agreement, the Afghan government was expected to take practical steps in accordance with the conditions predicted in the JWF. The Afghan government took a number of measures or tried to enhance the previously existing policies. The Ministry of Refugee and Repatriation of Afghanistan (MoRR) established a joint commission on human trafficking led by the Ministry of Justice, created the Displacement and Return Executive Committee (DiREC) in late 2016 that became in charge of preparing a policy framework and action plan for the returnees and internally displaced people (IDPs). Most importantly, the MoRR developed the Comprehensive Migration Policy (CMP) in 2019, which focused on four policy areas: 1) repatriation, reintegration and resettlement; 2) promoting regular labour migration; 3) prevention of irregular migration, and 4) migration and development. With the financial assistance of EU and technical support of the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD), the CMP took two years to be developed. However, almost two years after its development, the president still did not officially approve it.
In June, the MoRR announced the initiation of a working group for sustainable reintegration (DRSWG), which coordinated reintegration activities across the country in order to satisfy conditions predicted in both declarations. Theoretically, these measures taken by the Afghan government seemed to be comprehensive. However, they were hindered in practice by numerous challenges such as imbalanced power relationship, lack of institutional capacity, aid dependency, conflicting priorities between national and international partners and political instability across the country.
Both declarations emphasize on EU’s commitment to developing and funding reintegration programs for returnees. The JWF encompassed a separate section for the reintegration package tasking the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for the implementation of reintegration programs in collaboration with the Afghan government. Following the first agreement, IOM launched the Reintegration and Development Assistance in Afghanistan (RADA) project, which covered eight provinces including Baghlan, Balkh, Herat, Kabul, Kandahar, Kunar, Laghman, and Nangarhar. RADA’s mandate was envisaged for five years from 2017 to 2022 and aimed to provide sustainable reintegration, capacity strengthening, reception assistance and knowledge development. However, RADA was criticized by the MoRR authorities for lack of cooperation on setting joint priorities and monitoring mechanisms.
Within the Joint EU-Afghanistan cooperation framework, the EU returned 3.353 people between 2016 and 2019 to Afghanistan. The MoRR refused to readmit 144 returnees because of lack of transparency and violation of refugees’ rights by the EU predicted in both declarations referring to the Geneva Refugee Convention and its 1967 New York Protocol. These included seriously sick persons, elderly people, non-Afghan citizens, and vulnerable women who were identified ineligible for asylum in the EU member states. This also shows that promises on paper may not be respected when the implementation phase is reached and as a result, refugees’ rights might be largely undermined.
The EU-Afghanistan cooperation had significantly neglected realities on the ground and created new obligations for the Afghan government unable to fulfill. As the implementation of the JWF shows, lack of transparency in readmission mechanisms had increased asylum seekers’ vulnerability. Sustainable reintegration and tackling migration root causes were hindered by Afghanistan’s dependence on international donors, institutional constraints, lack of coordination, and conflicting approaches in setting joint priorities between international and national actors, and most importantly political instability across the country.
Now as desperate images of fleeing Afghans emerge from Kabul airport, Western officials express their concerns about an Afghan exodus. This is what the UN envoy to Afghanistan had already warned about ‘the gravity of the situation with global consequences’ at the UN Security Council in June. The MoRR also expressed its concerns in May this year that ‘a mass exodus is likely to occur’ if the Taliban’s advancement is not halted and achievements of the last two decades are not preserved. In early July, the Afghan government urged the EU to stop non-voluntary returns temporarily due to deterioration of security situation in the county, however, only a few days prior to the collapse of the Afghan government; six EU member states including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece and the Netherlands asked the EU to continue with the deportation of the Afghans.
Unfortunately, the situation in Afghanistan was widely mistreated, which paved the way for a humanitarian catastrophe that is likely to affect many within and beyond Afghanistan soon if the Taliban do not compromise on an inclusive government and fail to gain international recognition for its strict Sharia practice.