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This is the first conference staged by EASO regarding the specific situation of Afghanistan since its initial one was held in 2012.
General situation in Afghanistan
The backdrop to the conference was the ‘exponential rise’ in the numbers of Afghan asylum seekers and refugees in the last year, leading to the current ‘unprecedented’ numbers. The discussions relate to the specific dynamics of refugees from Afghanistan, particularly with regard to the high percentage of unaccompanied minors. In fact, unaccompanied minors now represent a quarter of the Afghans applying for asylum in the EU, meaning issues related to their processing are particularly sensitive and complex. It was noted that whilst the number of Afghan asylum applications is currently increasing, decisions on these applications remain low, leading to an expanding backlog of cases.
As of October 2015, Afghan refugees represented the second largest group of refugees entering the EU, the largest group being composed of refugees from Syria. It was noted how the country of origin information for Syrian asylum applicants is largely superfluous due to the well-known severity of the situation in Syria. The assessment of Afghan asylum applications remains complex.
The speakers proceeded to provide in-depth information on the situation in Afghanistan, referring to a rise in the cases of civilian casualties and the challenges of introducing elements of state control and protection.
Afghan refugees in Pakistan
It was noted that a large number of Afghan refugees have fled to Pakistan, the majority of these being Pashtuns living close to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Currently, it is estimated that there are approximately one million undocumented Afghan refugees in Pakistan, and the UNHCR reports there are one and a half million documented refugees.
Pakistan introduced Proof of Registration (PoR) cards to Afghan refugees in 2006. This document must be regularly renewed. Between 2006 and 2007 all Afghan refugees in Pakistan over the age of 5 were eligible to be given a PoR card. As of 2010, only children of PoR card holders were eligible.
As a means of facilitating the repatriation (i.e. voluntary return) of Afghan refugees, the Draft Comprehensive Policy on Voluntary Repatriation and Management of Afghan Nationals Beyond 2015 was negotiated at the 26th Tripartite Commission in August of 2015. This has not been implemented, but proposes an extension of the PoR card policy until 2017. The development of a national refugee law in Pakistan has also been proposed, but not yet implemented.
Afghan refugee with a PoR card
The UNHCR reported there were approximately 700.000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Afghanistan in mid-2014. This has now increased to approximately 1 million. It is important to reiterate that research shows that IDPs are less resilient to economic shocks than other groups, as also with regards to health, education, and security. Furthermore, integration of IDPs in their new places of residence have proven to be difficult, further exacerbating their overall situation.
Afghan refugees in Iran
Afghan refugees in Iran represent one of the largest refugee populations in the world. 97% of these live in Iranian communities, whereas 3% live in refugee camps. These refugees were previously ‘generously hosted’, but their reception has become increasingly strict in recent years, to the extent that Iran has been accused of ‘falling short’ of its obligations towards Afghan refugees.
Between 2002 and 2014 nearly 1 million instances of repatriation of Afghan refugees from Iran were assisted by the UNHCR. This number has been on the decrease since 2008.
The Amayesh card was introduced in 2001. This functions as a registration card for Afghans in Iran. Apart from the Amayesh system, there is no real path of citizenship for Afghans in Iran.
The situation of returnees and IDPs in Afghanistan
It seems that a security vacuum has emerged in Afghanistan, as a result of the political paralysis in the country. The Taliban in resurging, and the emergence of IS further inflames the situation.
Afghan repatriation represents the world’s largest repatriation project, with 6 million cases in the last decade. Voluntary repatriation seems to be largely the result of ‘push factors’ in the country of asylum of the refugees.
Afghan refugees in Turkey
The migration of Afghans to Turkey has been documented since the 1930s. There are reports of a relatively high level of hostility towards Afghans, leading to exploitative conditions of work and the procurement of a livelihood. This has reportedly worsened as a result of the Syrian crisis, as Syrians seem to be given priority, and the situation of Afghans not being given the same kind of attention.
Turkey is, however, largely a transit country for refugees, with a large number of refugees in Turkey seeking to make their way to Europe.
Reintegration of Afghan returnees
As stated above, there is a focus on the return and repatriation of Afghan refugees in many countries as this is seen as the most durable solution. The process of return for refugees is not a uniform process, and many factors must be considered, such as the duration of exile, the region of origin, the country of exile, and the age of the refugee in question.
In Iran, 98% of those between the ages of 15 and 24 are literate, whilst amongst second generation refugees, literacy is at 80%. Of the Afghan refugee population in Pakistan, 6% of boys and 4% of girls complete primary school. 33% of these refugees are literate. 19% of IDPs in Afghanistan are literate; of returnees to Afghanistan this is at 31%. 35% of IDP children are in school; 50% of returnee children are in school. This has led to a mismatch of skills, as those returning often have different qualification levels and different expectations than those who have been internally displaced.
The speakers confirmed the need to monitor the situation of returnees for an extensive period following their return, in order to determine their reintegration levels. Seemingly, this is not done to a sufficient extent.
EASO’s Practical Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan provided a comprehensive overview of the situation of Afghan refugees both internally, as well as in its neighbouring countries.
From our perspective, it is clear that further analysis into the particular issues faced by Afghan refugees is needed, in particular in order to identify those policy measures needed to achieve a level of harmonisation in the way the EU is addressing these issues. We also stress that while the situation regarding Syrian refugees is truly alarming, the human rights challenges faced by other groups of refugees cannot be sidelined or forgotten.