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Europe’s contentious deportations of Afghans grind to a halt as Taliban surges

A woman holds a placard during a rally against deportation of migrants to Afghanistan at Düsseldorf Airport in Germany on Jan. 12, 2021. (Ying Tang/NurPhoto/Getty Images)
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BERLIN — Ahmad's second asylum rejection came at the end of July.

The 24-year-old, who spent his childhood years in central Afghanistan, had no right to remain in Austria, the document said, because areas of the country were deemed safe.

But the Taliban has been making lightning advances as the United States ends its military mission in the country after 20 years. The city he grew up in was overrun days ago.

“This situation is incredibly stressful,” said Ahmad, who spoke on the condition that only his first name would be published over fear about his asylum claims. “Right now, the whole country is at war. I am very afraid of being deported.”

But for Ahmad and others like him, the rapidly deteriorating situation in their homeland might have brought a momentary reprieve. As the Taliban has advanced, even some European countries with the most hard-line deportation policies have been forced to put a hold on involuntary returns of failed asylum seekers.  

The chaos in Afghanistan has also made it logistically unfeasible to send people back.

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Until recently, countries including Austria, Germany and Denmark had been pushing ahead with deportations even as the Afghan government’s grip on its provinces has crumbled. They had argued that stopping would encourage more arrivals.

More than 570,000 Afghan refugees have sought asylum in the European Union since 2015, making them the second-largest group of asylum seekers after Syrians. And new claims from Afghans have risen in recent months.

Experts say whether a claim is accepted is effectively an “asylum lottery.” In 2019, the recognition rates for initial asylum applications of Afghans ranged from 94 percent in Italy to 4 percent in Bulgaria. Germany accepted 44 percent of applications and neighboring Belgium 32 percent. That disparity, migrant groups say, suggests some asylum claims may be being rejected unfairly.

The issue of deportations has long been contentious. Some European countries deny claims by arguing that some cities in Afghanistan are safe — even if the areas the refugees are fleeing are not.

That argument is now being further tested by the Taliban’s rapid advances, adding weight to the claims of those who say they need protection in Europe. Austria’s last deportation attempt to Afghanistan — a joint flight with Germany on Aug. 3 that was meant to begin in Munich and pick up Austrian detainees in Vienna — did not make it off the runway.

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The German Interior Ministry said it could not leave because of explosions in Kabul, meaning it could not ensure the safety of not only the deportees but also security staff and the plane’s crew.

Afghan authorities had also said they could no longer cooperate on taking returned detainees, a factor that Austria’s Interior Ministry cited as having prevented the plane’s takeoff.

Germany’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer, had initially vowed to make up for the flight as soon as possible. Germany and Austria were among six E.U. nations that wrote to the European Commission in Brussels on Aug. 5, calling on it to urge Afghanistan to cooperate on returns.

Given that Afghanistan will continue to be a significant source of “irregular migration” to the European Union, those without “genuine protection needs” should be returned, the letter said.

“Furthermore, stopping returns sends the wrong signal and is likely to motivate even more young Afghan citizens to leave their homes for the E.U.,” said the letter, which was also signed by Denmark, Greece, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Even on Aug. 5, when the letter was dated, the demands appeared “unethical, unlawful and unrealistic,” said Catherine Woollard, director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles. Since then, the Taliban has taken new territory, including the provincial capitals of Herat in the west and Kandahar in the south.

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After the letter was leaked Monday, Germany and the Netherlands quickly announced a pause on deportations. Denmark’s minister for foreigners and integration, Mattias Tesfaye, said it simply “wasn’t possible” to deport Afghans with force before Oct. 8, the date set by the Afghan government for a pause.

Tesfaye said Denmark still would be asking the European Commission to work with Afghanistan to reopen the possibility for forced deportations.

The latest return from Denmark was a voluntary one on July 26. An involuntary return planned for the same date was canceled. Forty-five Afghans with rejected asylum claims currently face deportation from Denmark.

In Austria, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has vowed not to stop forced deportations. But the country’s Foreign Ministry has conceded the country is effectively unable to continue without cooperation from Afghanistan and other partners.

Any pause is particularly contentious in Austria since three Afghans were arrested last month as suspects in the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl. Two of the suspects, ages 16 and 18, were asylum seekers.

“I find it intolerable for people who come to us, say they are seeking protection and then commit cruel, barbaric crimes in Austria,” Kurz said after the arrests.

“Politically, this means for me that we will stick to our consistent line,” he said. But now there is little choice but to pause.

Woollard said Austria’s decision to suspend deportations was probably swayed by a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights. The court gave one of the deportees on the Aug. 3 flight a temporary stay of protection, asking the Austrian government whether it had considered if the change in the security situation in Afghanistan would affect their rights.

“It’s clear with the situation now in Afghanistan, and with day by day the level of violence and instability escalating, that there would be legal challenges and courts are likely to block those deportations,” she said.

While countries might be forced to halt returns, also concerning is the rhetoric over new arrivals, Woollard said. While neighboring countries will bear the brunt of the displacement from upheaval in Afghanistan, those who do arrive in Europe deserve proper asylum hearings, she said.

Asked last month whether Germany should welcome Afghan asylum seekers, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who opened that country’s doors to more than 1 million largely Syrian refugees in 2015, said: “We cannot solve all of these problems by taking everyone in.”

Ahmad, who arrived in Austria six years ago, said he does not plan to submit a new asylum claim just yet. He is afraid it will be rejected. If the court decided to deport him, he would go into hiding, he said.

His family is from the minority Hazara, a Shiite Muslim group that has long been a target of persecution from the mainly Sunni Taliban. Ahmad fled to Iran when he was a child but would still be deported to Afghanistan.

There’s still “a lot of fear within the community” in Austria because of the public vows to keep up with deportations, said Lukas Gahleitner-Gertz, an asylum law expert at Austria’s Asylkoordination. Yet the greater likelihood for legal challenges  — as well as Taliban surges — make deportations “incredibly unlikely.”

That fear is ever constant for 28-year-old Mohammed, an Afghan who has been living illegally in Austria for three years after his asylum bid failed. He had a baby boy with his Austrian partner this week but fears any identity check could result in deportation.

He is now attempting to get permission to stay in the country on humanitarian grounds, declining to have his full name published for fear it will hinder his chances.

His family left for Iran when he was young. For him, the prospect is deportation to a country he does not know.

“My family left when I was little because the Taliban would have killed my parents,” he said. “How could I possibly go there now, if I don’t know the country, if the entire place is at war?”

Hruby reported from Vienna. Martin Selsoe Sorensen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.