Sending Back or Looking Forward? The Unbalanced Politics Behind European Agreements for the Return of Migrants to Afghanistan

by Serena Sorrenti

The unprecedented number of migrants and asylum seekers that reached the European Union (EU) by sea and land throughout 2015 and 2016 resulted in a number of questionable policy measures, among which there is the EU-Afghanistan Joint Way Forward on Migration Issues (JWF). More than one year after signing the JWF, this article sets out to analyse the inconsistency of the EU policy vis-à-vis its commitment to guide Afghanistan through its process of peace and stability. Following this policy document, other EU countries signed bilateral readmission agreements; this article highlights the particular case of Sweden. By drawing attention to the current socio-political environment in Sweden, reflecting a sentiment prevalent across the EU, this paper questions whether the approach embodied by such unbalanced readmission policies is genuinely addressing irregular migration, or else it is merely providing a quick fix to a major concern the EU is deliberately ignoring.

Policies and Politics

The Joint Way Forward (JWF) was sealed a few days prior to the Brussels conference on Afghanistan held on 5 October 2016, when the European Union (EU) committed to advancing the Afghan political process towards self-reliance and lasting peace. On this occasion the EU pledged US$5.6 billion of the total US$15.2 billion allocated by the international community, making up the most significant group of donors (European Council 2016). The signing of the JWF paved the way for some EU member states, namely Finland, Germany and Sweden, to conclude bilateral agreements with Afghanistan reinforced by financial commitments (Bjelica 2016).

Despite the call for ‘solidarity, determination and collective efforts’ in the preamble (EEAS 2016:1), the readmission agreement intends to address and prevent irregular migration by returning an unlimited number of Afghan migrants staying in the EU without a legal basis. While readmission agreements do not constitute an obligation under international law, neither do they provide a legal basis for rejecting migrants. They create a juridical framework for forced returns that should take place in compliance with international and European legal obligations (Giuffrè 2013). However, during situations of emergency like the increased refugee arrivals in 2015, accelerated border control procedures and inadequate monitoring jeopardise access to protection mechanisms. Under such circumstances it may be arduous for asylum seekers to avail protection, intended as the right to non-refoulement (ibid). This principle stipulates that countries are forbidden from forcibly returning individuals in need of protection to the country where they would be in danger of persecution and/or death.

In instances of large arrivals of refugees and migrants, informal practices of border control may end up infringing international human rights and refugee law. Therefore, as a result of accelerated and inaccurate return procedures, refoulement may become the praxis. Once the claim for protection is considered invalid by the authorities, the illicit dimension of migration becomes relevant for return; therefore, the principle of non-refoulement appears not to be violated and law applied.

Against the context outlined, this paper sets out to untangle overlooked implications and analyse the long-term impact of readmission agreements between the EU and Afghanistan, focusing on the case of the bilateral agreement with Sweden. Readmission agreements are generally conducted on the basis of reciprocity. However, ‘they are de facto founded on unbalanced reciprocities mostly biased in favour of the sending States’ interests’ (Giuffrè 2013:107) since the latter tends to have more advantageous conditions between the two contracting countries. The case of Sweden deserves further attention because it represents a peculiar example for the incoherence with its previous foreign policy towards Afghanistan. Sweden committed to implementing the JWF at the national level by signing the Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the Field of Migration (MoU) on 21 October 2016, addressing deportation of rejected applicants who refuse to return voluntarily (Government Offices of Sweden 2016b).

The Afghan government, aware of the ‘unbalanced reciprocities’ (Giuffrè 2013), resolved to withdraw its signature from the Sweden-Afghanistan agreement on 30 November 2016 (Mederyd Hårdh 2016). Despite this, the MoU remains valid in compliance with the JWF stipulated at the EU level (Sveriges Radio 2016). The enforcement of the provisions contained in the MoU led to the first deportation round in the following month, amidst the reactions of Swedish citizens and civil society with rallies organized throughout the country (Urisman Otto 2016). Notwithstanding a document issued by the Swedish Migration Board (Migrationsverket 2017) stating that Afghanistan is currently not a safe place, the Swedish government has been implementing the resolution prescribed by the MoU since its enforcement. According to Eurostat, the number of people with Afghan citizenship returned from Sweden in 2016 reached 1025 of the total 9480 returned by the EU in the same year. This figure is 8 times higher than that of 125 Afghan citizens returned by Sweden in 2008. This makes Sweden the third-ranked country in terms of returns after Germany and Greece, with respectively 3440 and 1480 Afghans returned over the same time span (Eurostat 2017). With accelerated and inaccurate border control procedures in place, refoulement might have become a concrete possibility in this very context, which would, in turn, explain the exponential increase of returns from Sweden during 2016.

Recent developments relating to the economic and security situations in Afghanistan render the country particularly unsafe for return. During 2017 there was a significant 17 percent increase of civilian casualties caused by suicide and complex attacks compared to the previous year. Since the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) began documenting in 2009, the year 2017 has recorded the highest number of civilian casualties induced by suicide and complex attacks rather than by ground fighting (UNAMA 2018). The situation is exacerbated by increasing unemployment rates and economic stagnation, which together put a strain particularly on youth (Ferrie 2016). Such circumstances, pointing at ‘forced economic migration’ (Schuster and Majidi 2013:225), highlight the complexity of the migration flow and the blurred distinction between migrant and refugee. For instance, a young Afghan man living in a remote region of the country, where weakened state authority leaves room for fighting between rival insurgent groups, and where the economy has stalled, making it difficult to enter the labour market, may be compelled to flee to ensure a safe life for himself and a future with dignity. Such cases represent the intricate and multi-faceted realities of people who flee Afghanistan. Besides, the inaccurate border control procedures in place add further complexity to the refugee determination process, which more often than not ends up being skewed.

In light of this, the JWF is concerning due to the following reasons. First, the JWF pledges to respect the ‘safety, dignity and human rights’ (EEAS 2016:2) of returnees during the return process yet operates on the assumption that those individuals who have not yet been granted protection in the EU are all irregular migrants. By returning individuals to the country where they risk persecution, human rights violations or even death, the JWF manifestly violates the principle of non-refoulement enshrined in Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention (UNHCR 2010). Secondly, the mass repatriation envisaged by the JWF infringes Article 4 of Protocol 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, prohibiting the collective expulsion of aliens (ECHR, 2017). Lastly, the JWF was negotiated bypassing the European Parliament, hence its validity should be questioned.

Sweden’s Double Standard

Throughout the ‘refugee crisis’, Sweden’s migration policy has increasingly restricted its asylum benefits to the minimum standard.

Throughout the ‘refugee crisis’, Sweden’s migration policy has increasingly restricted its asylum benefits to the minimum standard. Thus, Sweden transitioned from having some of the most generous policies amongst EU countries to having significantly more hostile policies towards asylum seekers. This policy shift conforms to an attitude that has taken root across Europe, whereby migration-related policies are being recalibrated to more tightened ones. The latest migration law approved by the Swedish government in July 2016 foresees protection only on a temporary basis for applicants of all nationalities, as well as restricting rules for family reunification (Migrationsverket 2016). Despite the heightened control measures in place to reduce the number of arrivals, Afghans represent the second largest group of asylum seekers in Sweden. Throughout 2016, nearly 60 percent of the total number of asylum seekers in Sweden was granted the status of temporary protection. However, when it comes to asylum seekers from Afghanistan, the figures are reversed. Afghans represent 10 percent of the total number of asylum seekers. Only 24 percent qualified for protection, while the remaining 76 percent do not according to the migration authorities (Furusjö 2016). The numbers reveal a shift in the Swedish migration policy, further corroborated by the signing of the MoU.

Sweden appears to have adopted a double standard approach in the management of migration issues, hence marking a turning point in the coherence of its Afghanistan foreign policy. On the one hand, Afghanistan remains the largest recipient of Swedish aid (Government Offices of Sweden 2016a). On the other hand, the readmission agreement concluded with Afghan authorities shows the opposite stance in what it prescribes for the return of migrants supposedly staying in the territory without a legal basis. In light of the context in which it was signed, the MoU between Sweden and Afghanistan appears to have been used as a bargaining chip in exchange for foreign aid. This reinforces the argument of ‘unbalanced reciprocities’ (Giuffrè,2013). The Afghan authorities might have felt pressured – as the event of the signature proves (Mederyd Hårdh 2016) – to commit to the readmission of rejected migrants, in order to obtain the aid essential to undertake the road to self-reliance.

In light of the context in which it was signed, the MoU between Sweden and Afghanistan appears to have been used as a bargaining chip in exchange for foreign aid.  

The question of upholding international human rights and migration law appears to have fallen by the wayside at the expense of a merely opportunistic political move, made to keep content an electorate that across Europe has shifted to the right concerning migration-related matters (Banulescu-Bogdan 2016). Tightened measures in line with EU minimum standards are evidence of a stance that puts Sweden at odds with its former liberal standpoint. Therefore, the enactment of such policies indicates a populist strategy to secure votes. In this socio-political landscape, the anti-immigration party Swedish Democrats witnessed a steady increase of preference in the polls throughout the emergency period. The party subsequently lost few points as a result of stricter measures adopted by the government, such as the closing of borders with Denmark since January 2016, instrumental in regathering political consensus (Statistics Sweden 2016).

Sending back, looking forward

Empirical studies have extensively demonstrated that deportation is not an effective measure to halt migration flows. Forcibly returned people are likely to reattempt migration, especially if ‘there has been little or no structural improvement to security, the economy, the political situation, or their individual perspectives’ (Schuster and Majidi 2013:225). It has been observed that while communities provide support for social integration, the greatest obstacle that rejected migrants encounter upon return is the lack of employment, which represents one of the main reasons pushing them to undertake the journey again (ibid).

The strategy adopted by the EU and the Swedish government is one of narrow considerations, which could ultimately lead to the reverse effect of intensifying migration (Schuster and Majidi 2013) to Europe. Whereas in the short run return policies serve the purpose of maintaining the political status quo, they may not deliver the expected results in the long run. The mass repatriation envisaged by the JWF and the MoU would exacerbate insecurity, poverty, and unemployment. This is because Afghanistan lacks the capacity to reintegrate the large number of people to be returned in its economic and social structure (Oxfam 2018). A failure to integrate as well as narrow opportunities for the large youth population could add up to further insecurity since some individuals might become recruitment targets of insurgent groups (Rasmussen 2016).

With the country largely dependent on foreign aid (Samim 2016), Afghan authorities did not seem to have had room for negotiation other than to accept the deal. During the 16 years of foreign intervention in Afghanistan, many of the enacted measures have a posteriori proved flawed (Farzam and Ali Seerat, 2016). Under the circumstances analysed so far, the JWF and the Sweden-Afghanistan agreement could become yet another one of those measures that will likely be reconsidered in the future for their dubious efficacy.

A true effort of solidarity would be for the EU to strengthen its commitment to address the root causes of migration and investing in durable solutions, which should be translated in practice and pragmatism, and not merely be part of the political discourse. Sealing the JWF and the MoU in the socio-political landscape so far examined, sheds light on a contradictory trend. With both approaches in place to solve a complex issue, the outcome, or the status quo, proves that a coherent response is lacking. Furthermore, the EU, in accordance with the principles it upholds, should support the Afghan government and its ministries to work together on sustainable responses. The ultimate goal should be to reestablish equilibrium within the country, for it to thrive and for its citizens to benefit from economic and political stability. Simultaneously, a double discourse that could have a reverse effect should be avoided by the EU and its member states. If the purpose of cooperation is peace and prosperity in both regions (as reiterated by parties to the agreement), the resolutions prescribed by the JWF and the Sweden-Afghanistan agreement should be questioned and law applied, in order to provide forward-looking solutions.

Serena Sorrenti holds an M.Sc in Asian Studies from Lund University, Sweden. Interested in the gender dimension of forced migration, she conducted research with Afghan refugee women on the impact of poor reception conditions over mental health and well-being during her fieldwork in New Delhi, India. Serena is currently working as Gender Consultant at UNFPA Eastern Europe and Central Asia Regional Office in Istanbul. Driven by her passion for helping refugees, Serena provides COI research to the Afghanistan and Pakistan team of the volunteer network Asylos. 

The views in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of OxMo.


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