Afghanistan Analysts Network – English


Thematic Dossier XXII: Afghan migration to Europe and beyond (2)

AAN Team 8 min

The subject of Afghans trying to migrate to Europe and beyond may have dropped out of the headlines in the last couple of years, but AAN has continued to follow their stories. Getting into Europe and then getting across eastern Europe into the west has become much more difficult since we published our first thematic dossier on Afghan migration to Europe and beyond in 2017. In this second dossier, we give a short update on statistics and detail the diminishing assistance given to returnees – most now are being left to look after themselves. We then bring together substantial reporting on the fates of Afghans stranded in Turkey and south-eastern Europe, those forcibly or voluntary returned under the 2016 Afghan-European Union agreement and the experiences of child migrants, as well as looking at migration routes and collated statistics.

Afghan migrants, including minors, living in inhumane conditions in a Belgrade, Serbia squat. Photo: Martine van Bijlert, April 2017.Afghan migrants, including minors, living in inhumane conditions in a Belgrade, Serbia squat. Photo: Martine van Bijlert, April 2017.

AAN’s first dossier on Afghan migration to Europe (17 February 2017), can be found here.

A statistical overview

While Afghans have consistently featured as the second largest nationality applying for asylum in Europe (after Syria and before Iraq, with other nationalities trailing somewhat behind), overall numbers have fallen considerably. In both 2015 and 2016, 600,000 Afghans applied for asylum in the European Union (EU). In 2017, this dropped to 43,625 first-time asylum applications and in 2018, stayed steady with 41,000 applications (7 per cent of the EU total).

There has also been a significant drop in the number of individual Afghans and Afghan families returning from Europe and Turkey since 2016. Statistics on returnees from the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) are somewhat variable in what is counted and published. There will also be some, unknown, but a relatively small number of Afghans returning from Europe and Turkey who are not captured in the IOM statistics below.

In 2016, 6,864 individuals returned to Afghanistan from the Europe and Turkey (3,159 from German, 577 from Turkey) with IOM support (the Afghanistan Voluntary Repatriation (AVR) programme).

In 2017, 3,734 Afghans returned with IOM support from Europe and Turkey (no breakdown by country)

In 2018, 2,182 Afghans returned from Europe and Turkey with IOM support (including many more from Turkey – 1193 and far fewer – 401 – from Germany)

In 2018, Turkey also started forcible mass deportations of Afghans, deporting around 5000 individuals (all without IOM assistance)

1 January to mid-April 2019, 4,219 Afghans returned from the European Union and Turkey, most of whom – 3,560 individuals – forcibly returned from Turkey without IOM support.

Diminishing assistance to returnees

In 2017 in our first dossier, AAN reported that Afghan returnees, both forced and voluntarily, might get several types of assistance: from the Afghan government; from the countries which sent the returnees back; from international organisations such as IOM and; from local non-governmental organisations like International Psychosocial Organisation (IPSO) and the Afghanistan Migrants Advice & Support Organisation (AMASO). We commented then on the lack of coordination to ensure that returnees were treated somewhat equally and that individuals both received the support they needed and did not receive more than they were entitled to. We also commented on the lack of comprehensive monitoring.

Today, two years later, those arriving from Europe and Turkey, for example, are provided with what IOM calls “basic humanitarian assistance at the airport,” ie 147 Euros (13,500 Afghanis or 167 USD) in cash. After that, there is no monitoring, nor social support to follow up on their cases. Two places where returnees used to be able to get temporary shelter, an IOM-paid hotel and a government-run shelter have also both been closed. Child returnees, in particular, are receiving little support. A 2018 Save the Children study “From Europe to Afghanistan: Experiences of child returnees”, which interviewed 57 children about their experiences, and pointed out that the exact number of child returnees is not even known, was scathing:

On arrival, the children received little or no support, and only three had a specific reintegration plan. While 45 children had attended school in Europe, only 16 were attending school in Afghanistan.

New stories, statistics and analysis in the second thematic dossier

AAN’s first dossier on Afghan migration to Europe and beyond, published in early 2017, brought together research on: the routes and risks taken by Afghan migrants on what is for most a perilous journey to Europe; Afghan government policy on migration; numbers and statistics and a series of dispatches  examining the decision-making among the families of Afghans who had left their country.

Since then, we have expanded our research to look at the situation facing Afghan migrants who have ended up in various countries outside the region – Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, Indonesia, Turkey, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina – and the experiences of those returning to Afghanistan. We have also continued to collate and analyse statistics and reviewed a small, but important art project entitled “Kuja meri?”(Where are you going?) Below are listed the dispatches in our second dossier on Afghan migration to Europe with a short introduction to each and links to the full reports.

Edited by Kate Clark

YEAR 2017

1. Voluntary and Forced Returns to Afghanistan in 2016/17: Trends, statistics and experiences.

Author: Jelena Bjelica and Thomas Ruttig
Date: 19 May 2017

While hundreds of thousands of Afghans sought protection in Europe throughout 2015/16, an increasing number have been returning to Afghanistan, both voluntarily and involuntarily. The number of voluntary returnees from Europe picked up significantly throughout 2016, with additional returns in the first four months of 2017, reaching a total figure of over 8,000. By contrast, the number of deportations has been significantly lower, at only around 350 over the same period. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica and Thomas Ruttig examine the trends, policies and practices relevant to those who have returned. They found that services available to those returning – in both categories – are patchy.

Voluntary and Forced Returns to Afghanistan in 2016/17: Trends, statistics and experiences

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2. The Aftermath of an Exodus: Afghans stuck in Serbia still trying to ‘hit the game’

Author: Jelena Bjelica and Martine van Bijlert

Date: 14 June 2017

For more than six months, the dilapidated barracks behind Belgrade’s main bus station housed over a thousand men and boys – most of them Afghans. Conditions, despite better weather and increased assistance, remained dire and the migrants continued to live under the looming threat of eviction. In May 2017, the authorities finally moved in, vacated the buildings and tried to transfer all the inhabitants to government-run centres. AAN’s Martine van Bijlert and Jelena Bjelica visited the squat and some of the government-run centres, in the weeks leading up to this event. They describe the changes since they were last in Serbia and discuss the options that are available to Afghans now.

The Aftermath of an Exodus: Afghans stuck in Serbia still trying to ‘hit the game’

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3. The Aftermath of an Exodus: The Balkans’ old smuggling routes and Europe’s closed borders

Author: Jelena Bjelica and Martine van Bijlert

Date: 14 June 2017

With some borders shared with EU countries that are trying to keep migrants and asylum seekers out, Serbia finds itself increasingly home to people who want to travel onwards but are unable to do so. An estimated eight to ten thousand migrants – most of them Afghans – who intended to travel on to Western Europe are now stuck in Serbia, with more still trickling in. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica and Martine van Bijlert visited the country’s southern and eastern borders, where they found the old smuggling routes through the Balkans still very much alive. They also looked at the country’s northern and western borders and at how migrants and their smugglers are trying to deal with the EU’s efforts to seal off all entry points.

The Aftermath of an Exodus: The Balkans’ old smuggling routes and Europe’s closed borders

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4. Afghan Child Migrants: Italy, the preferred country of transit?

Author: Fabrizio Foschini and Jelena Bjelica

Date: 6 September 2017

Over 100,000 unaccompanied Afghan minors, almost all of them male and generally between 14 and 17 years of age, applied for asylum in Europe between 2008 and 2016, making Afghanistan the single largest country of origin for this group of refugees. While Germany and Sweden received by far the highest number of applications, Italy became an important staging post in the long journey to other European destinations. Its importance as a transit country has diminished in the last two years, but small numbers of minors stranded in the Balkans and Greece continue to trickle in. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica and Fabrizio Foschini have visited Rome, Trieste and Gorizia to gauge the situation for unaccompanied Afghan minors and learn about a new Italian model law for protecting them.

Afghan Child Migrants: Italy, the preferred country of transit?

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5. Afghan Asylum Seekers in Italy: A place of temporary respite

Author: Fabrizio Foschini and Jelena Bjelica

Date: 13 September 2017

The number of Afghan asylum seekers in Italy has been steadily rising over the last decade. Numbers grew particularly rapidly between 2013 and 2015 and only in recent months have they slowed down. Throughout the last ten years, not only has Italy become a fixture in the mental map of Afghan migrants, but it has seen its role changing from that of a country of mere transit to one of destination. For some, Italy is a safe second-choice when they could not reach their intended destination or have been rejected from there. For others, it is a stopgap to obtain legal papers on their way to another place. Afghans in Italy remain a mostly ‘transitional’ community, despite the thousands seeking and obtaining asylum. In the end, only a fraction of those arriving remain for good. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini and Jelena Bjelica have been looking at the path of Afghan migration to Italy in the last decade and at the direction where it is heading.

Afghan Asylum Seekers in Italy: A place of temporary respite

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6. Far Beneath the European Average: The treatment of Afghan migrants in Bulgaria

Author: Jelena Bjelica

Date: 21 November 2017

Many Afghan migrants have been opting to travel through Bulgaria, a country bordering Turkey, on their journey to western and northern Europe. This route, while safer than a sea crossing, comes with its own terrifying experiences, as first-hand testimonies of migrants collected by different human rights organisations have shown. In Bulgaria, Afghan migrants are not only in danger of being attacked by vigilante groups or push back to Turkey, as the reports have shown, but they are also more likely to receive unfair treatment at the hands of the national migration authorities, AAN’s Jelena Bjelica discovered on a recent visit to the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. She also found that many of them eventually end up being returned to Afghanistan by force or under pressure.

Far Beneath the European Average: The treatment of Afghan migrants in Bulgaria

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7. Kuja Meri? Joel van Houdt’s street photo exhibition on Afghan migration

Author: Jelena Bjelica

Date: 7 December 2017

Joel van Houdt, an independent Dutch photojournalist, who lived in Afghanistan for several years, has recently returned to Kabul to exhibit his photography on Afghan migration. The exhibition, entitled “Kuja meri? – Where are you going?”, comprises a series of about 50 photos that focus entirely on Afghanistan’s refugees and is displayed on the outer walls of the Ministry of Telecommunications compound in Kabul. Van Houdt chatted with AAN’s Jelena Bjelica about several highlights of his photo documentation project on Afghan migration.

Kuja Meri? Joel van Houdt’s street photo exhibition on Afghan migration

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8. Pressure and Peril: Afghan refugees and Europe in 2017

Author: Thomas Ruttig

Date: 30 December 2017

The number of Afghan refugees arriving on Europe’s shores this year was significantly lower than in 2015 and 2016, but the arrivals have not stopped. In 2017, there were still a few thousand Afghans making the hazardous trip across the Mediterranean to the continent, and tens of thousands more continued to be on the move inside Europe. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig looks at some of the trends in Afghan-European migration in 2017 and concludes that the decrease in numbers coming to Europe is mainly a result of policy changes there vis-à-vis asylum seekers, not of the war in Afghanistan or the socio-economic problems related to it subsiding.

Pressure and Peril: Afghan refugees and Europe in 2017

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YEAR 2018

1. Pressure to return? Afghan refugees protest at Indonesian detention centre

Author: Amy Pitonak

Date: 3 April 2018

Afghan refugees in an Indonesian detention centre have been protesting for over two months. As is the case for most Afghan refugees in the country, they must live in centres scattered across the 16,000 or so islands, although they have been granted refugee status by UNHCR. AAN guest author Amy Pitonak (*) spoke to Afghan refugees at a detention centre in Balikpapan on the island of Borneo. Since mid-January 2018, their demands have included being released, quicker resettlement and better treatment from immigration officials. She describes the conditions in which they live and examines Indonesia’s policy towards refugees.

Pressure to return? Afghan refugees protest at Indonesian detention centre

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2. Mass Deportations of Afghans from Turkey: Thousands of migrants sent back in a deportation drive

Author: Amy Pitonak

Date: 21 June 2018

In a recent television appearance, the Turkish Interior Minister, Suleyman Soylu, said that 15,000 Afghans have been sent back home from Turkey. While it is likely that this number has been exaggerated, there is no doubt that in April and May of 2018, thousands of Afghan migrants were sent back on charter flights from Turkey to Kabul. This is the Turkish government’s response after a 400 per cent increase in arrivals of Afghan migrants to Turkey during the first quarter of 2018. In early April of this year, the first charter flight carrying Afghans back to Kabul flew out of Erzurum, a city in eastern Anatolia that has become the centre of these returns. AAN’s guest author Amy Pitonak visited Erzurum to find out first-hand about the situation for Afghans there.

Mass Deportations of Afghans from Turkey: Thousands of migrants sent back in a deportation drive

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3. Killing Time in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Afghan migrants try a new route into the EU

Author: Elizabeth Wait

Date: 4 September 2018

Since January, around 800 Afghans have arrived in the non-EU country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in an attempt to find a new route into the European Union. They are mainly camping out in dilapidated buildings and makeshift structures in the towns of Bihać and Velika Kladuša, both near to the north-western border with EU member Croatia. Border patrols seek to prevent them from travelling any further. Although some of the Afghans are new arrivals in the Balkans, others have been stranded in neighbouring Serbia for over two years and have recently come to Bosnia. AAN guest author Elizabeth Wait (*) brings rare insights into a journey of an underreported group of Afghans stuck in Bosnia.

Killing Time in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Afghan migrants try a new route into the EU

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Afghan refugees EU IOM migration unaccompanied minors