Afghanistan Analysts Network – English


Afghan Exodus: Afghan asylum seekers in Europe (1) – the changing situation

Thomas Ruttig 23 min

In 2016, Afghans remained the second-largest group both of migrants seeking protection in Europe and of those formally applying for asylum. Meanwhile, numbers of arrivals – both in general and in terms of Afghans – have dropped significantly, compared with the peak in late 2015, as European countries have since made getting, staying and integrating there more complicated. Numbers of asylum applications widely differed between European countries. Furthermore, the EU and individual member states put agreements in place with the Afghan government that allow “voluntary” and “enforced” returns of larger numbers of rejected asylum seekers. In this first part of a three-part dispatch, AAN’s co-director Thomas Ruttig looks at the latest figures and trends as well as changes in policy and social climate that impacted the situation for Afghan asylum seekers in Europe. This will be followed by an overview of the situation in a number of individual European countries (part 2) and a case study on Germany, the largest recipient country in Europe for refugees (part 3). The last part will also draw some conclusions.

Locked out from the EU – Afghan and Pakistanis migrants (with a few Bangladeshis and a Nigerian) standing in line for supplies in a Belgrade, Serbia squat. Photo: Martine van Bijlert (Nov 2016).Locked out from the EU – Afghan and Pakistanis migrants (with a few Bangladeshis and a Nigerian) standing in line for supplies in a Belgrade, Serbia squat. Photo: Martine van Bijlert (Nov 2016).

Unless stated otherwise, all statistical data on the EU in this dispatch is from Eurostat (see here and here), in order to maintain compatibility. The term “asylum applicant” refers to first-time applicant. Applicants have the right to file a follow-up application if personal circumstances relevant to their claim have changed which leads to a higher number of overall applications. 

No full set of data on Afghan migrants for all European countries is available in the Eurostat statistics. For individual member states, only the top 3 or 5 countries of origin are published, leaving out Afghans, for example, in the Netherlands, the UK or Italy in some or all quarters of 2016.  

The following colleagues provided detail, mainly about their home countries: Kaisa Pylkkanen (Finland), Fabrizio Foschini (Italy) and the Guardian’s Sune Engel Rasmussen (Denmark); AAN colleagues Martine van Bijlert (Netherlands), Kate Clark (UK), Jelena Bjelica (Serbia, Romania, Croatia and Hungary) as well as Ann Wilkens from the AAN advisory board (Sweden).

The research for this dispatch is funded by the Kabul office of the German foundation Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) and is a part of a dispatch series for a joint publication with FES. See also the paper ‘We Knew They Had No Future in Kabul”: Why and How Afghan Families Decide to Leavethat was part of an earlier project with FES.

Overall figures

The overall number of arriving migrants in Europe has dropped sharply in 2016. Arrivals from non-European countries of origin to Europe – ie the 28 EU member-countries (including brexiting UK) plus the four non-members (Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein) – decreased from the 1,015,000 in the peak year of 2015 to close to over 362,000 in 2016, ie by two thirds. (These UNHCR figures – see a daily update here – only count those arriving across the Mediterranean, which is by far the most important entry route. There are no statistics about other routes where much smaller numbers of migrants can be assumed, for example through Russia.)

Of these first time applicants from all countries of origin, Germany registered just under 63 per cent, almost the same percentage as in 2015 (more detail in part 3). It was followed by Sweden (11.8 per cent), Italy (8.8 per cent) and France (5.2 per cent). Austria, Greece and the UK each had above 3 per cent; Hungary over 2 per cent; Bulgaria, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain each over 1 per cent. Everyone else was under 1 per cent, with Estonia and Slovakia (both 0.01 per cent) at the absolute bottom.

In the first three quarters of 2016, Germany also always had the highest rate of asylum seekers per capita of the population (2,155; 2,273; 2,945). With one exception (Austria in the first quarter) this was more than double than all runner-up countries with the next highest rates (Austria, Malta and Luxemburg; Hungary, Austria and Greece; Malta, Greece and Austria). This had still been different in 2015 when, amidst the highest absolute number of incoming migrants, it registered only a comparatively low percentage of them as asylum applicants. Then, Germany ranked fifth only in Europe – although per capita rates were far higher. Germany had 5,441, trailing Hungary (17,699), Sweden (16,016), Austria (9,970) and Finland (5,876).

The overall number of people applying for asylum or other forms of protection in Europe, after dropping by one third between the last quarter of the peak year of 2015 (with 426,000 applicants) and the first quarter of 2016 (less than 290,000), again started to rise in 2016. A total of over 951,000 was reached by the end of the third quarter according to the most recent published EU data (full 2016 figures are expected in March 2017). If the trend continues, the 2015 level of 1.26 million applicants (more than double 2014) might be reached again.

Incoming but still incomplete national data for the full 2016 year reviewed by the Asylum Information Database (AIDA) (see here) indicated contradictory trends among European countries: While an increase in asylum applications compared to 2015 was reported from Germany, Italy, France and Greece, “most other countries remain far behind Germany and reported a decrease in the number of asylum applications registered last year.”

The seeming contradiction between the drop in arrival figures and continued high levels of asylum applications reflects a situation where, in 2016, many of those who had arrived in 2015 but had not been able to formally register an asylum claim, due to their large numbers, or had avoided doing so finally registered. Also migrants who had arrived before 2015 and lived illegally in Europe may have used the opportunity to register.

Afghan figures  

  1. a) Arrivals in Europe

Looking at Afghan in-migration, 43,400 individuals had arrived across the Mediterranean in 2016. In the peak year of 2015, it had been almost five times that many, some 200,000 (find an analysis of 2015 trends in this AAN dispatch). The percentage of Afghans among all arrivals across the Mediterranean Sea dropped from 20 per cent in 2015 to 12 per cent in 2016. This drop by almost 80 per cent in their absolute figures is even steeper than the average from all countries.

In 2016, almost all Afghan migrants to Europe continued to arrive in Greece. Only 349 Afghans came to Italy (0.2 per cent of all arrivals) and none to Spain. The large majority of Afghans that arrived in Greece, over 39,000, came before mid-March 2016 when the updated EU-Turkey migration deal kicked in (here the press release; officially it is called Joint Action Plan the first version of which had come into force in November 2015). After that, Afghan arrival figures in Greece dropped drastically to 1,590 between April and September 2016, ie 265 per month on average.

Relatively smaller numbers of Afghans entered Finland and northern Norway through Arctic Russia, mainly in 2015 and early 2016. The figures for Finland were 720 for 2015, compared to 28 in 2014 and 14 in 2013, according to this government website.  In January and February 2016, according to media reports, the numbers increased again to 1,000 , before Russia and Finland agreed to close their border for third-nation citizens. Norway and Afghanistan agreed in December 2016 that Kabul would take back 90 per cent of its 4,000 citizens who had crossed the temporarily permeable Russian-Norwegian border close to the polar circle in the same period. (On this, more in part 2 of this dispatch; also see this AAN dispatch). (1)

  1. b) Asylum applications in Europe

The trend found above for all countries of origin – that the drop in the number of incoming new migrants in 2016 did not result in a drop of asylum applications over the same period – does also apply for Afghans. After the quarterly figure fell by more than half between the last quarter of 2015 and the first quarter of 2016 (from 79,255 to 34,800), figures began rising again from quarter to quarter in 2016. They reached 50,300 in the second and 62,100 in the third quarter. By then, the total amount was 147,200 or 15.5 per cent of the over 951,000 first time applicants from all countries.

The number reached by the end of the third quarter 2016 indicates that, if the trend continues, the overall figure for 2015 (178,200, ie 14.2 per cent of all applicants and four times more than 2014) might have been reached again in 2016.

By the end of the third quarter of 2016, the largest number of Afghan asylum applications was registered in Germany (102,900) (2) – more than two thirds of their total), followed by Austria (10,100), Hungary (9,800), Bulgaria (6,500), France (4,500), Italy (under 3,900), Switzerland (3,000), Sweden and the UK (2,600 each) and Belgium (2,000). In the third quarter of 2016, Afghanistan featured among the top five countries of origin in 16 EU countries plus in Norway and Switzerland. In four countries, Afghanistan was the most important country of origin, although with comparatively low numbers (Austria 2,185, Hungary 1,610, Bulgaria 100 and Slovenia 70) – see here.

Given all figures above, Afghans remained the second largest ‘national’ group in both categories in 2016, arriving migrants and asylum applicants.

  1. c) Decisions in Europe

The number of Afghan asylum cases that have been decided upon by member countries’ authorities even in the first instance (there is the right to appeal) remained much lower than the application figure. In the first and second quarters of 2016, decisions were reached on less than 20,000 Afghan cases; figures were picking up in the third quarter with 27,300 decided cases.

These cases still represent only around 20 per cent of the 240,000 Afghan asylum cases that were reportedly pending with the EU by mid-November 2016 – not counting the (unknown) number of Afghans who even had not had a chance or decided not to file an application.

The Europe-wide protection rate for Afghan asylum applicants was above 50 per cent throughout the three first quarters of 2016. In the first quarter, 4,215 of the 7,415 decided cases (56.8 per cent) ended positively, receiving protection status: There were 3,200 negative decisions. In the second quarter, the rate sank slightly to 53.1 per cent, based on a growing number of cases decided (12,840); 6,820 Afghans received protection while this was rejected in 6,020 cases. That gives an overall protection quota of 54.5 per cent for the first half of 2016. In the third quarter, the rate dropped to 50.7 per cent, with more than twice as many cases decided (27,300) than in the previous quarter. Large numbers of rejected asylum applications do not mean that similar numbers of people have been forcibly deported to their country of origin. In fact, countries such as Germany (until 2015) and Sweden (for some of 2016) generally categorised Afghans as ‘protected from deportation’ for humanitarian reasons, due to the on-going war. But this is now changing (see more below).

The German daily Frankfuter Allgemeine reported in December 2016, that “for no other country of origin, the recognition quota in the individual EU member-countries differed so widely” in that year as for the Afghans – “from 14 to 96 per cent.” On the other hand, as a UK government figure shows, Afghans were the nationality with the third highest number of positive decisions (6,820 or 53 per cent) in the EU as a whole in the second quarter of 2016.

The AIDA database, with incomplete all-2016 statistics, also reported general “protection disparities” and also specifically for Afghans. The range went from a 30 percent protection rate in Norway to 59 per cent in Belgium. Finland had 42.4, Sweden 45, Greece 48.8, Germany 55.8 and Austria 56 per cent. (3)

Policy changes: sealing borders

The drop in overall arrivals, and Afghan arrivals, reflects the changes in European policies. ‘Temporary’ border controls, even between EU member states, were re-introduced and are still in force. It started in September 2015 with Germany increasing checks at its Austrian border. At the same time, Hungary sealed and started fencing its borders with non-EU Serbia and also with Croatia; also Slovenia fenced its border with Croatia. Croatia did not seal its Serbian border, as in large part it is formed by Sava River and therefore difficult to cross. This was followed by similar measures taken by the Czech Republic, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, France and non-EU states Norway and Switzerland.

At the end of November 2015, authorities in the most affected countries on the Balkan route decided to allow only Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi nationals to cross their borders. This changed on 18 February 2016, when heads of the national police in Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia decided that Afghans could not pass their borders anymore. An AP journalist wrote at the time: “Suddenly, Afghans appear to be the new pariahs of Europe.” Although Germany, as the greatest recipient of Afghan arrivals, profited most from the decision, chancellor Merkel condemned the move at the time, as she realised that this would put a large burden on Greece and might undermine attempts to set up distribution quotas in the EU – which it did (see here).

A few weeks later, on 9 March 2016, Serbia, Macedonia, Slovenia and Croatia fully closed their borders to any new migrants with the implicit backing of the European Union, which announced the Turkey deal at the same time. Slovenia’s and Croatia’s announcements to return to full implementation of the Schengen Border Code had a domino effect among other countries in the region who adopted daily quotas and sought to re-establish greater border control.

As AAN reported at the time, thousands of people got stuck in Greece as well as at various other junctions along the route, with many more on the way from Syria, Afghanistan and other places. In Serbia, which as a result of these measures became an EU antechamber, approximately 800 migrants were stuck in in Preševo (near the Serbian-Macedonian border) and 600 people in Šid (near the Serbian-Croatian border).

On 20 March 2016, the EU-Turkey Action Plan came into force. It stipulated that the legitimacy of asylum claims of all new irregular migrants crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek islands would be checked there and those found illegitimate returned to Turkey. (Read more detail in this AAN analysis and in this German media report.) But this plan did not work out, as a number of EU countries refused to agree to accept a quota of those legitimate asylum seekers. The EU also did not fully live up to its commitments to send additional migration experts to Greece and even refused to send some to the Greek islands, as the situation was “too dangerous” there. Furthermore, the Turkish government decided in August 2016 to withdraw its liaison officers from the Greek islands, making the practical implementation of the deal even more complicated. It has repeatedly threatened to cancel the deal with the EU as a result of deteriorating EU-Turkey relations after the crackdown following the July 2016 coup attempts.

Although some EU member countries stuck to their commitment under the deal, only 5,875 asylum seekers entering Greece had been relocated to other EU countries by 28 November 2016, according to the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based think tank that reportedly designed the EU-Turkey deal. The same applies for Italy (see more below), from where only 1,802 asylum seekers have been relocated. (Specific numbers about how many Afghans were among them are not available.) The combined figures for Greece and Italy only reach around 5 per cent of the original relocation target. The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants criticised in mid-2016 that “the EU and the overwhelming majority of EU member States have abandoned Greece – a country that is fighting to implement austerity measures – leaving it to deal with an issue that requires efforts from all.” (see here) Since then, there has been no major change in this situation.

Bulgaria had already started building a fence along most of its border with Turkey in 2014. Greece fenced parts of its Turkish land border, near Bulgaria. In early December 2015, Austria began building a fence along its border with Slovenia, the first to be set up between two Schengen countries. Another fence was erected at the border crossing between Norway and Russia. (The Economist has an interactive map on this.)

For Afghans and others seeking protection, this blocked the way into Europe at the outer EU border, or at least made access to Europe more risky, costly and dangerous (see here). A number of them are trying to wait out the situation in Turkey; others changed their minds and are staying in Turkey for good (as this AAN dispatch showed). Those who had made it into Greece, but were unable to travel on via the closed Balkan route, experienced the Greek government’s increasing pressure to file an asylum application there (also a prerequisite for redistribution in the EU, demanded by Greece, which so far has not happened in any significant numbers) (4). The number of applicants in Greece rose from around 1,000 a month (up to February 2016) to over 7,500 in November 2016, reaching almost 47,000 by that month. Among the total were 3,295 Afghans, but their percentage in this group (7 per cent) is very likely way below their actual proportion of the total number of migrants currently in the country. (Here is an amazing NPR radio show about refugees in Greece broadcast in July 2016.)

A few months after the closure of the Balkan route, in summer 2016, a number of migrants – including Afghans – used what a local newspaper described as “Europe’s last needle’s eye to the North”: the mountainous and unsealed Italian-Swiss border into Switzerland or further into Germany. According to the Swiss authorities, 4,833 incoming migrants left the country via this route again in 2016, 3,385 of them to Germany. This looked like Switzerland making sure that most incoming migrants would leave the country again. Over the same period, between January and October 2016, Switzerland itself had 3,035 Afghans applying for asylum. (5)

Later, according to Swiss media reports, the country’s border police started to reject migrants at the southern border with Italy, even if they tried to request asylum. NGOs also collected cases, on the Italian side of the Swiss border, of asylum seekers who were rejected even though they had family members in Switzerland which, according to regulations, should have given them entry. Dublin cases – migrants whose entry had been registered in another EU county before and, according to EU law, can be returned there to process their asylum application – and even under-age migrants are often not processed according to the official procedures, says Schweizer Flüchtlingshilfe (Swiss Refugee Help), a leading local support organisation for migrants.

After the temporary opening and closure of the route through Arctic Russia into northern Norway and Finland in late 2015, other ‘exotic’ routes came up during 2016. The Washington Post reported that Afghan asylum applications in India had “doubled” by early 2016, compared with the year before. In January 2016, the UNHCR New Delhi Factsheet said that India hosts 13,381 Afghan refugees and asylum seekers, mostly settled in and around the capital, Delhi. Other Afghans reportedly tried to cross into the US or Canada by obtaining visas for Cuba, Mexico or other Latin American countries (see here). A German official statistic included asylum request figures as of October 2016 from other leading western countries, the US (almost 100,500), Canada (almost 37,000), Australia (over 12,200) and New Zealand (319) but did not specify countries of origin.

Policy changes: turning the trend from influx to return . . .

Following border enforcement measures, the European countries sought to reverse migration patterns from influx to return. Afghans were one of the groups that received special attention as it is the second largest group in Europe – while a number of governments claimed that the Afghan war was far less destructive than the one in Syria or Iraq and therefore Afghans were mainly ‘economic migrants’. EU and individual member states concluded a number of multi- and bilateral cooperation agreements on migration with the Afghan government. A framework was set with the finalisation of a re-admission agreement, titled the EU-Afghan “Joint Way Forward on Migration,” that was hurried to signature against some last-minute hurdles in Kabul before the October 2016 international Afghanistan conference in Brussels (see detail here; text here). The conference agenda included donor countries’ reconfirmation of financial pledges for the next phase in Afghanistan’s 2014–24 ‘transformation’ period, providing an opportunity for donor countries to pressure Kabul to agree to take back rejected asylum seekers. As AAN reported at that time, “the organisers of the Brussels conference (…) feared that failure to negotiate a readmission agreement with Afghanistan (…) would leave member countries reluctant to publicly commit to future funding.” (see also this AAN dossier) While European governments have denied using aid conditionality to achieve this aim, Afghan officials have understood it that way and told various media so (read one report from Germany’s main TV network here).

Germany, Finland, Sweden and other countries signed bilateral agreements (some of them renewed) at the same time. These agreements are designed to create conditions to allow the repatriation of larger numbers of Afghans. Although the EU and German agreements, for example, state that signatories see “voluntary returns” as the priority, they also strongly emphasise the option of “non-voluntary returns.” (More detail about the agreements in this AAN analysis. The German agreement has not been published; brief official information about the Swedish agreement can be found here and about the Finnish one here) The EU-Afghan “Joint Way Forward” even includes an option to create the logistical infrastructure to process larger numbers on arrival in Afghanistan: “Both sides will explore the possibility to build a dedicated terminal for return in Kabul airport.”

The figures for rejected Afghan asylum seekers who are legally required to leave Europe are in the tens of thousands. A draft EU paper prepared for the October 2016 Brussels conference on Afghanistan, leaked in March 2016, mentioned that 80,000 Afghans “could potentially need to be returned in the near future” from all member countries. Germany, the largest recipient country, including for Afghans, officially had 12,539 Afghans who were “ausreisepflichtig” (required to leave) (see here) in mid-November 2016. Given the over 240,000 Afghan asylum cases pending all over Europe and the average protection rate of slightly over 50 per cent, 120,000 more potential ‘returnees’ could emerge, however. That would bring the EU-wide number up to around 200,000.

Based on memoranda of understanding on returns and readmissions with several EU/Schengen member states, a number of EU and non-EU countries have been sending back rejected Afghan asylum seekers for some years already. (6)  Including the 2016 ‘return’ flights from Germany (34 deportees), Finland (three) and jointly Sweden and Norway (13 or 14, according to IOM all Afghans from Iran), between 2003 and 2016, in total 8,608 Afghans were deported to their country from Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK. 6,365 of them were from the UK and 1,382 from Norway. (There were also three non-European countries that have deported Afghans back to their country over the same period: Australia 10, Indonesia 1 and Oman 466.)

Number of Afghan Deportees – IOM data
Returning From 2003-2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 Grand Total
Australia 2 3 4 1 10
Belgium 1 9 11 2 2 3 28
Denmark 62 7 69
Finland 3 3
France 39 39
Germany 224 1 34 259
Indonesia 1 1
Netherlands 71 6 78 61 14 2 232
Norway 284 41 74 196 250 437 88 12 1,382
Oman 466 466
Portugal 1 1
Sweden 4 5 74 94 26 26 229
Switzerland 1 1
UK 2,989 733 1,023 527 513 404 89 87 6,365
Grand Total 4,143 781 1,103 817 909 954 212 166 9,085

There is also an increasing number of voluntary returns of Afghan asylum seekers. Through IOM-run Afghanistan programmes, 6,864 persons returned voluntarily to Afghanistan in 2016, an IOM official told AAN. (From 2003 to 2016, there were 22,436 voluntary returns of Afghans from all countries according to IOM, so that the 2016 figure – which is almost one third of all – represents a serious increase.) Almost half those in 2016 – 3,159 persons – came from Germany. Most returns occurred in the first three quarters of the year, when on average 200 persons returned a week; between September and December this rate drop to less than 100 returns a week.

In mid-December 2016, Sweden and Germany started to put their new agreements with Afghanistan into practice. On 13 December 2016, some twenty Afghans were returned in a joint Swedish-Norwegian operation. (7) This happened despite the Afghan-Swedish agreement having run into trouble two weeks earlier, when the lower house of the Afghan parliament (the Wolesi Jirga) voted against it on 30 November 2016 (a short report here). According to Abdul Qayum Sajjadi, a member of the house’s international relations commission, a majority of MPs considered the agreement to be against the Afghan constitution and international human rights conventions as, in their view, its content emphasised deportation rather than voluntary return; the vote was 117 against 6 (no abstentions). The Swedish government rejected this view, and the Afghan government, in the person of deputy foreign minister Hekmat Karzai who travelled to Stockholm in early December 2016, ensured Sweden that Kabul would uphold the agreement, de facto overruling the parliament. Despite the parliament’s objection, the Afghan authorities authorised the December ‘return’ flight.

A few days later, on 15 December 2016, Germany repatriated 34 rejected asylum seekers by charter flight to Kabul (see here) – all men, about one third of them convicted for crimes. On the same day, according to an official letter from the German interior minister (see here) dated 9 January 2017, the Netherlands also has carried out what is called “return action.” (IOM data, seen by AAN, however, do not confirm any deportation from the Netherlands to Afghanistan in 2016 – but there were 110 voluntary returns. The minister’s letter also did not give any number.)

In Germany, the forcible return was met by public protests and intra-party controversies, even in the ruling German coalition. A number of MPs from the smaller coalition partner, the Social Democrats, the German parliament’s commissioner for the armed forces (see here) and the government’s commissioner for migration (see here) – not to mention the opposition and human rights groups – all challenged the government’s claim that Afghanistan was “sufficiently safe” to forcibly return rejected Afghan asylum seekers. These doubts are particularly strong in some governments of Germany’s federated states, that consequently refused to put rejected Afghans under their jurisdictions (deportations are in states’ jurisdiction) on the 15 December flight. The Conference of the States’ Interior Ministers, held in early December 2016, had tasked the government to update its assessment of the Afghan situation, with the support of UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration. The UNHCR’s official reply, sent to the German states on 9 January 2017, diplomatically but firmly contradicted the government’s assessment, stating that it was not in a position to distinguish between safe(r) and unsafe areas. (see here) IOM’s director general, in an interview with a German daily in December 2016, supported the government by saying that some Afghan areas were “sufficiently safe” for returnees.

The changing climate in recipient countries

Throughout 2015, the growing numbers of arriving asylum seekers put a strain on local social services, particularly in countries with a high per capita rate of arrivals; local institutions were at times unprepared or unable to cope with the influx. The mood, initially generally welcoming to refugees, seemed to have changed, to a large degree, to one of rejection. A recent poll by Friedrich Ebert Foundation, published in November 2016, showed, however, that 55.5 per cent of Germans continued to welcome the fact that Germany had received many refugees, while 86.1 per cent still agreed with the statement “People who flee from war should be received in Germany.” At the same time, 52.9 per cent supported a capping of refugees allowed into the country (in September, with a different methodology, weekly magazine Focus had 60 per cent).

The changes in the general mood and the problems local authorities faced were picked up by anti-immigrant parties throughout Europe, which were already strong or growing in a number of parliaments. Extra-parliamentarian nationalist groups, often with a violent fringe, became more vocal. These two camps partly overlap in various countries, although in different degrees. In Germany, for example, 120 arson attacks were made on asylum seeker accommodations in 2015, increasing to 141 in 2016, according to research by Berlin daily taz. In contrast, the German police (occasionally accused of turning a blind eye to right-wing terrorism) counted 66 arson and four explosives attacks for 2016. Only in 20 cases, the daily writes, did information show that the case was still being investigated.

In order to counteract voter losses, some governing mainstream parties changed their rhetoric and tightened their policies and laws on migration. German legislation on asylum, residence and integration has been amended twice since October 2015 (more detail in the case study in part 3 of this dispatch). A third legislation package that included plans to further reduce in-cash support for individual asylum seekers was rejected by the upper house of parliament on 16 December 2016 (see here).

Sweden tightened its asylum process to reach what Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, a social democrat, has termed the “EU minimum level” in asylum and migration policy (quoted here). This means, for instance, that fewer applicants get full asylum rights and only those who do have an unconditional right to family reunification. The measures are meant to be provisional, and the intention is to revert to a more generous approach as soon as the reception situation is deemed to be stabilised (see more detail in this AAN analysis). According to Swedish migration lawyers, quoted here, the Swedish Migration Board (SMB) is also using an own version of ‘safe(r) zones’ in Afghanistan, here termed regions “less influenced by war.”

Finland is the first EU country where the government practically declared all of Afghanistan – as well as Somalia and Iraq – safe for returns. It did so in May 2016, stopping short of literally calling it a ‘safe country.’ The statement of the Finnish immigration service on these three countries says:

In the past few months, the security situation has gradually improved in all three countries, although it may have got [sic] worse at times for certain specific areas locally. Due to the improved security situation, it will be more difficult for applicants from these countries to be granted a residence permit on the basis of subsidiary protection. (…) According to the Finnish Immigration Service, it is currently possible for asylum seekers to return to all areas in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia without the ongoing armed conflicts as such presenting a danger to them only because they are staying in the country.

By late 2015, Finland had already stopped giving subsidiary protection to Afghan asylum seekers from the provinces of Helmand, Khost, Paktika, Uruzgan and (additional) parts of Ghazni. It also seriously tightened asylum policies, abolishing the law that allowed for providing refugees status on the grounds of “humanitarian protection” and made family reunification more difficult. (For family reunification to be possible, the whole family now needs to be legally in Finland at the time the application is filed.) In September 2016, Afghan refugees in Finland demonstrated against what they perceived as an unfair asylum process and demanded that their cases be heard and processed according to international norms.

Denmark’s much tightened asylum laws have even been criticised by the UN, as they now include provisions for detaining asylum seekers without a court order. It also makes family reunion more difficult and involuntary return easier and allows the confiscation of asylum seekers’ money and jewellery worth more than 1,350 Euros. The country is reportedly planning even more radical regulations, in a so-called “general plan for a stronger Denmark.” According to this plan, in a “crisis situation” the government could close the border for all asylum seekers; the granting of permanent residence would be delayed (taking place after eight instead of six years) and only granted after the refugee had not claimed social welfare benefits for four years; family reunification would only be granted after 11 years and child benefits after five years; and the threshold for withholding permanent residence because of a conviction was lowered (from 12 to 6 months detention).

A case from Denmark that technically was a voluntary return and was recounted in a 2015 Guardian article also demonstrated how such a practice can go wrong. In this case, two Hazara brothers from Maidan-Wardak province (one adult, one minor) had their asylum applications rejected in 2012 and agreed, under some prompting, to voluntarily return to their country in June 2015. The Danish authorities argued that the elder could act as the younger’s guardian. Both ended up sleeping in the streets of Kabul. The younger one disappeared when they tried to obtain ID cards in their native province and was later reported killed. After that, the older brother moved to Iran and from there, as it is assumed in the article, possibly back to Europe.

In Austria, the parliament decided in June 2016 that the government could request that no new asylum applications be accepted when an annual ceiling of 37,500 was reached. A UNHCR spokesman called this “breaking a taboo,” as migrants would summarily be equated with a “threat” by this legislation. When the threshold is reached, only asylum requests by refugees with close relatives already living in the country, or who are threatened by torture or other inhuman treatment upon return, will be accepted. With 42,073 asylum requests in 2016, figures went down by more than half, compared to the 88,900 cases in 2015. But since less than two thirds of these applicants were admitted only for the asylum procedure, numbers remained under the ceiling (even with 8,800 pending cases from 2015 added) and did not trigger the new measures.

In mid-2016, the Austrian foreign minister proposed an “Australian solution” for migrants entering the EU: Keep them on the Greek islands until their cases had been decided. But this might have been part of the hard fought presidential run-off election campaign, with a right-wing populist as one of the candidates (he narrowly lost in the end).

Hungary – in 2015 the European country with the second highest number of overall (174,435) and Afghan (45,650) asylum applicants as well as the country with the highest per capita number of all asylum seekers (17,699) – took the most draconian measures to bring down the figures. Already in September 2015, it had rigorously closed its border with the main influx country, Serbia, leaving only two official border crossings open, through which small but even further decreasing numbers of migrants were allowed in (mainly families). In October 2015, the border with Croatia followed. It also was the first EU country to start entirely fencing the vulnerable parts of its border (see more detail in here and this AAN dispatch).

Overall numbers of asylum seekers in Hungary dropped to 28,803 in 2016, 38 per cent of them Afghans (almost 11,000) (source: here). On 13 January 2017, the government additionally introduced mandatory detention for all asylum-seekers with pending cases in the country in so-called transit zones. Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on the radio, “We have reinstated alien police detention in the cases of those whose application to enter Europe has not yet been legally judged.” This is against EU law, which allows such a measure only in “exceptional cases.” In early October, however, the government failed to secure a referendum vote for its proposal to close the country for all refugees; although 98 per cent of participants were in favour, participation fell short of the legally required 50 per cent threshold. In November, parliament voted narrowly against the move.

The earlier parts of the FES-funded AAN dispatch series are:

  • Fazal Muzhary and Jelena Bjelica, “Afghan Exodus: Can the Afghan government deal with more returnees from Europe?” 31 October 2016 (click here)
  • Noah Arjomand, “An Afghan Exodus: Smuggling networks, migration and settlement patterns in Turkey,” 10 September 2016 (click here)


(1) Finnish journalists and analysts told AAN they saw Russian steering behind this part of the migration movement; it ended as abruptly as it had started.

(2) As in this case, the quarterly Europe-wider figures published by Eurostat can deviate from national figures. The report of the German asylum authority for the period from January to September 2016 gives 115,342 asylum applications from Afghans. As Eurostat publishes its quarterly figures later (in the third months of the following quarter), they might be more accurate here as they seem to incorporate adjustments. In other cases, as EU sources working on asylum issues told AAN, adjusted national figures are not communicated to Brussels creating other gaps.

Another example for inconsistent figures is Germany’s overall figure for the incoming migrants in 2015: On 30 September 2016, the German government had to correct down this figure from 1.1 million to 890,000, by circa 20 per cent (see media report and video of original statement by the interior minister here). Surprisingly, however, it continues to use the unadjusted figures even in key documents published after the correction, such as its December 2016 asylum statistics report that also doubles as the annual 2016 report and its 2015 Migration Report published in December 2016 (that covers all aspects of migration).

(3) The AIDA figures need to be taken with a pinch of salt, though. 2015 protection rates for Afghans, for example for Germany, seem too high – officially the Afghan protection rate was below 50 per cent there. AIDA has probably used adjusted (excluding Dublin cases) figures for 2015 and unadjusted figures for 2016.

(4) By mid-December 2016, only 6,461 refugees – instead of the 66,400 envisaged – had been redistributed from Greece to other EU member states, according to MSF Germany (quoted here).

(5) In 2015, Switzerland had 7,831 Afghans applying for asylum (5,902 in December alone), making Afghanistan the second largest country of origin for that year (up more than tenfold from 747 applications in 2014; see here) and representing 19.8 per cent of all applicants for 2015. Switzerland also has a significant Afghan community. Currently 1,194 accepted Afghan asylum seekers are living in Switzerland, 4,074 have been granted temporary protection and 12,194 others are still in the process (see here, all figures third quarter 2016).

(6) These countries were: France (2002), UK (2002), Netherlands (2002), Denmark (2004), Switzerland (2005), Norway (2005), and Sweden (2006, valid until 2009) (see AAN analysis here).

In the UK, the Court of Appeal had ruled in March 2016 that ‘removals’ to Afghanistan could be resumed after a temporary halt. Between 2007 and 2015, the UK had already “removed” 2,018 formerly unaccompanied Afghan minors, after their asylum applications were rejected and after they had turned 18, as this 2016 media report had revealed. Sweden had also temporarily halted deportation for some months in 2016.

According to a 2015 masters paper at a Norwegian university (“Unintended Consequences of Deportations to Afghanistan”; not available online, hard copy with the author), Norway started increasing involuntary returns to Afghanistan from 2006 onwards, also including families with children since 2013. Between 2006 and 2014, Norway carried out 762 (37%) “assisted” and 1,299 (63%) involuntary returns.

In July 2016, the Swiss Federal Administrative Court decided that Afghan refugees could not be returned to their country involuntarily. According to December 2016 Swiss media reports, however, an Afghan family with three small children that had been returned to Norway by Switzerland, based on the Dublin regulation, ending up being notified that they would be involuntarily returned to Afghanistan if they did not leave voluntarily.

According to the head of Frontex, the European border management agency (Frontex personnel were also on board the flight with which rejected Afghan asylum seekers were returned from Germany in January 2017), altogether 42 per cent of rejected asylum seekers from all countries of origin are deported from the EU.

(7) Different figures were published. The Guardian reported that “13 Afghans were forcibly returned from Sweden (…). That flight also carried nine Afghan citizens from Norway.” The German interior minister, in a letter dated 9 January 2017, mentioned altogether 27 Afghans on board (not online, quotes here).



migration Refugees