Afghan refugees in Iran Photo credit: EU/ECHO Pierre Prakash

Refugees who have fled the carnage in Afghanistan are being deported in record numbers

This has been a particularly bloody “fighting season” in Afghanistan.

Now that winter has ended and the opium poppy harvest is over, the annual summer “fighting season” is in full swing in Afghanistan. This year, the normal uptick in violence overlaps with Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of prayer and fasting. Unfortunately in recent years several extremist groups – including ISIS and the Taliban – have interpreted Ramadan to be a special time for the jihad as well, where their acts during the holy month will be rewarded more than usual. As a result, Afghanistan is witnessing a particularly violent month with multiple bombings, street protests and a violent crackdown by police.

And in this mayhem, several countries are actively deporting Afghan refugees back to the country

Just days into the holy month on May 31 a car bomb ripped through the normally quiet diplomatic district of Kabul, killing 150 people and injuring hundreds more. Despite taking place among various foreign embassies, most of those killed and injured were Afghan civilians. Security officials admitted the bombing was one of the deadliest since the Taliban left power in 2001, demonstrating once again that security is often an illusion in Afghanistan.

However, after decades of violence and civil strife, many Afghans are fed up. Two days after the bombing, protesters took to the streets of Kabul to demonstrate against the ongoing insecurity. Those protests themselves soon turned deadly as police and members of the presidential guard opened fire. Among those killed was Mohammad Salem Izedyar, son of the deputy speaker of the Senate. His funeral the following day also turned deadly when three suicide bombers in the crowd killed 19 more people. The presence of several senior Afghan officials at the funeral reinforced again the government’s inability to confront security threats within the city.

Protesters responded by setting up eight sit-in camps around the city and calling for resignation of the government. Ultimately, protesters voluntarily dismantled most of the camps except for one near the original May 31 bombing site. But on June 20, the protests again turned deadly as police opened fire while forcibly removing the last remaining camp. The three weeks of violence has led to international calls for calm and government respect for the right to protest. However with a third of the country out of the control of the government, the ability to confront the daily insecurity underlining the protests remains out of reach.

So far no groups has claimed responsibility for any of the attacks. The Taliban and its associated Haqqani network denied responsibility and there has been no word from ISIS’s local Afghan affiliate Wilayat Khorasan. But the lack of claims does little to calm the security situation. Instead, it highlights the multifaceted nature of the conflict in Afghanistan, with extremist groups actively fighting each other and everyone fighting the government and its international partners, including from within.

With this backdrop is another troubling development regarding the estimated 2.6 million Afghan refugees. After the Taliban was overthrown, many Afghan refugees voluntarily returned to the country, ready to start a new life free of war. But 15 years later, it turns out that war never really left the country.

An estimated 12 per cent of the country’s population  has left the country again in search of better safety and security.

The iconic 1984 photographic portrait by journalist Steve McCurry of an Afghan refugee 

However, patience is starting to run thin for hosting these refugees. Afghan refugees are hosted in 70 countries around the world but most of them are in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. By 2016, both countries hosted around 1 million registered Afghan refugees each with possibly double that number in unregistered refugees.

With growing regional instability, especially between Pakistan and India, Afghan refugees increasingly find themselves as unwitting pawns in regional politics. As a result, hundreds of thousands of refugees have been forced back to Afghanistan from Pakistan, even as they have no safe place to return to.

The impetus to current crisis started with a Taliban attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan that killed 141 people in December 2014. Two of the seven attackers were Afghan nationals and intelligence officials soon found they entered the country through the porous border at Torkham. By April 2016, the Torkham border crossing became a serious point of contention between the two countries, leading to a border skirmish in June that killed 4 and injured 40 more. The growing closeness between Afghanistan and India is also a point of hostility for Pakistan, especially as temper have flared over Kashmir in recent years.

A far-reaching crackdown on unregistered refugees ensued, leading to an estimated 600,000 Afghans repatriating back home with little support and fewer prospects. Pakistan insists that all repatriations are voluntary, but there is plenty of evidence that suggests otherwise. The situation has garnered very little attention except for one moment last November when Pakistan deported Sharbat Gula, better known as the infamous “Afghan girl” that adorned a 1985 National Geographic cover. Then the situation retreated back to obscurity, even as experts warned of a possible humanitarian catastrophe if the deportations continued unabated.

Pakistan is not alone in sending Afghans back into the conflict. With so much focus on Syria and Iraq, European governments are increasingly deporting failed asylum seekers back to their home countries. As the second largest asylum seeking group in Europe, Afghans are particularly at risk of being returned in large numbers.

Afghan Refugees in Greece
Afghan Refugees in Greece. Credit: UN Refugee Agency

An agreement reached between the EU and Afghanistan in October paves the way for further deportations and Germany is hoping to deport a record number in 2017 ahead of local elections. Despite the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and calls to halt deportations, countries like Germany, Sweden and the UK still maintain that Afghanistan is safe for people to return to. As a recent opinion piece by Human Rights Watch noted, sending Afghans back to these conditions merely adds to the instability that they initially fled.

In this context, Pakistan is merely following Europe’s lead by placing its own domestic politics ahead of the rights of Afghans. And in the end, the only people who benefit are the extremist groups that feed off the chaos. As this past Ramadan has shown, there is a long way to go in making Afghanistan safe and frustrations are running high. Unless the international community from Pakistan to Germany comes up with a long term strategy, Afghanistan will remain a hotbed of extremism and insecurity that ordinary people will constantly seek to escape.