EU officials play down prospects of Afghan deportations as war rages

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A senior EU official on Tuesday pushed back against a plea from several EU countries to continue deportations of rejected Afghan asylum seekers, saying it was “hard to imagine” the bloc conducting “forced returns” to a country being overrun by Taliban militants.

Whether to send back Afghans denied asylum in the EU has become a contentious topic in recent days as Taliban forces continue to capture key cities throughout the country. The advances have occurred in the wake of the decision to withdraw all U.S. and NATO troops from the country, leaving the local Afghan security forces overwhelmed — and forcing Europeans to determine their responsibility for accepting fleeing refugees.

Earlier this week, six EU countries sent a joint letter to the European Commission warning against halting deportations of Afghan migrants who don’t receive asylum status in the EU. Doing so, they argued, would send “the wrong signal” and “motivate even more Afghan citizens to leave their home for the EU.” Germany, Austria, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and Greece all signed the memo.

On Tuesday, EU officials were pressed about the letter, sparking a debate about the EU’s actual role — or lack thereof — in determining deportation policy.

During a briefing with reporters, the senior EU official said the letter arrived after Afghan authorities told the EU they wanted to suspend forced returns for three months. The Afghans, the official said, argued there was too much “strain on the administrative structures to organize properly these forced return operations.”

As a result, the official said, EU countries “will probably not organize and conduct forced returns.”

He added: “Given the context, it is hard to imagine that we would conduct forced return operations for the moment.”

An EU diplomat echoed this view, saying it could be difficult for member countries to force people back to Afghanistan at this time.

Some EU countries that still have embassies operating in Kabul had also urged Brussels to stop forced deportations, according to another diplomat, prompting the joint letter by the six capitals.

A Commission spokesperson on Tuesday said the executive body had not yet replied to the six countries’ letter. But he stressed that deportation policy is a decision made at the national level, not by the EU. The Commission has, however, proposed reforms to the EU’s asylum procedures that include “measures to have a more European approach to returns, a more consistent approach,” the spokesperson noted.

The letter highlights the fears in many capitals that the destabilization in Afghanistan will create another flow of asylum seekers similar to those that came from Syria in 2015 and 2016. It also comes in response to a separate request from another group of EU countries that still have embassies in Kabul.

In their letter, the countries stressed that in 2020, Afghanistan “was the second most important country of origin” for asylum seekers in the EU, with 44,000 Afghans requesting protection.

And while the countries insisted they “fully recognize the sensitive situation in Afghanistan in light of the foreseen withdrawal of international troops,” they urged Commission to “engage in an intensified dialogue” with the Afghan authorities on migration issues, “including swift and effective return cooperation.”

Since U.S. and NATO forces withdrew from Afghanistan in recent weeks, the Taliban has launched military operations throughout the country in what officials think is primarily a move to strengthen their position at peace talks taking place in Doha, Qatar’s capital

A second senior EU official, during the same Tuesday briefing, estimated the Taliban now control 65 percent of the Afghan territory, describing it as a “rather grim military situation.”

Yet the first EU official stressed that while some 400,000 Afghans have been displaced internally in recent months, migration from Afghanistan for now remains modest, noting that irregular entries from Afghanistan to the EU “are at the lowest point since 2015” — about 4,000 so far this year.

He also noted that forced deportations of Afghans denied asylum is a small fraction of those who return to the country — 80 percent return voluntarily.

“This year, out of 1,200 returns, 200 were forced,” he said.

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