'Blind' Europe sends Afghans home to horrors: Amnesty

Europe and Australia are demonstrating "wilful blindness" by sending more Afghan asylum-seekers back to their country even as it becomes more dangerous, Amnesty International says in a new report.

Anna Shea, the report's author and Amnesty's researcher on refugee and migrant rights, said European countries were responding to political pressure to increase the number of deportations, sending men, women and even unaccompanied children back to Afghanistan at a time when violence was at a record high and no part of the country was safe..

"European governments are ??? putting people at risk of torture, kidnapping, death and other horrors," she said.

Ms Shea said they had seen examples of the dangers that returnees were exposed to. Amnesty researchers travelled to Afghanistan in May 2017 and found case studies such as Sadeqa, who was returned to Afghanistan by Norway with her family in mid-2016.

They had originally fled in 2015 after Sadeqa's husband Hadi was kidnapped and badly beaten.

They arrived back in Afghanistan in mid-2016, but a few months later he disappeared. His wife said he had been taken and killed by the same people who originally kidnapped him.

Sadeqa said Norwegian authorities had not believed the danger they were going back to.

"Not a single word of what we said was a lie, but Norway didn't believe us. If we had been accepted, my husband would be alive today," she told Amnesty's researchers.

From 2015 to 2016 the number of Afghans returned to Afghanistan from European countries nearly tripled to 9460. The same period saw a big fall in recognition of asylum applications.

Ms Shea said the decisions made when judging it was safe to return an asylum seeker "did not reflect the facts on the ground, but rather the political situation in Europe".

More than a quarter of a million Afghans migrated to Europe in 2015 and 2016, part of the big migration surge that followed Angela Merkel's vow to take Syrian refugees. Most ended up in Germany.

The surge provoked a political backlash, and renewed efforts by the European Union to shut the borders, process asylum seekers and return those who did not make the cut.

It also resulted in arguments between EU member states over who would take responsibility for the arrivals, with some states refusing altogether, and others resenting having to take a bigger share.

But Ms Shea said Europe as a whole was not taking its fair share of responsibility for the refugee crisis - in fact, the region had seen just a small percentage of the total number of Afghans seeking asylum.

"The so-called migration crisis in 2015 in Europe was not a crisis in reality, it's a lack of moral courage, it's a political crisis," she said.

"In many places (in Europe) there has been a rise in xenophobia and fear of migrants ??? this plays an important role. Governments in Europe and elsewhere are often out of touch with what their electorates want. People, ordinary people are much more welcoming towards outsiders than governments are."

Under international law it is not illegal to deport people who have failed in their bids for asylum as long as their cases were properly considered and their home country is not too dangerous - a condition that is applied to Syria and Libya but not Afghanistan.

But Ms Shea said no-one should be sent back to Afghanistan right now, whether or not they technically qualified as a refugee.

"Across the country there's the danger of death and injury in the conflict, the forces that support the government are battling over 20 armed groups including the Taliban and the group calling itself the Islamic State. 2016 was the deadliest year on record for civilians ??? and 2017 is going the same way.

"Beyond the danger of being randomly killed there's the specific danger of persecution for people (such as) men of fighting age, women, children, civilians associated with the international military forces, non-civilians, members of the Afghan security forces, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, the list goes on."

Europe had difficulty getting Afghanistan to accept back those whose applications for asylum were refused.

In October last year the EU and Afghanistan signed a deal on migration issues called the "Joint Way Forward".

They agreed to "step up" co-operation on preventing irregular migration, and returning irregular migrants who were not granted refugee status.

It allowed EU member states to deport an unlimited number of the country's asylum seekers, through dedicated charter flights from EU countries, and obliged the Afghan government to receive them.

It also allowed for the deportation of unaccompanied children, as long as "adequate reception and care-taking" was arranged on their arrival.

Australia is the only non-European country to have a similar returns agreement with UNHCR and Afghanistan.

"We know that returns are happening from Australia as well," Ms Shea said.

"These are desperate people who risked their lives to seek safety and they are being returned to a place that's even more dangerous than when they fled. Whether they are being returned from Australia or Norway our concerns are the same."

This story 'Blind' Europe sends Afghans home to horrors: Amnesty first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.