The new deal as worded would forcibly send Afghans whose asylum applications were rejected directly back to an intensifying war that has taken a severe toll on civilian life and is seemingly at odds with international conventions on refugees.
BRUSSELS — The European Union (EU) and Afghanistan announced a deal Wednesday that would send tens of thousands of Afghan refugees who had reached Europe back home to an increasingly hazardous war zone.
The agreement is the most specific effort yet by Europe to divert or reverse a wave of hundreds of thousands of refugees from war-torn countries, including Afghanistan and Syria. But unlike a major agreement with Turkey this year to have that country host more Syrian refugees, the new deal as worded would forcibly send Afghans whose asylum applications were rejected back to an intensifying war that has taken a severe toll on civilian life and is seemingly at odds with international conventions on refugees.
“The EU and the government of Afghanistan intend to cooperate closely in order to organize the dignified, safe and orderly return of Afghan nationals to Afghanistan who do not fulfill the conditions to stay in the EU,” the agreement read.
The repatriation deal was announced alongside an international conference in which governments pledged $3.75 billion in annual development aid to Afghanistan during the next four years. But few of the keynote speakers even hinted at the worsening security in the country in recent weeks, and none publicly discussed the repatriation deal, which was reportedly signed Sunday.
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As speakers at the conference praised improvements in Afghanistan, the idea that even important Afghan cities could be secured was under direct assault.
Taliban fighters Wednesday attacked Afghan security forces who were fighting for a third day to maintain control of the main government buildings in Kunduz, a vital provincial capital that briefly fell to insurgents last year. In the Afghan south, another of the few remaining government-held districts in Helmand province was seized by the insurgents this week. At no time since before the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan have the Taliban controlled more territory in the country.
“While donors are preoccupied with deterring refugee flight, they should focus instead on security force and Taliban abuses and children’s lack of access to education, and address the reasons people are so desperate to leave,” said Brad Adams, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
In 2015 alone, 213,000 Afghans arrived in Europe, with 176,900 claiming asylum that year, according to EU data. Fifty to 60 percent of such Afghan requests have been denied, meaning that tens of thousands of people could be returned to Afghanistan under the deal.
European officials denied that the repatriation deal was a condition for aid to Afghanistan. Federica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security, said: “There is never, never a link between our development aid and whatever we do on migration.”
Ekram Afzali, head of Integrity Watch Afghanistan and part of the Afghan delegation meeting with the Europeans in Brussels, said delegates were told by Afghan and international officials that the repatriation deal was a quid pro quo for European aid. A leaked EU memo dated March 3 discussed openly making pledges of aid at this week’s conference conditional on Afghanistan’s agreement with the repatriation deal.
At the conference, Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that U.S. funding of civilian programs would continue “at or near current levels, on average, all the way through 2020.” Such funding in the current year is about $1.1 billion, according to John Kirby, the State Department spokesman.
Europe pledged 1.3 billion euros annually, or about $1.46 billion, making it the single biggest donor, while British officials were expected to provide more than $900 million a year.
None of those aid commitments were tied to the security situation, but they were linked to progress by the Afghan government in meeting goals outlined by an international donors conference held in Tokyo in 2012. This year’s conference was one of a series in which Afghanistan’s progress on benchmarks, called the Tokyo Framework, was evaluated.
Though the language of the deal, called the Joint Way Forward, did not provide information on the number of Afghans who would be returned home, the details available suggested preparations for a major undertaking.
“Both sides will explore the possibility to build a dedicated terminal for return in Kabul airport and express their willingness to carry out nonscheduled flights at the best convenient time,” read a document describing the deal.
Timor Sharan, senior analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group, said the European motivation for sending a large number of Afghan asylum seekers back was not based on the realities in Afghanistan, but rather on anti-immigration sentiment in Europe.
“This is a political response to a humanitarian situation,” Sharan said.