Blog post by Shamin Asghari, an External PhD Candidate at Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, Governance and Society, Leiden University
Rapid changes that happened in the political scene of Afghanistan from April to August 2021, pushed the country to becoming the largest humanitarian crisis in the world in less than 6 months, affecting multiple countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan. Thousands of people were displaced, internally or into neighbouring countries. However, compared to the last similar displacement crisis – the Syrian displacement of 2015 – the EU did not face an influx; only a total of 22,000 Afghans were evacuated to the EU. Indeed, this crisis acted as a test run for the post-2015 migration system of EU. Multiple national and regional measures were taken in the past 6 years that collectively changed the setting of human mobility in the region, many in the opposite direction to the protection of asylum seekers.
Dublin System and Access to Asylum
The 2015 crisis showed the failure of the Dublin system in large-scale movements. Border countries, in particular Greece and Italy, carried the heaviest burden. Over-populated camps in Greece, reports of human rights violation in Turkey as the main transit country and irregular movement of asylum seekers by foot through the EU were all indicators of this failure. However, instead of leading to a modification of the Dublin system, the experience resulted in further strengthening of this system by restricting access to territory. Greece and Turkey fortified their borders through the “Trumpian” method of building walls. EU’s policy towards search and rescue boats in Mediterranean shifted towards more restrictions. These efforts came to the peak by introduction of the new EU Migration and Asylum Pact, which can restrict access to asylum while increasing opportunities for skilled migrants.
In direct reaction to the events in Afghanistan, six EU members explicitly declared that “stopping returns sends the wrong signal and is likely to motivate even more Afghan citizens to leave their home for the EU”. Indicating that motivation for mobility is merely the result of asylum opportunity in the EU is, at best, a minimalistic approach to the humanitarian crisis of Afghanistan. Indeed, the current set-up of asylum management in affected countries – from Iran to the EU – disqualifies this statement. Afghans are fleeing no matter the options for asylum. Conflict, targeted persecutions, failure of the economic system, multiple violations of human rights and threats to survival are strong enough to push Afghans outside their country. Even if access to asylum is a motivator of Afghans’ mobility, it is only in line with the original vision of the refuge law regime; that those fleeing from persecution have access to international protection.
Afghans’ Access to Asylum on the Ground
With mentioned measures, access to asylum, which is protected under several international and regional refugee law documents – inter alia UDHR, UNCSR, and EU Charter of Fundamental Rights – has taken a political aspect. Politicization of asylum in the EU has a ripple effect. Iran being the first destination of many Afghans, to this date, has never conducted RSD (Refugee Status Determination) for asylum seekers. Many Afghans fleeing to Iran do so in hope of moving onward to Turkey and, ultimately, the EU, where they could benefit from the international protection provided for them by UNSCR. However, with the recent measures restricting this onward mobility, Iran has almost lost this transitory nature and turned into a long-term purgatory for irregular Afghans. This situation has been particularly exacerbated by the official closure of border in Iran after the Taliban seized power in August 2021. As a result, only Afghans with existing valid visas can travel to Iran regularly. The rest, whatever their reason for fleeing the country, can only cross the border irregularly, without any prospect of asylum in Iran or the EU.
A month after the crisis in Afghanistan started, Malik, an Afghan man who had fled Kabul with his wife managed to get to Tehran with the help of a smuggler. He was a surgeon in an international hospital but had not been evacuated. He had a passport, but no visa. He was not registered in Iran as an asylum seeker. Hoping to access asylum in the EU, Malik and his wife continued their journey to Turkey, but were pushed back to Iran by Turkey’s border guard. A story similar to many others. When I came into contact with Malik, he was living with distant relatives in a crowded house in outskirts of Tehran, earning next to nothing as an illegal daily worker: “We used to think these things only happen to unskilled Afghans who would try to walk to the EU irregularly. I still can’t believe I have been forced to do illegal daily work in a foreign country to survive”.
Having an overall look over these changes, they have only negatively affected the situation of asylum seekers as well as their perspectives for the future. The international refugee law regime, while initially developed to protect people fleeing from persecution, is restricting access to asylum which is the essential pre-requisite of proving the claim to protection. In other words, modifications of refugee laws and systems are moving towards reducing channels of access to protection provided for asylum seekers and refugees, making it extremely difficult to even claim asylum. In this setting, increasing the scrutiny and efficiency in assessing asylum claims cannot lead to a stronger protection regime, as many who have eligible claims cannot access the system to begin with.
True burden sharing and collaboration requires a consolidated effort from all countries affected by influx of displaced populations. Beyond national and regional interests, realities of affected populations’ mobility trends, their situation in each country, their needs and wants should feed into any decision in this regard. While international governance regimes still insist on prioritizing political interests over realities of people’s lives, it is inevitable that people will find a way to move forward; walking through dangerous mountains between Afghanistan and Iran, camping in border areas and finding irregular ways through Bosnian forests, or choosing the cruel Mediterranean Sea as the last resort. Neglecting these voices can only lead to a new humanitarian crisis, making access to asylum even more dangerous than persecution in the country of origin.
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