Afghan refugees in Europe:
According to figures recently released by UNHCR in 2011 Afghanistan again became the main country of origin of asylum seekers in industrialised countries with approximately 35,700 Afghan citizens seeking asylum in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, America and Canada, with over 33,000 of these applications in Europe.
The levels were highest in Germany where there were 7,800 applications (a rise of 32%) and in Sweden (4,100 applications a rise of 72%). Other important countries of destination were Austria (3,600), Belgium (2,800) and Turkey (2,500). In all three countries the number of applications more than doubled in 2011. Serbia emerged as a new destination for Afghan asylum seekers with 1,700 applications lodged in 2011 compared to only 320 a year earlier. There were around 1,500 applications in the UK.
According to UNHCR’s 2010 statistics recognition rates in the 6 EU Member states that received 75% of all the EUs’ asylum application was as follows:
Belgium: refugee recognition rate of 35.6%
France: refugee recognition rate of 31.3%
Germany: refugee recognition rate of 12.4%
Netherlands: refugee recognition rate of 2.6%
Sweden: refugee recognition rate of 11.1%
United Kingdom: refugee recognition rate of 9.5%
The UNHCR statistics do not go into reasons as to why more people are seeking asylum from Afghanistan but says that the “continued volatile situation in the country” may be one reason.
The figures also do not take into account the people who have fled Afghanistan but have been unable to apply for asylum, and I am thinking in particular about the terrible situation in Greece that my colleague Anne will speak about in more detail later this afternoon.
The figures do not give a breakdown of whether the principal applicants are men, women or minors, but in the countries where we have spoken to NGOs we were told that many women-refugees from Afghanistan arrive with their family. There are always cases of single females (domestic violence, arranged marriages or honour crimes) or single females with children. These are usually referred to as vulnerable groups and would be more eligible to assistance in the host country from the government or UNHCR.
The Dublin Regulation.
The Dublin Regulation identifies the Member State responsible for the examination of an asylum application in Europe. This is usually the State that the asylum seeker first entered or the State responsible for their entry. The Regulation aims to ensure that one Member State is responsible for each application, to deter multiple applications and to ensure access to asylum procedures.
In practice, however, it can lead to serious delays in the examination of asylum claims. Excessive detention can be used to enforce the transfer of asylum seekers, families can be separated and there is very little opportunity to appeal against transfers. It can also hinder the integration of refugees who are forced to apply for asylum in a country where they may have no particular connection.
The Dublin system is currently being recast to improve its efficiency and ensure higher standards of protection for refugees. The negotiations are ongoing.
There have been many cases challenging transfers to other Member States under the Dublin System, both because of protection concerns and due to inadequate reception conditions. This culminated in the ruling in the case M.S.S. v Belgium and Greece at the European Court of Human Rights that ruled that sending an Afghan asylum seeker from Belgium back to Greece was a violation of Articles 3 and 13 as conditions in Greece were so bad they amounted to humiliating and degrading treatment.
The only EU countries sending asylum seekers back to Greece at the moment, in limited number, are Bulgaria and Switzerland, everyone else stopped shortly after MSS.
Unaccompanied minors are children (under 18) outside their country of origin who have been separated from both parents and from other relatives and are not being cared for by an adult who by law or custom is responsible for doing so.
At any one time, there may be as many as 100 000 unaccompanied migrant children in Europe, mostly in European Union countries. The European Union has made the issue of unaccompanied minors a priority within its five-year asylum and migration strategy 2010–2014 (commonly known as the "Stockholm Programme"), and has recently adopted an Action Plan on unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors.
Most unaccompanied children arriving in Europe are boys aged 14 and over with Afghanistan being one of the top countries of origin for such children. A recent study by UNHCR on asylum-seeking Afghan children in Sweden reveals that very few children had the initial intention to come to Europe at all. In around half of the cases, the neighbouring countries, Iran and Pakistan, constituted the initially intended destination, based on a rational choice of where the best opportunities for survival may be found, whereas the final place of destination seems frequently to have been decided at a later stage, once already in Europe.
Unfortunately, the issue of unaccompanied children leads us to the issue of return for those whose applications for asylum have not been granted. There has been a very worrying recent development called: ERPUM: European Return Platform for Unaccompanied Minors. (ERPUM) is a project run by the Swedish, Dutch, Norwegian and UK authorities to find new methods for the return of unaccompanied minors that need to return home after receiving a final rejection of their asylum application.
ERPUM is partly funded by the European Return Fund and The Swedish Migration Board manages the project. The ambition of the project is to develop a humane and safe return process for the unaccompanied minors. An important step in the process is to make sure that these minors are reunited with their parents, but also to find safe and adequate shelter in the country of origin. Their main target country is Afghanistan and they hope to include Iraq too.
Also in the field of return, there was an interesting case in the Netherlands a few weeks ago that goes against this trend. The case of 14-year-old Afghan girl Sahar has led to a new asylum policy term of being “too Westernized”. She came to the Netherlands from Afghanisatan
with her family when she was three. Their requests for asylum have taken over a decade to process. In the meantime, Sahar attends grammar school, speaks perfect Dutch and wears orange when the Dutch national team plays.
Can a girl like Sahar return to Afghanistan, where the position of women is so different? After months of discussion and court rulings, Dutch Immigration and Asylum Minister Gerd Leers last week uttered the words of deliverance: Sahar can stay because she has become “too Westernised”.
But what precisely is ‘too Westernised’? According to Minister Leers:
“Being Westernised is an umbrella term for a number of ways of behaving by which you and I and girls of a certain age define things through what we say and how we think. Here, in this country, we’re brought up with the idea that men and women are equal. That’s not the same in Afghanistan.”
The minister has come up with four defining criteria:
1. You have to be an Afghan girl.
Although there are other countries where women have a subordinate position, the situation in Afghanistan is much worse. Boys who have become Westernised in the Netherlands can go to school in Afghanistan, are not treated like second class citizens and can say what they like. As long as they are not homosexual, but according to Minister Leers that is another matter.
2. You have to be between ten and 18 years old, and have been in the Netherlands for at least eight years.
“It is actually quite simple. If you are a two-year-old child, you have not formed your identity in the Netherlands to such an extent that you could call it Westernised. That goes for a lot of young children. They are still flexible and can change,” the minister said.
3. The links with Afghan culture have to be completely severed.
The minister thinks there are families who have clear links with the Afghan culture and others that have severed all links. This should also be considered. Is the home decorated with Afghan rugs hanging on the walls or is there a replica of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch? Do they listen to Afghan music or Lady Gaga? Do they wear burkas or skinny jeans? Is there a copy of the Qur’an next to the bed or [contemporary Dutch author] Harry Mulisch?
4. The family has not deliberately frustrated the asylum process.
The fourth criterion has nothing to do with Westernisation. The minister thinks it is quite defendable when a family appeals a rejected asylum request. In Sahar’s case it took ten years to complete the process. However, if the family deliberately appeals every decision
with the aim of preventing deportation, then they are frustrating the procedure. It is a subtle difference. But if this is the case, it could mean Westernised girls being sent back to Afghanistan anyway.
If we can now give a more in-depth look at the situation for refugees from Afghanistan in Russia, Ukraine, Greece and the UK, with a focus on Afghan women refugees where possible. If you would allow me to start with Russia and Ukraine.
It is difficult to say how many Afghans are in Russia exactly. Many citizens of Afghanistan found themselves refugees “Sur place” when the Nadjibullah regime fell and made returning to their homes impossible. According to UNHCR there were approximately 150,000 Afghans in Russia at this time. In 2004 the Federal Migration Service (FMS) put the number at 80-100,000. Amongst them are some 2,000 Afghan orphans who were brought to the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s.
There are few solutions for Afghan refugees in Russia. Many use Russia as a starting point for their journey to other European countries.
One of the major issues facing Afghan refugees is that they cannot get official status and it is extremely difficult to live in Russia without registration at your place of abode, called “propiska” in Soviet times. Their status would be regularised if they were granted refugee status but there are severe difficulties for people trying to apply for asylum in Russia.
Practically no one was granted refugee status in Russia in 2011. Refugees complain of not getting access to submit applications; being insulted by staff working for the Federal Migration Service (FMS); not being given the correct documents or the correct documents not being given on time; corruption; receiving a standard rejection with no individual examination of their case; being detained in the offices of the FMS, where they are applying for asylum, to be arrested for a crime or to be deported.
Afghans refugees are no exception. Refugees have to submit repeat applications and appeals and the courts often just rubber stamp the decision of the FMS without looking at cases in detail. NGOs are forced to apply for emergency measures to the European Court of Human Rights to stop refugees being deported back to Afghanistan or other countries where they could face torture as they cannot rely on the Russian authorities to provide protection. The few Afghans who do receive status are granted “temporary asylum”, a type
of subsidiary or humanitarian protection that needs to be renewed yearly. Refugee status and temporary asylum are very rarely renewed for those who have it.
Aitikulla Mohammed Tahir was one of the orphans brought to Russia as an adolescent in 1986. He married a Russian citizen, had two children and bought a house in a village but was unable to legalise his presence in Russia for over 20 years. He was finally granted temporary asylum on his third application.
Without registration or official status, it is difficult for people to access basic services such as medical care, schooling, or finding work. People are also in danger of being stopped by the police for a document check and being returned back to Afghanistan where their lives could be in danger.
Civic Assistance, an NGO that gives social and other assistance to refugees, helped about 1,600 Afghan refugees in 2011, about 55% of their case load. There is no official breakdown between male and female applicants in asylum statistics but Civic Assistance says about 20% more of their clients are men than women. Although more men than women approach them for assistance, they have equal access to services with women with children and pregnant women being given assistance without any wait and being prioritised for humanitarian and medical assistance.
The situation for medical care for refugees became worse at the end of 2010 when the Department of Health in Moscow stopped offering free medical care to migrants. Before this date children and pregnant women were able to receive care at their local polyclinic and anyone with a really serious illness could visit a hospital. However, this is no longer the case and thousands of people are now literally dependent on whatever limited support that can be offered by UNHCR or local NGOs.
Resettlement to a third country is often the only real solution for refugees from Afghanistan in Russia. However, the numbers of places are very low and in reality only a handful of people each year get this opportunity.
Programmes by NGOs: Civic Assistance run schools for refugee children, including from Afghanistan, to prepare them for lessons in Russian schools. They also run evening classes in Russian language for adults. UNHCR runs no specific programmes at the moment for Afghan refugees outside of their general programmes of legal, social and resettlement assistance. An NGO that previously ran programmes for Afghan women refugees and children, Equlibre Solidarnost’, closed down due to restrictions in funding in 2010. There are several Afghan community groups, particularly in Moscow, who help with finding employment and humanitarian emergency assistance.
As of January 1, 2012 there were almost 2,500 recognized refugees in Ukraine and one of the major refugee groups are refugees from Afghanistan.
Afghan refugees and asylum seekers face problems similar to those of other nationalities, namely racism and xenophobia; lack of integration prospects and sometimes a lack of effective protection.
Asylum claims are not always thoroughly assessed by the Ukrainian migration officials, which may result in rejection of protection in Ukraine as according to the Ukrainian government the human rights situation in Afghanistan has significantly improved. Furthermore, Afghan asylum seekers do not always have access to interpretation and legal aid. There are no reliable age assessment procedures and authorities often tend to consider teenagers as adults. As children they would not usually be detained and would be provided with guardianship to ensure their best interests were taken into account at all stages of the state procedures. Afghan asylum-seekers could be threatened by removal, which was the case in 2011, when a group of asylum seekers from Afghanistan were expelled from the country. Some of them tried to apply for asylum and alleged they were ill-treated while in detention.
Secondly, the government of Ukraine does not provide asylum seekers with any financial benefits; however asylum seekers are able to request free accommodation in state-run accommodation facilities, although places are limited. Asylum seekers usually depend on social and legal services provided by NGOs and UNHCR. However, the budgets of these organizations are limited and financial assistance is only provided to the most vulnerable cases. When an asylum seeker gets refugee status in Ukraine the government provides him\her with one-off payment of 17UAH, which is less than $2,5. Once they have refugee status, refugees have access to welfare on an equal footing with Ukrainian citizens, but it is not very much.
Thirdly, Aghans are at times subject to police harassment, arbitrary detention and extortion. The risk is higher for those working on markets – one of the main avenues for income for refugees from Afghanistan in Ukraine. A lack of employment and state-run integration programmes for refugees make the integration prospects very limited and usually only those married to Ukrainian spouses stay in the country. Otherwise, many refugees and asylum seekers prefer to relocate to the EU.
The level of the racist attitudes is quite high in Ukraine and therefore the majority of people who “look different” suffer from discrimination and xenophobia.
There are several refugee communities in different regions of Ukraine that try to help their compatriots with employment opportunities, provide assistance in emergency situations and try to get involved in a dialogue with international organizations, government and civil society in order to improve the situation of Afghans in Ukraine.
“Khurasan” in Kharkiv is one such organization. They gave us the following assessment of the situation of Afghan women in Ukraine:
Ukraine is modern and civilized society therefore Afghan women can live in a democratic way here, they can be active in social life and defend their rights but unfortunately due to lack of language as well as support from the family women mostly end being at home taking care of their children and household.
Some girls /women are deprived from education due to lack of sufficient financial resources. Unfortunately some girls are not permitted to attend university by their parents due to cultural differences.
Some women are not permitted by their husbands to attend national ceremonies as well as attend the local Integration program which is being funded by the European commission and UNHCR in Ukraine. Due to poor planning few women have benefited from this programme.
Due to difficult living conditions, financial obstacles and a lack of documentation for asylum seekers and intolerant attitude by local people many women suffer from psychological and health problems.
Currently asylum-seeking women are deprived from free of charge medical assistance. A number of asylum seeking women and girls are being held in detention centers because of attempts to illegally cross the border. The detention might last up to one year.
Some girls and women with their families can be deported at the border and do not have access to asylum.
There is a lack in organizing seminars and workshops regarding women’s rights.
Khurasan runs language courses for women and children and organizes cultural celebrations such as International Women’s Day, Nawroz and other holidays. However, our resources are also very limited and we would like to attract more funding from international organisations and donors for the protection of Afghan women in Ukraine.
Information on programmes for women from Afghanistan by ROKADA *NGO
The Integration Center at the Charity Fund "Rokada" organises educational and recreational activities for refugees and asylum seekers in order to facilitate the integration of refugees in Ukrainian society.
The Integration Center runs the following programs:
-courses of Ukrainian and English languages;
-courses of embroidery;
- fine arts courses for children;
- theatre classes for children;
- various weekend classes on the for children (to study the native language and cultural traditions);
The special task of the Centre is to employ refugee women from Asia. Aiming to help women become independent the Centre offers embroidery and courses in bead-work. The Centre organises charity events where it helps the women to sell their embroidery and jewellery. The work of Integration Centre is focused on the involvement of different refugee communities (Afghan, Kurdish, Angola, Chechnya communities, which are registered as public organizations in Ukraine).
There are similar integration centres in other regions of Ukraine and they are usually funded by the international donors.