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Afghan Asylum Seekers and the Common European Asylum System | Afghanistan |

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Afghan Asylum Seekers and the Common European Asylum System

Bernd Parusel

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The Common European Asylum System aims at converging national asylum standards. However, the case of Afghan nationals seeking asylum in the European Union reveals shortcomings in terms of fairness and responsibility-sharing.

Activists protesting the deportation of twelve asylum seekers to Afghanistan.- Duesseldorf Airport, September 2017. (© picture-alliance/dpa)

Over the past ten years (2008-2017), more than 545,000 Afghan nationals arrived in the European Union to apply for asylum. Afghanistan was thus the second most important country of origin among asylum seekers in the EU, after Syria. The number of asylum seekers from Afghanistan increased substantially after the withdrawal of international troops from the country in 2014. During 2015, amidst the so-called “European refugee crisis”, almost 180,000 Afghans were registered as asylum seekers in the EU Member States. Over the ten-year period 2008-2017, every fifth Afghan asylum seeker (19.8 percent) was an unaccompanied minor, i.e. a child below the age of 18, travelling without any parents or guardians.

The way the EU Member States deal with Afghan asylum seekers has been subject to much controversy. Despite a worsening security situation in Afghanistan, more than half of all Afghan asylum applicants are denied protection in the EU. They are also confronted with severe injustices as their asylum recognition rates vary greatly, depending on where in the EU their claims are registered and examined. Among those who are rejected, many risk ending up in protracted legal and social limbo situations as they are required to leave the EU but in reality relatively seldom return to their country of origin.

In the current political discussion on necessary reforms of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), issues such as a fairer sharing of responsibilities among the EU Member States for the numerical intake of asylum seekers, a more uniform asylum decision-making practice and a more credible return policy play a prominent role. The CEAS sets out a series of legal acts, which regulate the determination of the Member State responsible for examining an asylum application (Dublin regulation), and provide minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers, asylum procedures and criteria for the recognition of non-EU nationals as refugees or people in need of subsidiary protection. The CEAS is supplemented by further legal acts that go beyond asylum in the narrow sense, such as common rules for the return of persons obliged to leave the country. In 2016, the European Commission launched a process to reform and strengthen this joint legislation. As Afghan asylum seekers are a major group touched by this legislation, the problems they face vis-à-vis the EU policies can provide concrete insights into how well the CEAS works, and what deficits there are.

Unequal Responsibility-Sharing across the EU

First-time asylum applicants from Afghanistan in the EU (Interner Link: Download figure) (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

To what extent the various Member States have taken responsibility for receiving asylum seekers from Afghanistan varies strongly. Among adults, Germany has been the by far preferred country of refuge within the EU, with almost 40 percent of all Afghan asylum seekers who came to the EU between 2008 and 2017 being registered there (216,860). Other frequent EU countries of destination were Hungary, Sweden, Austria and the United Kingdom. For the particular group of Afghan unaccompanied minors, Sweden was the main destination, with 22,625 young individuals being registered there in 2015 alone, followed by Germany and Austria. On the other end of the scale, twelve Member States registered far fewer than 1,000 Afghan asylum seekers over the past ten years, and some received only a handful unaccompanied minors, or none at all. These disparities may reflect, to some extent, a choice of destination by the Afghan applicants themselves, or by people facilitating their – mostly irregular – travel, but in part, they can also be the result of forced migrants being detected on route to other destinations.

Variations in Asylum Outcomes for Afghan Asylum Seekers

Further to the unequal numerical distribution of Afghan asylum applicants across the EU, their chances to actually receive protection via an asylum procedure differ very strongly as well from one EU Member State to another. Additionally, over the past few years, their overall prospects to be allowed to stay in Europe have been fading. In 2015, the Member States granted on average around 66.9 percent of all Afghan asylum seekers protection. This percentage decreased to 56.8 percent in 2016, and went further down to 46.3 percent in 2017.

When we look into how individual Member States decide on Afghan asylum cases, we can see that in Germany, the main receiving country, the protection rate for Afghans was 46.6 percent in 2017. Meanwhile, the protection rate for Afghans was 38.4 percent in Austria, and 37.1 percent in Sweden. By contrast, the recognition rates for Afghans were very low in Denmark (17.8 percent), Croatia (6.3 percent) and Bulgaria (1.4 percent). Much more generous were Luxemburg, Italy and France, with protection rates well above 80 percent or 90 percent.

Number of first-instance decisions, number of positive decisions and protection rates for Afghan asylum applicants in the EU, 2017

Total number of decisionsTotal number of positive decisionsProtection rate
Luxembourg 18518097.3%
Italy 1,9701,80591.6%
France 7,5156,31584.0%
Spain 655076.9%
Greece 2,1351,61575.6%
Belgium 5,1603,03058.7%
Germany 109,73051,17046.6%
European Union 179,640 83,190 46.3%
Romania 1205545.8%
Finland 1,33556041.9%
Austria 17,7306,81038.4%
Sweden 25,1559,32537.1%
United Kingdom 1,91069036.1%
Netherlands 1,89567035.4%
Hungary 1,80058032.2%
Denmark 1,35024017.8%
Croatia 8056.3%
Bulgaria 1,390201.4%

Source: Eurostat (2018c): First instance decisions on applications by citizenship, age and sex Annual aggregated data (rounded) [migr_asydcfsta], last update 30 March 2018, extracted on 10 April 2018.

Given the fact that the EU has worked towards a convergence of national asylum decision-making standards for almost two decades, these differences are striking. Already in 1999, the European Council in Tampere agreed on the objective to achieve an “approximation of rules on the recognition and content of the refugee status”. In 2004, the EU adopted its first binding Directive on asylum recognition, which was later strengthened and consolidated. In parallel to this legislative process, a gradual standardisation of national decision-making has also been facilitated by EU-organised mechanisms for an exchange of experiences among national asylum practitioners.

While the lack of harmonisation is a well known fact among experts, solutions are still tentative. On the one hand, work is being done to strengthen the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) by turning it into a "European Asylum Agency". And in March 2016, the Council of the EU decided to improve asylum adjudication in the Member States through a more structured and harmonised production and use of country of origin information. The aim is to mitigate what the European Council on Refugees and Exiles has called the European “asylum lottery”.

The great disparities between the various Member States can be related to different understandings of the security situation in Afghanistan for various ethnic and social groups, and the use of the concept of “internal flight alternatives”, which means that some regions within a specific country of origin are considered safe enough for returns. As it seems, many EU countries make use of this concept in Afghan asylum cases – except Italy, which partly explains the relatively high protection rate for Afghans there.

Returning Rejected Asylum Seekers to Afghanistan – an Illusion?

Another problem is the return of the many Afghan asylum seekers who are found not to be in need of protection. When an asylum application is ultimately rejected, the persons concerned usually have to leave their host country, and unless they leave voluntarily, they are to be removed by force. In its May 2015 “European Agenda on Migration”, however, the European Commission diagnosed that the European return system “works imperfectly”, and that the “enforcement rate” needed to be increased.

The example of Afghan nationals shows how difficult this can obviously be in cases of unsafe and conflict-ridden countries. Over the past five years (2013-2017), a total of 137,135 Afghan nationals were “ordered to leave” the EU Member States, but only 27,170 individuals actually left. Recently, the gap between the number of return orders concerning Afghans and their actual departures from Europe has widened. The “success rate” of returns, calculated as the share of individuals who indeed returned following a return order, was 31 percent in 2016, and then below 23 percent in 2017. This means that within the EU, there is a growing stock of Afghan nationals, whose asylum claims have been rejected but who are nevertheless still present.

In the political discussion about the difficulty of carrying out returns, reference is often made to a lack of willingness among the asylum seekers themselves to comply with rejection decisions. Problems can also relate to the respective persons holding no travel documents or deliberately not submitting these to enforcement agencies, refusing to disclose their identities, or evading deportation by absconding. Countries of origin sometimes refuse to readmit their own nationals, or do not issue passports.

While such explanations may hold true in many cases, the example of Afghanistan suggests that there are more fundamental reasons for non-return as well. Although the EU and several of its Member States have concluded readmission agreements with Afghanistan, which should eliminate several of the practical obstacles mentioned, the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan is certainly a root cause for many problems. For example, several German federal states have in the past halted deportations to Afghanistan due to security concerns, and in May 2017, deportations were stopped following a terror attack near the German embassy in Kabul. In early February 2018, Sweden halted forced returns after another attack, which made it impossible for embassy staff to reach the airport in Kabul to meet returnees. In practice, several EU countries admit that they seldom carry out forced removals to Afghanistan, or none at all.

Consequences of the Deficient EU Asylum System

As the share of Afghan asylum seekers who are rejected is growing while at the same time, their return is seldom realistic, this leads to more irregular or semi-legal stays in Europe. In Germany, for example, most “non-returnables” from Afghanistan end up with a "temporary leave to remain" (Duldung), an unstable legal status, which merely means a temporary suspension of deportation and hinders integration. Swedish authorities can issue temporary residence permits in cases of long-standing obstacles to return, but most rejected asylum applicants who do not leave stay in the country without any legal status. Some migrate further on to other EU countries to apply for asylum again. Many Afghans have recently left Sweden to try again in France or Italy, where the chances of receiving protection are still higher.

To conclude, the situation of Afghan asylum seekers in the EU is particularly illustrative for two grave shortcomings of the common asylum policy. Firstly, there is a lack of a harmonised decision-making practice in asylum cases. This means that Afghan asylum seekers’ chances to receive protection vary greatly depending on where in the EU they arrive (either by choice or by mandatory allocation under the Dublin regulation). Secondly, the EU Member States seem to have unrealistic expectations regarding the return of rejected asylum applicants to Afghanistan. This creates a situation in which many Afghan nationals remain in the EU with precarious or no legal residence statuses and poor opportunities to integrate. While primarily the Afghan asylum seekers themselves certainly bear the negative consequences of this situation, it also risks to render asylum policies in the EU illegitimate and untrustworthy.

This article is part of the Interner Link: Country Profile Afghanistan.



  1. Eurostat (2018a): Asylum and first time asylum applicants by citizenship, age and sex. Annual aggregated data (rounded) [migr_asyappctza], last update 30 March 2018, data extracted on 14 June 2018.

  2. Eurostat (2018b): Asylum applicants considered to be unaccompanied minors by citizenship, age and sex. Annual data (rounded) [migr_asyunaa], last update 16 May 2018, extracted on 14 June 2018.

  3. Parusel, Bernd / Schneider, Jan (2017): Reforming the Common European Asylum System – Responsibility-sharing and the harmonisation of asylum outcomes. Stockholm: Delegationen för migrationsstudier, Rapport 2017:9, Externer Link: (accessed: 14-7-2018).

  4. European Commission (2018): Common European Asylum System, last update 14 June 2018, Externer Link: (accessed: 14-7-2018); International Association of Refugee Law Judges European Chapter (2016): An Introduction to the Common European Asylum System for Courts and Tribunals, Valletta: European Asylum Support Office.

  5. Directive 2008/115/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 2008 on common standards and procedures in Member States for returning illegally staying third-country nationals, Externer Link: (accessed: 14-7-2018); Hörich, Carsten (2011): Die Rückführungsrichtlinie: Entstehungsgeschichte, Regelungsgehalt und Hauptprobleme, Zeitschrift für Ausländerrecht und Ausländerpolitik 9, pp. 281–286.

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  7. Eurostat (2018a), Eurostat (2018b).

  8. Parusel, Bernd (2017): Asylsuchende aus Afghanistan und die Defizite des Gemeinsamen Europäischen Asylsystems, Zeitschrift für Flüchtlingsforschung 1 (2), pp. 275–297; Eurostat (2018c): First instance decisions on applications by citizenship, age and sex Annual aggregated data (rounded) [migr_asydcfsta], last update 30 March 2018, extracted on 10 April 2018

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  13. European Commission (2015).

  14. An “order to leave” is the normal administrative decision after or in connection with a final rejection of an asylum application.

  15. Eurostat (2018d): Third country nationals ordered to leave. Annual data (rounded) [migr_eiord], last update 23 May 2018, extracted on 14 June 2018; Eurostat (2018e): Third country nationals returned following an order to leave. Annual data (rounded) [migr_eirtn], last update 23 May 2018, extracted on 14 June 2018.

  16. European Migration Network (2016): The Return of Rejected Asylum Seekers – Challenges and Good Practices, Synthesis Report, Brussels, Externer Link: (accessed: 14 June 2018).

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  18. Ljungberg, Anders / Parham, Babak (2018): Ökat våld stoppar utvisningar till Afghanistan, Sveriges Radio, 2 February 2018.

  19. European Migration Network (2017): Ad-Hoc Query on Forced returns to Afghanistan (requested by Sweden), Summary of answers as of 8 November 2017, Externer Link: (accessed: 14-7-2018).

  20. Deutscher Bundestag (2017b): Sammelabschiebungen nach Afghanistan und rechtsstaatliche Defizite im Abschiebungsvollzug, Antwort der Bundesregierung auf die Kleine Anfrage der Abgeordneten Ulla Jelpke, Sevim Dağdelen, Inge Höger, weiterer Abgeordneter und der Fraktion Die Linke, Drucksache, 18/11997.

  21. Lindholm, Amanda (2017): Stor skillnad mellan EU-länder i asylbeviljande till afghaner, Dagens Nyheter, 21 November 2017; Petrén, Alice (2018): Afghaner lämnar Sverige för Italien, Sveriges Radio, 4 March 2018.


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Dr. Bernd Parusel is a political scientist and EU migration and asylum expert. He works for the European Migration Network (EMN) at the Swedish Migration Agency.