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.
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.
Unequal Responsibility-Sharing across the EU
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.
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 decisions||Total number of positive decisions||Protection rate|
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”.
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,
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,
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,
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