Voluntary and Forced Returns to Afghanistan in 2016/17: Trends, statistics and experiences
Author: Thomas Ruttig and Jelena Bjelica
While hundreds of thousands of Afghans sought protection in Europe throughout 2015/16, an increasing number have been returning to Afghanistan, both voluntarily and involuntarily. The number of voluntary returnees from Europe picked up significantly throughout 2016, with additional returns in the first four months of 2017, reaching a total figure of over 8,000. By contrast, the number of deportations has been significantly lower, at only around 350 over the same period. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica and Thomas Ruttig examine the trends, policies and practices relevant to those who have returned. They found that services available to those returning – in both categories – are patchy.
The research on Afghan migration to Europe is supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundations.
What are the trends and figures for returns?
Over 250,000 Afghans left Afghanistan in 2015/16 (see previous AAN reporting here) and, along with refugees from Syria, Iraq and other countries, travelled via the Balkan route – through Greece, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia, towards Europe (see previous AAN reporting here). While reaching Europe has become increasingly difficult (outward migration from Afghanistan is back to pre-2015 levels) and tens of thousands of people still stuck in Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia, there is also a counter-trend: since 2016, the number of Afghans returning to their country has been on the increase. These returns include both voluntary and forced returns and refugees who left Afghanistan in 2015/16 and much earlier.
These returns have been facilitated by the Joint Way Forward (JWF) umbrella agreement between Afghanistan and the European Union as well as the bilateral repatriation agreements between Afghanistan and Germany, Sweden and Finland. All agreements were signed in October 2016. Afghanistan also has agreements with other countries, to which UNHCR is a party in certain cases. (1) While these agreements enable host countries to repatriate rejected asylum seekers against their will, the signatories expressed their intention to prioritise voluntary returns. In fact, the threat of deportation is a means to encouraging the target group to opt for a voluntary return (for example, see AAN’s case study on Germany here).
(1) Voluntary returns
In 2016, IOM assisted 6,864 individuals to return to Afghanistan through its Afghanistan Voluntary Repatriation (AVR) programme. Between January and September 2016, IOM recorded approximately 200 returns a week. After September 2016, the agency noted a slowdown in returns, to less than half of previous figures, between 82 and 100 returns a week. In 2015, only 1,419 individuals had used this option.
The highest number of voluntary returns in 2016 were recorded from Germany (3,159), Greece (1,257) and Turkey (577). (2) Most of the returnees were young men – 78 percent or 5,382 individuals – with the biggest group, 2,781 returnees between 19 to 26 years of age and 2,101 children and teenagers of up to 18 years. A further 1,982 were 27 or older. Only 1,482 of the voluntary returnees were women. Among the total figure, IOM registered 733 families but did not state how many people were in each of these families.
Herat, with 391 people, was the main destination for voluntary returnees in 2016, of those choosing to receive onward transportation support included in the assistance provided by IOM. This was followed by Balkh (187), Kandahar (66), Ghazni (58) and Nangrahar (53). The second largest number, 201 individuals, opted to remain in Kabul. Here, they received money for taxi fares to different neighbourhoods throughout the city. According to IOM, in 2015 most of the returnees had indicated that Nangrahar was their final destination. Based on anecdotal evidence collected by IOM, most of those who returned voluntarily in 2016 had left Afghanistan in 2015.
By the end of April 2017, IOM had assisted 1,322 voluntary returnees from 17 countries, among them ten EU members with 1,067 cases through its AVR programme. Additionally, IOM assisted eight voluntary returnees (six from Austria and two from Sweden) through a separate project (Post-Arrival and Reintegration Assistance, PARA, see here)
(3) This equates to around 80 voluntary Afghan returnees on average per week in the first four months of 2017.
Most returnees seem to return directly to their families or other destinations they trust. Few, as will be discussed later, opt for the MoRR/IOM shelter at the Jangalak reception centre in the west of the city.
The Joint Way Forward (JWF) and the three new bilateral agreements (unlike the older ones) allow host countries to operate non-scheduled flights to Afghanistan in order to repatriate rejected asylum seekers. The JWF operational plan – an unpublicised annex to the umbrella agreement – foresees a maximum of 10,000 returns a year. It does not specify whether the total figure refers to voluntary or forced returns, however it is AAN’s understanding that the number includes both categories.
The document also states that there cannot be more than two non-scheduled flights a week, ie a maximum of 100 forced returnees a week (or 400 a month, which would mean a maximum of 5,000 deportees a year). This calculation indicates that an estimated 5,000 deportees and 5,000 voluntary returnees are expected a year. Nevertheless, given the high number of voluntary returns in 2016 and in the first four months of 2017, as well as the relatively low number of deportations so far (figures below), it can be expected that there will be more than 5,000 voluntary returnees this year.
According to IOM, between October 2016 and April 2017, 12 planes with a total of 176 Afghan deportees from Europe landed in Kabul (for dates and a breakdown per country, see table below). (4) The highest number of deportations on the non-scheduled flights in a single month was carried out in December 2016, when three charter flights landed in Kabul, bringing in a total 50 people, and in March 2017 when four charter flights landed in Kabul, bringing in a total of 56 people.