In mid-August, Afghanistan citizens fled the country in masses due to the Taliban’s hostile takeover. Global Insight recently covered this topic and how the international refugee protection regime may undermine the assistance owed to those who have fled the Taliban.
Barbara Wegelin is a Dutch lawyer and the Communications and Website Officer of the IBA Immigration and Nationality Law Committee, and she specializes in refugee law. She has been tasked with supporting people who are trying to flee Afghanistan in the midst of the Taliban resurgence. “My inbox is full of despair,” she says. Everyday she opens her email, she finds “absolutely heart-breaking stories of children having seen their parents die at Kabul airport, families sheltered in basements for fear of being executed as traitors by the Taliban, of people betrayed by the countries they saw as their allies and whose values they sought to embody”.
There have been promises made to protect and evacuate Afghanistan’s refugees by Western Governments. But the narrative seems to change when it comes to asylum seekers, who take their destiny into their own hands and escape on their own volition.
Professor David Cantor, Founding Director of the Refugee Law Initiative at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, had this to say: “The kinds of noises that are made about spontaneous arrivals of asylum seekers seem to be muted when you have a situation like Afghanistan, which is in the headlines, and which is very closely connected to the politics of countries like the United Kingdom and the United States. All of a sudden, this different trope comes in about rescue, as if that is entirely different from asylum when people take it into their own hands to flee from equally dangerous situations.”
According to UK Home Office statistics, from the beginning of the year to June 2021, roughly half of Afghan asylum claims were rejected. And in July, the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation asked the EU to stop the return of Afghan refugees and rejected asylum seekers to Afghanistan for three months during the Taliban’s takeover. Ministers from the six Member States wrote in a letter that ‘stopping returns sends the wrong signal and is likely to motivate even more Afghan citizens to leave their home’.
The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that up to 500,000 Afghans could flee their homes by the end of 2021, in addition to the 2.6 million currently registered as refugees globally. At the end of August, the Afghan allies and refugees evacuated from their home country were taken to emergency processing centres in neighbouring and European countries before their resettlement. But many Western countries like Germany, the US, and France, have not committed to resettling a specific number of refugees. Canada, Australia, and the UK will take some people (3,000, 20,000 and 20,000 over several years, including 5,000 in 2021). Some countries are refusing to take any of Afghanistan’s refugees at all (including Austria, Poland, and Switzerland).
According to the Global Insight article, “Afghanistan fell to the Taliban just weeks after the 70th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the only global legally binding agreement for the international protection of refugees. But at the point of the 70th anniversary, the Convention and the wider regime are faltering in the face of challenges that were not predicted in the 1950s, such as protracted conflicts and environmental migration due to climate breakdown, as well as a shift in global politics.”
In 2020, it was reported by UNHCR that the number of forcibly displaced people reached a record high of 82.4 million, and 26.4 million of the people are refugees entitled to protection from the Convention. However, the rights of displaced people are being ignored by states seeking to avoid the obligation. Unfortunately, this could mean that many Afghans who seek protection may be met with hostility, and any protection offered might not be in line with international law.
The Danish Immigration Service shared a letter to the UNHCR with Global Insight in July and the letter states that Denmark is potentially partnering with possible processing countries and has ‘been very clear about the fact that a possible arrangement regarding the transfer of asylum seekers must be in line with our international obligations’.
MKS’s own Alex Stojicevic, contributed to the Global Insight piece. With over 24 years in the litigation field, Alex practices before all three divisions of the Immigration and Refugee board, the Federal Court, and the Federal Court of Appeal. Alex conducts a varied practice in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada that includes both litigation and solicitors work.
As the Refugee Officer of the IBA Immigration and Nationality Law Committee, Alex states that “At the moment, rich states pay for camps in Jordan, or pay the Turkish Government three billion a year so they don’t let asylum seekers travel, or support this particular warlord in Libya so that this warlord keeps the coastline free of smuggling of people through the Mediterranean.”
“If you want to look at it legally, certainly one challenge is none of these [evacuated Afghans] qualify as refugees, because if you take the Convention literally none of them have left their country so they’re just displaced persons at this point’, he adds. ‘It might be time to review that definition a bit, because here we’re actually literally airlifting people out who are displaced persons.”
“The reality is there’s a huge block of people who have a legitimate need for protection, but because of the way the Convention’s worded, some countries are going to take a very legalistic approach.”
One thing is for certain, when a global crisis like the Taliban resurgence occurs, most citizens are willing to accept people from other countries that are fleeing these difficult situations. Social media was flooded with images of Afghan allies at the airport, struggling to leave a country they once called home. Calls were put out on millions of posts across various platforms to help Afghanistan’s refugees.
Matthew Saltmarsh, Senior External Relations Officer at UNHCR UK, said “I’m speaking here from a primarily UK perspective, but we’ve seen a huge outflow of support for refugees across the country – local councils, civil society, individuals have stood up and said, I’ve got a room, I can put up a refugee, I’m going to raise some money for refugees, I’m going to go around my community and get people together and try to do what we can. And the challenge for us and for other organizations that support refugees is, how do you tap into that? And how do you translate that into more of a structured political support program for refugees?”
Alex Stojicevic closed out the Global Insight piece with an astute quote, “These people all legitimately need protection, they need to be placed in as many safe places as possible, and we need to look at them as a resource for our future economic needs, as opposed to looking at them only as a burden”.
Click here to read the full article by Jennifer Venis.
Click to learn more about Aleksandar (Alex) Stojicevic and MKS Immigration Lawyers