Afghanistan gets aid, refugees get a ride back home from Europe

In a pinstriped suit and pristine white shirt, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani looked like he meant business in Brussels today when he proclaimed, “Enemies of freedom can affect the news cycle. But they will not diminish our resolve, or divert our focus, from building the strong state and institutions that a free people and a sovereign country require.”

The news cycle can be a real nuisance if you’re the president of Afghanistan.

But it’s not always such a bad thing for the people of Afghanistan.

As senior Afghan officials -- along with representatives of more than 70 governments -- gathered at the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan this week, the “enemies of freedom” Taliban were making a very effective point back home.

The northern city of Kunduz is in trouble again with Afghan forces fighting a pitched battle against the Taliban. Exactly a year after the militant group briefly seized control of “the breadbasket of the north” and one of Afghanistan’s main gateways to Central Asia, they were at it again.

Twelve months later, we’re witnessing the same horrors: panicked citizens fleeing the city or hunkering down with no access to basic goods and services, heavy fighting killing people and destroying hospitals, and Afghan officials prematurely declaring the city has been liberated from the Taliban only to realize there are still significant militant holdouts.

While Kunduz bled, the officials in Brussels talked, presenting the sort of juxtapositions news cycles love. For a few hours at least Afghanistan once again made the headlines, nudging aside the other bad news emerging from Syria and other desperate places.

And for ordinary Afghans fleeing their cities, crossing borders at the mercy of traffickers, and giving up their life savings for the luxury of endangering their lives in a desperate bid to flee, making the international news is not such a bad thing.

The secret EU memo

That’s especially true when the news media uncovers another uncomfortable juxtaposition.

Kunduz may have underscored the dangers Afghan face – not just in the northern city, but across swathes of the country. The EU however is pushing back Afghan “migrants” as they insist on calling all Afghans, including refugees, making their way to Europe.

Days before the Brussels donor conference opened, the Guardian’s Sune Engel Rasmussen in Kabul broke the story that the EU secretly planned to threaten Afghanistan with an aid reduction unless Kabul accepted 80,000 deported Afghans.

A leaked EU “restricted” memo, which was posted on the Guardian website, detailed a negotiating strategy that was sickening in so many ways. Clearly the authors understood the root of the Afghan refugee crisis and the dangers of deportation. But with an eye no doubt to Europe’s rightward slide, they proceeded to nonetheless offer their bland Brussels band-aid to an open festering wound.

“EU and Member States [sic] could offer increased support for the reintegration in Afghan society of irregular migrants accepting to return back home voluntarily. Basic support packages may also be developed for forced returnees…Particular care should be taken with respect to persons belonging to vulnerable categories,” notes the memo under the subhead, “Possible components of EU incentives package”.

In other words, the EU was scheming not just for voluntary repatriations, but also for forced returns -- including of vulnerable categories.

How low can we fall?

The leaked document gives a clear indication of the EU’s backroom arm-twisting ahead of the Brussels meeting. “The EU should stress that to reach the objective of the Brussels Conference to raise financial commitments…it is critical that substantial progress has been made in the negotiations with the Afghan Government on migration,” the memo noted.

Kabul, we have a deal

Days after the Guardian broke the story about the 28-member bloc’s intention, the Afghan-EU migrant deal came to pass just two day before the Brussels conference opened.

The migrant deal obliges the Afghan government to receive their deported citizens and includes a possible plan to build a special terminal at the Kabul international airport dedicated to deportation flights, the paper reported.

Of course top EU officials denied reports of aid conditionality and insisted the migrant deal negotiation was a separate process. “There is never, never a link between our development aid and whatever we do on migration,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters before the start of the conference.

But of course nobody believed her. Why should they? Not after German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier appeared to stray from the official denial line when he noted, “We also expect from Afghanistan co-operation on migration issues. Of course, and that's also what our aid should achieve, young people should find a perspective for their own future in their own country and should not be forced to leave.”

But they are and they’re doing it because their lives are in danger – from Kunduz to Kabul, from Badakshan to Helmand and many, many place in-between.

And yet, Afghan refugees are being forced back and treated worse than their Syrian and Iraqi counterparts in Europe. Every refugee – or migrant if you insist – knows that obtaining a fake Syrian passport is the best way to make it to northern Europe. And European politicians know that they can’t possibly get away with deporting Syrians back home.

Afghans are another matter. Fifteen years after the US-led coalition ousted the Taliban regime, Afghanistan fatigue has set in and those refugees are being left to roast.

But the EU understands that unless the situation in Afghanistan improves, the migrants will keep pouring into Europe, forced out by a combination of war and poverty. And so, at the Brussels conference, the 28-member bloc did manage to pledge $5.6 billion in aid until 2017, more than a third of the total $15 million pledged, making the EU the biggest aid contributor.

And now, Pakistan

The problem though is the situation in Afghanistan is not likely to improve with the deportations. Many returned migrants are simply going to try to flee to Europe again, especially if they feel endangered or threatened. Unless they are properly rehabilitated, a discontented population of deportees would make a good recruitment bank for the Taliban -- especially if the aid money doesn’t trickle down and/or gets washed away in the swamp of Afghan corruption.

And it’s not just the EU that’s pushing Afghans back. Now Pakistan, home to the largest group of Afghan refugees in the world, is also forcing them home.

This is a first. Since the 1979 Soviet invasion, Pakistan has, at different points, been hosting around 2 million Afghan refugees who have been streaming through in waves over the decades. Some have moved on to other countries, others have returned home, some have stayed in Pakistan and Islamabad has never forced them back home.

But last year, Pakistani authorities declared that as of December 31, 2015, Afghan refugees’ “Proof of Registration” cards would cease being valid. The fate of the undocumented refugees, as always, is worse. Pakistani banks must now close refugees’ accounts and mobile companies have to disable their SIM cards, the Economist reported last month.

In August alone, more than 60,000 Afghan refugees left Pakistan and every day, around 5,000 refugees return home in overcrowded trucks, making their way through terrain controlled by the Taliban or Daesh.

Once again, ordinary Afghans have turned into pawns -- this time, of the deteriorating relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan as each government trades accusations that the other is harboring terrorists.

Some experts claim that Islamabad is taking this step since it’s unhappy with the warming relations between Afghanistan and India.

This old regional hissy fit between the two subcontinental arch-foes is getting even more hopeless and frankly, boring. It dominates all debates on the future of Afghanistan – as it did Wednesday night during the FRANCE 24 Debate show. And it simply refuses to go.

So, when President Ghani talks about “a free people and a sovereign state” after getting his arms twisted on a migrants-aid conditionality deal, and when India and Pakistan continue to use the Afghanistan proxy for their slug fest, few Afghans believe him – and certainly not the ones being forced back home.
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