The European Union and the government of Afghanistan have agreed to a plan that could send tens of thousands of asylum seekers back to Afghanistan, even as fighting in some parts of the country intensifies.
The agreement was announced Wednesday during a meeting in Brussels to discuss international support for Afghanistan in the coming years. The deal stipulates that "the EU and the Government of Afghanistan intend to cooperate closely in order to organize the dignified, safe and orderly return of Afghan nationals to Afghanistan who do not fulfill the conditions to stay in the EU."
Under the plan, Afghanistan will accept an unlimited number of returning people, so many that the agreement notes both sides are considering whether to build a dedicated terminal for them all at Kabul International Airport.
The EU and other international partners, including the U.S., also announced $15.2 billion in support for Afghanistan between 2017 and 2020. As we have reported, locking in financial support at the conference was crucial for Afghanistan's government, which relies heavily on foreign aid.
Neither the EU nor the Afghan government commented on how, if at all, the financial support and the migration deal are connected, or whether they were considered in tandem. A document leaked earlier this year appears to show EU member states considered making about $223 million in rebuilding money "migration sensitive."
The total EU contribution to Afghanistan between 2014 and 2020 is more than $1 billion.
European countries have been trying to curb the number of migrants streaming onto their soil. As we have reported, Germany increased the number of deportations this year, and many of the people denied asylum have been Afghans. Almost 200,000 Afghans applied for asylum in Europe last year, according to an EU report.
In March, the EU struck a deal with Turkey meant to decrease the number of people crossing into Europe through Greece. Under the agreement, anyone who crosses from Turkey into Greece illegally can be returned to Turkey.
As Lauren Frayer reported for NPR's Newscast unit, that deal made Turkey a "refugee buffer zone" between Syria and Europe, so people would live in Turkey while they wait for their asylum applications to Europe to be processed.
But there is no buffer zone in the new agreement between the EU and Afghanistan. Afghans who cross into any of the 28 EU countries illegally, and whose applications for asylum are rejected, will be sent back to Afghanistan, where the United Nations says there were a record number of civilian casualties in the first half of this year.
Between January and June this year, the U.N. assistance mission in Afghanistan documented 1,601 civilian deaths and 3,565 injured civilians, an increase of 4 percent in the total number of casualties compared to the first six months of 2015. Since 2009, nearly 23,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan.
The number of internally displaced people is also increasing. In the first six months of this year, that number was up 10 percent compared to the same period last year, according to the U.N.
Outside the conference venue in Brussels, members of Afghanistan's minority Hazara community, which has been targeted by the Islamic State in Afghanistan, protested the plan.
Given the ongoing violence against civilians in Afghanistan, it is unclear how, or if, the agreement's repatriation terms fit within existing international conventions on refugees. The U.N.'s 1951 Geneva convention on refugees "provides that no one shall expel or return ... a refugee against his or her will, in any manner whatsoever, to a territory where he or she fears threats to life or freedom." The EU's refugee directive includes the same provision.