A scene where two friends attempting to communicate-one from a camp and the other from behind the fence

Wasted children’s lives: the victims of Swedish development aid to Afghanistan

It was a cool March night of 2018 in Sweden but the atmosphere in Farzad’s room (pseudonym) was pensive and cold. The clock was ticking 10 PM. Farzad was preoccupied with pensive thought. His thought was wrapped in a deep apprehension. After a few minutes, he found himself on the ground in front of his friend’s house, but he could not remember anything more. Farzad tried to commit suicide and threw himself out of the window of his friend’s second house.

An hour later, when Farzad regained consciousness, he saw his clothes soaked in blood and felt severe pain in his head: “It was unbearable.” Instead of the hospital, his friends and neighbours, however resolved to take him into the room and used water as the only available medicine to wake Farzad.

Young Farzad, like thousands of other children and adolescent asylum-seekers, receives a negative response from the immigration court three times. He also receives summoning letter which warns him to leave his house.

Soaked in his own blood, Farzad was struggling with excruciating pain. He could not go to a hospital. “I was in a place where I had nothing and no solution,” Farzad, who has been blacklisted by Sweden and denied all services such as bank cards, grants, housing, tuition, health insurance, and more, said.

According to Swedish children and immigrant rights activists, about 35,000 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum in Sweden in 2015, of which about 25,000 are from Afghanistan. Marit Törnqvist, author and teacher, told Kabul Now that Sweden was one of the countries that really ‘welcomed’ these children in 2015 and Swedish families opened their doors to them. When families found out that the unaccompanied minors escaped war, persecution and took a dangerous path to Europe to save their lives, they decided to take care of these children.

Child rights activists in Europe say most of these children, aged 15 and under, have escaped war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Eritrea, Iraq and Ethiopia to seek asylum in Sweden. Some of these children have been smuggled and travelled to Europe alone, and some of these homeless children have been separated from their families and companions during their travels to Europe.

The year 2015 was a good year for unaccompanied children who applied for asylum in Sweden. Kind Swedish families opened their hearts and received them—giving them schooling, access to government and citizenship services. But this welcoming period did not last long. President Ghani’s attendance at the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan in 2016 marked a bad chapter for unaccompanied Afghan children in Sweden.

President Ghani at the Brussels Summit in 2016 / Photo: Reuters

On the side-lines of the Brussels Conference on October 2, 2016, a bilateral agreement entitled Joint Way Forward (JWF) was inked between the Government of Afghanistan and the European Union. JWF facilitates deportation of Afghans who are denied asylums in European countries while preventing the illegal immigration of Afghans to Europe are at the centre of the treaty.

Under the agreement, the European Union will continue to provide financial assistance to Afghanistan in exchange for reception the deported Afghani refugees. The Afghan government has pledged to provide the deportees with a better life in Afghanistan, such as education, employment and security.

At the same time, Afghanistan has signed another bilateral agreement with the Swedish government on immigration issues. In this agreement, the Afghan side has pledged to return and provide a secure life for Afghan returnees.

The agreement between the Afghan government and the European Union provoked strong internal and external protests.

“These agreements are such that they use young refugees to receive money [development aid], which we do not think is the right way,” said Marit Törnqvist. “Our group wants only the voluntary deportation to continue, and aid to Afghanistan should not be linked to the deportation of refugees.”

As a result of this change in Sweden’s immigration law, some 3,000 children and adolescents fled from Sweden to Paris, hoping to seek asylum in France. This is quite disappointing for children who came to Sweden at around the age of 13 but became victim of deals signed between both governments. The young Farzad has decided to stay in Sweden and live in secret with the help of a Swedish family.

But Akbar has made another decision.

Akbar, 19, arrived in Sweden in 2015. He fled to Belgium due to fear of being deported after three negative immigration hearings. “The court told us that your president says Afghanistan is safe and you must return,” Akbar told Kabul Now.

Akbar says that if he did not escape, the Swedish government would have transferred him to a detention centre. According to Akbar, migrants who do not return voluntarily are held in this place until they are depressed and tired and ultimately sign a return request.

Akbar studied second grade of high school in Sweden and learned Swedish language, but now he has to start a new life in Belgium.

“Stay together Sweden”

Following the deportation of unaccompanied minors from Sweden, a number of Swedish organizations and institutions, including a large number of lawyers, professors, child and immigrant advocates, writers, lawyers, publishers, singers and filmmakers, including archbishop emeritus KG. Hammer have launched a campaign titled as: “Stay together Sweden, amnesty for the unaccompanied minors!”

So far, more than 13,400 people and 160 institutions, including organizations, companies and schools have joined the petition. In addition, 18 other activists, including professors, lawyers, writers, and prominent politicians, serve as ambassadors for the campaign. The campaign ambassadors have thoroughly reviewed the challenges facing unaccompanied minors in Sweden and complained against the Swedish government at the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. The campaigners allege that the Swedish government has committed human rights violation and violations of the fundamental freedoms of unaccompanied migrant children in the years following 2015.

These migration rights activists say that Sweden has failed to fulfil its legal obligations under right to asylum, the rights of the child, the legal right to security and the rule of law, the right to life which entitles every human being with the right to liberty. The Swedish government has also failed to provide personal security of thousands of unaccompanied minors who arrived in Sweden in 2015, according to activists.

Campaigners believe that the Swedish government’s ill-treatment of these vulnerable children and adolescents includes arbitrary reassessment of age, illegal detention and forced deportation to war-torn countries, which resulted in separation from their families, school classes, sports associations, and other unjust actions. It leaves irreparable damage to the whole Swedish society.

In the European Union, no country can deport an unaccompanied minor under the age of 18. But children’s rights advocates say Sweden sets the age of the unaccompanied children on own will and invalidates identity documents of the original country of the unaccompanied minors.

“The Swedish government has resorted to a kind of ploy to deport children,” said Marit Törnqvist, one of the main leaders of the campaign. For example, they change the age of the children themselves at arrival and do not accept the Afghan ID documents. “I was taking care of a 15-year-old boy, but the Swedish government changed his age to 18 so he could be deported.”

“We want permanent residency permits for all unaccompanied refugee children of all nationalities who have lived in Sweden for more than a year,” members of the campaign told the Swedish government and the parliament.

Törnqvist also believes that many of these children, who lived in Sweden for about five years and are now around twenty years old, have changed culturally, behaviourally and mindset-wise, and that the child is no longer the five years ago Afghan, but has adapted and integrated into Swedish culture and behaviour. According to Törnqvist, the lives of girls in particular have changed a lot among children in particular, and they have adapted to a free life-style. “There is a huge difference between Afghan and Swedish adolescents. Bringing these young people back is like taking a Swedish citizen to Afghanistan.”

Marit Törnqvist, a campaign ambassador, author and illustrator / Photo: posted by Etilaat Roz

Campaign activists have also prepared a 30-page report on the situation of unaccompanied minors, which is to be submitted to the Swedish Ministry of Justice. Törnqvist says many Swedes do not know the truth and that the government is deliberately concealing the truth on insecurity and threats the deported refugees experience in Afghanistan from the Swedish people.

On September 15, more than 40 non-governmental organizations in Europe issued a joint statement titled, Afghanistan is not safe: the joint way forward means two steps back, and called on European countries to stop this deal and protect the lives of Afghan refugees.

Afghanistan is the world’s least peaceful country, according to Global Peace Index 2020. The mid-year report by the United Nations Assistance mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) suggests that three thousand and 458 civilian have been killed in the country. An approximately one-fourth of Afghanistan’s population (9.4 million out of a population of 38 million) is in need of humanitarian assistance, says the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) 2020 Overview.  According to Long War magazine, 66 percent of Afghanistan is either under the control of the Taliban or is in an ongoing war with the Taliban, but that figure was only 21 percent in January 2016. 388,103 people have either returned or been deported from Iran and Pakistan since January 2020, reports the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Fate of the deportees in Afghanistan: suicide, going to war in Syria and joining the Taliban

Refugee rights groups in Afghanistan say that closure of European borders and the deportation of asylum seekers from Europe have had no effect on reduction of Afghan migration. They believe that deported asylum seekers from European countries to Afghanistan face serious challenges and are exposed to serious harm, with some facing security challenges, others become drug addicted; and some of them join drug mafia or the Taliban militancy while some others travel to Syrian to fight in support of the Assad regime.

Abdul Ghafoor, Director at Afghanistan Migrant Advice and Support Organization (AMASO), says that insecurity is a major challenge ahead of deported asylum seekers in Afghanistan. Some refugees were born or lived most of their life in Pakistan or Iran and travelled to Europe from there. “They may not have heard gunshots and explosions in their lives. When they are deported to Afghanistan, for the first time they encounter war and explosions, and as a result, many of them do not stay in Afghanistan for more than a week or two and start migrating again.”

According to Mr. Ghafoor, having no relative is another challenge many immigrants face because many of their families left Afghanistan 20 or 30 years ago, and now they do not know anyone in Afghanistan. “We talked to some people. They do not know anyone except me in Afghanistan. Those who have converted to Christianity or atheism are at a greater risk.”

Morteza Mousavi is a teenager who arrived in Sweden in 2014 and was forcibly deported from Sweden after a year and a half of the JWF agreement. Morteza grew up in his uncle’s house in Iran and currently has no relatives other than a half-sister living in Iran.

Morteza’s story tells a bitter truth which depicts how hard and difficult life has become for an Afghan asylum seeker. When he arrived at Kabul Airport, he received a fare of only 1,500 afghanis—an amount of money which cannot cover at least a week expenditure of life in Kabul.

Afghan refugees camping in Paris, France. Luxury homes on one side of the river and Afghan refugee tents on the other / Photo: Alexander Mahmoud

Under the Afghan government’s agreement with the European Union, deported asylum seekers must receive financial assistance to be able to make a life in Afghanistan. But refugee advocacy groups say the process of assisting returnees from European countries is so controversial that only a small number of deported asylum seekers are able to do so, and many will not be able get financial assistance after months, some are frustrated with bureaucracy and corruption, and therefore give up.

AMASO temporarily accommodates asylum seekers who have no place to live. Morteza used this shelter to get help from the government and the European Union, but he faced problems. “You should find a partner who has a capital of $ 4,000 or $ 5,000, and make a purchase and bring us the bill, and we will give the money to the shopkeeper and not to yourself,” said the distributor.

“What he said was not possible for us at all,” Morteza told Kabul Now. We had no place to accommodate and no food to eat. “Anyone who does not know us will not partner with us.”

After months of wandering, Morteza returns to Iran through channel of a human tracker, but is deported again. As he has no choice but to leave, he decides to travel again. While crossing the Nimroz border, he is caught by the Iranian border guards who fired at him. A bullet splits Morteza’s leg and caused him to stay in a hospital bed in Tehran for several months.

The Iranian government sentences Morteza to seven months in prison and fines him with an amount of 14 million tomans on charges of crossing the border illegally. He was released from the hospital just a few days ago and is being cared for day and night at his half-sister’s house. He was injured at the border, his kidneys are affected. Although the fines and some of its costs are paid by asylum-seeking institutions, it remains to be seen how the disabled will be able to afford the high cost of dialysis and medical expenses. Problems that all started with the decision of the Swedish Migrationsverket. Now, instead of focusing on his studies and peaceful life, he should think about the cost of treatment and hospital beds in Tehran.

Mr. Ghafoor says that there is no monitoring of migrants returning from Europe and that the Afghan government does not provide them with “the slightest help” but making list of their names. “My personal experience shows that most of them (refugees deported from Europe) leave Afghanistan again. Most of the people I saw are now either in Iran, or in Turkey, or in Greece.”

Asylum seekers say the government does not prioritize the topic of deported asylum seekers from Europe, even though they receive financial assistance in exchange of deporting them. “When I say, do not accept the deported refugees, they say why not accept it? The aid will be cut off,” Abdul Ghafoor says.

He says that these group of asylum seekers is very vulnerable in many ways; from being caught in the trap of drugs to joining the Taliban and joining the war in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. “Because there is no better option than this.”

Abdul Ghafoor, one of the campaign ambassadors, says he has worked closely with 1,200 Afghan refugees returning from Europe to date and has consulted with dozens of others remotely / Photo: Posted by Etilaat Roz

Abdul Ghafoor, one of the campaign ambassadors, says he has worked closely with 1,200 Afghan refugees returning from Europe to date and has consulted with dozens of others remotely / Photo: Posted by Etilaat Roz

“The deportation of refugees from Europe and the closure of European borders has had no effect on Afghan migration,” said Abdul Ghafoor. “The situation is a lose-lose case. European countries spend millions of dollars to deport migrants from Europe, and migrants are forced to re-migrate to Europe by spending millions of dollars.”

Many Afghans are currently fleeing the country due to insecurity, armed robberies in cities and highways, the ambiguous fate of peace and a thousand other reasons.

The JWF agreement expired on October 6, 2020, but the two sides have extended it until the end of this year. To extend this agreement, Afghanistan must prove that the conditions are right for the return of asylum seekers, and on the other hand, European governments must convince their own people that they have brought security in Afghanistan after nearly two decades of presence in Afghanistan.

Abdul Ghafoor says that there are a “series of lies” in this section. The Afghan side is telling the Europeans that Afghanistan is safe and the European governments are telling their people that Afghanistan is safe. However, European countries and people are not aware of the current situation. “Only asylum seekers are harmed here.”

The agreement will be renewed

Officials at the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations say the JWF which was signed on October 6, 2016 will be extended. Reza Baher, the deputy spokesperson for the Ministry, told Kabul Now that the JWF agreement prevents the mass deportation of Afghan refugees from Europe and provides more grounds for their acceptance in host countries in Europe. “The Afghan government has a serious commitment and decision to extend this agreement. The technical teams are working on how to extend it,” Baher said.

According to the Reza Baher, under the JWF, only asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected by the Immigration ministries and the three European courts will be deported. He says that unaccompanied minor children, single women, female-headed households, the elderly and the seriously ill are among the most vulnerable groups and are not forcibly expelled under any circumstances.

According to the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations, three million people have entered and two million have left Afghanistan in the last five years / Photo: AP

Mr. Baher says those who return voluntarily from Europe receive financial aid and incentives ranging from 5,000 to 7,000 Euros.

According to the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations, in the first three months of 2020 alone, 249 Afghan refugees returned from European countries, a process that has been halted by the outbreak of the Corona virus and is set to resume.

Reza Baher added that the reason for the long process of cash aid to returned asylum seekers was that European countries and aid agencies want to make sure that asylum seekers were reintegrated in Afghanistan and that they would not be allowed to re-migrate with the same cash assistance to Europe.

The results of a joint study by the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations and the International Organization for Migration show that between 2012 and 2018, about three million Afghan refugees returned to the country and another two million Afghans emigrated from Afghanistan, most of them via Iran to Turkey and smuggled to Europe.

Reza Baher also said that the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs to train and find jobs for 100,000 returning refugees in the past five years.

Realities about European deportations

Abdul Ghafoor, who is running AMASO and provides first hand advice and counselling to deported refugees in Afghanistan, says that Sweden has deported people from all walks of life in violation to the terms mentioned by Afghan officials. As an example, Mr. Ghafoor says that last year he has helped a 66 years old deported man from Sweden who was severely ill. Abdul helped raise money for his medication and been helping him with food and other necessities. The deported man was living with his family friends until the pandemic hit and he was forced to move out of the house. He has been living alone since then. He can hardly can take care of himself due to severe pain in his knees, kidney problems and other health issues. He was also contracted with COVID-19 virus, and luckily recovered. He is uncertain about what would happen to him and who would take care of him. He is concerned his health situation will get worse and that he would pass away without anyone even knowing, Mr. Ghafoor said.

This story has been developed by Etilaat-e-Roz’s Abdul Wahid Haidari and translated into English by Najeeb Azad.