We Want Justice for Afghan Refugees Declaration of Afghan Refugees at the Vienna Refugee Protest Camp 2017
* This blog post contains a policy critique by the ROR-n editorial, written by Monika Mokre, and the full declaration published by the The Afghan Refugees in Austria of the Vienna Refugee Protest Camp 2017
By the end of August 2017, a four-day protest of Afghani refugees took place in Vienna. We publish here the demands of the protesting refugees as well as some background information on their situation.
According to UNHCR, „ the most essential component of refugee status and of asylum is protection against return to a country where a person has reason to fear persecution.“ (UNHCR 1977) This so-called „Non-refoulement“-principle is enshrined in Article 33 (1) of the Geneva Conventions on Refugees: „“No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
The principle of non-refoulement also applies to people who are not refugees according to this definition if their lives are threatened in their country of origin. In this case, they are eligible for subsidiary protection when there are „substantial grounds for the presumption that they are at risk of serious harm in their country of origin and that they cannot take up the protection of their country of origin or do not wish to take it up because of that threat. Serious harm can originate from both governmental and non-governmental players.
The following are regarded as constituting serious harm:
To summarize: According to international law, EU legislation and national laws of the EU Member States, people must not be sent to a country where they are threatened by inhuman treatment or death. This is an individual right, based on individual situations which have to be assessed individually.
However, the Asylum Procedure Directive of 2013 (APD) opens up the possibility for Member States to define so-called „safe third countries“: (30) „A key consideration for the well-foundedness of an application for international protection is the safety of the applicant in his or her country of origin. Where a third country can be regarded as a safe country of origin, Member States should be able to designate it as safe and presume its safety for a particular applicant, unless he or she presents counter-indications.“ According to the Directive, this does not mean that individual asylum procedures will not take place for nationals of these countries, however, the European Commission stipulates: „Applications from nationals of countries on the Safe List will be fast-tracked, allowing for faster returns if the individual assessments of the applications confirm no right of asylum. This will:
Faster asylum procedures form certainly a valuable political aim; however, fast-tracking here means a fast negative decision. Both the safe-country-principle and the fast-tracking method stand in a certain tension with the individual right to a fair asylum procedure. After all, there are several countries in this world which are safe for some people but not for other ones, e.g. safe for white people but not for people of color or (in rare cases) vice versa, or safe for cis-gender or heterosexual people but not for homosexual and trans-sexual people.
In addition to these fundamental problems of the safe-country- principle, in recent years, the EU and its member states have applied a very broad definition of safe countries. Turkey is a case in point: In March 2016, the EU signed an agreement with Turkey allowing to send back all refugees coming to the EU from Turkey. According to EU leaders, this agreement is in full accordance with international and EU law. However, this assessment has been flawed from the beginning as Turkey only signed the Geneva Convention on Refugees but not the Protocol which means, inter alia, that only Europeans can qualify as refugees in Turkey. Furthermore, since this agreement has been signed, Turkey has frequently been criticized for non-democratic procedures and human rights-infringements. Accession negotiations with Turkey were, thus, once again stopped – but not the refugee agreement.
Even more surprisingly, Afghanistan has been dubbed a safe country by the EU already for some years. This definition only became relevant in fall 2016 as, at this time, the EU signed an agreement with Afghanistan promising 1.2 billion Euros in development aid until 2020 as an exchange for Afghanistan to take back deported Afghani nationals.  This agreement took place after Afghanistan asked in 2015 the EU Member States not to send people back due to the worsening safety situation there. And the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan called the first half of year 2016 the worst in terms of casualties since 2009. Even the European Commission itself published in 2016 that it was „difficult to map out the safe areas due to the unpredictability of the conflict on the ground.“
The EU-Afghanistan-agreement makes it possible for EU Member States to send people back to Afghanistan – by deportation or by voluntary return. Whereas it should be noted that „voluntary“ in this case frequently just means that people prefer to go back voluntarily when the only alternative is deportation. However, obviously, the agreement does not oblige any Member State to send people back. Currently, three states carry out large scale deportations to Afghanistan – Sweden, Germany, and Austria.
Germany, however, stopped these regular deportations to Afghanistan for some months after a bomb attack on the German embassy in Kabul in May 2017. From this time until the end of August “only” criminals, and so-called “dangerous people“ were deported – it should, however, be mentioned that also these people should enjoy protection of their human rights. By the beginning of September, Germany re-started regular deportations.
In the last few months, Sweden and Austria have not changed their deportation practice. The Austrian government has thereby referred to an expert assessment by Karl Mahringer, CEO of several businesses active in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. His opinion has been contested in legal procedures, contradicted by other experts and does not correspond to assessments by the UN. Still, it is the base for return decisions to Afghanistan in Austria.
The deportation of people to Afghanistan stands in contradiction to international conventions signed by the EU and its member states and rhetorically held in high regard by them. Afghani refugees in Vienna protest against this politics threatening their lives and have published the following declaration:
“Honorable Prime Minister of Austria, Mr. Christian Kern, Leaders of the European Council, the Council of the European Union, the European Parliament, the European Commission, the European Court of Justice, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and relevant authorities,
Since, the withdrawal of the international military forces from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 the security situation in the country has seriously deteriorated with increased civilian casualties and a growing internal displacement crisis in the country. The Taliban and the Daesh/Islamic State Khorasan now control more territory than at any point since 2001.
The deadly terrorist attacks on civilians in the past 8 months of this year 2017 and the inability of the Afghan government to ensure their adequate protection show that Afghanistan remains an unsafe country for refugees to be returned to. The capital Kabul has suffered the highest levels of civilian casualties, followed by Helmand, Kandahar, Paktia, Balkh and Nangarhar provinces. The other regions, where (high profile) attacks are not frequently taking place, are mostly overcrowded by returnees – especially those who have been forced to leave Iran and Pakistan. Even the relief help by International Organizations is not reaching and cannot cover sufficiently the suffering population and their needs.
On the one hand, Afghanistan is seen as a place where armed groups like the so-called Islamic State pose such a danger that the USA felt compelled to drop the world’s largest non-nuclear bomb and has forced the Trump Administration to announced a new strategy on 21 August 2017 that calls for more troops to combat Daesh/Islamic State Khorasan, Al-Qaida, Taliban and other terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan.
At the same time, the Afghan government is not capable of reducing harm to civilians, due to corruption and warlords’ control over key government security positions; civilians received higher levels of casualties, confirmed by various valuable reports issued by United Nations, Amnesty International and other international organizations.
While civilian casualties remain high, with women and children suffering the worst of the violence, we the Afghan Asylum seekers are forced to return to such a country!?
In issuing this declaration, we put forth the following demands and kindly request the concerned Austrian and EU authorities to respect our rights taking into consideration the international instruments, the EU conventions protocols related to human rights and refugees as follows:
1) Immediately put a halton deportations to Afghanistan, because Afghanistan is not a safe country.
Considering the volatile security situation of Afghanistan we demand an end to asylum decisions influenced by the inhuman commitment or agreement between the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the EU, which fundamentally violates the Convention & Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951, 1967). We - in collaboration with humanitarian organizations – emphasise that Afghanistan is no safe place for Afghans to return. We want the Austrian government to take a diverse set of official reports into serious consideration giving them a higher priority – and not only mentioning them, such reports as from UNAMA, Amnesty International, and other human rights organizations from 2016/17 compared to singular assessments such as the Mahringer Gutachten,
We are convinced that it is necessary to consider the rise of casualties across the country in suicide attacks; bomb blasts, militant attacks, and rampant violence from both political and criminal elements which serve as a sign of the inability of the state to maintain the security of the vast majority of the population. In this light, we request that both the Austrian government and the European authorities review Afghanistan's safety and security situation anew and acknowledge that Afghanistan cannot be considered a safe country.
2) Immediately reconsider and reevaluate all asylum cases which were rejected based on singular reports – like the Mahringer Report -- as a Basis for Safe return to the Country. Presupposition: Afghanistan is not a safe country.
The Mahringer Report portrays Afghanistan – especially Kabul - as safe enough for a return. However, its assumption about safety rests solely on the major metropolitan centres. While, according to some estimates, there exists a perpetual war in thirty of the thirty three provinces of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, today we can no longer speak of safe centres as the capital itself is a continuous war scene. Recently, Herat, Nangarhar, Kabul, Paktia, and other urban centres have become a target of the Taliban and Daesh/Islamic State Khorasan where not only military personnel, but also children and elderly have become victims of vicious massacres of civilians. The guideline of UNHCR for protection of refugees from Afghanistan (UNHCR Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Asylum-Seekers from Afghanistan) has to be taken more seriously and consequently applied. The high amount of internal displaced persons and the lack of economic resources followed by the high jobless rate make a survival in Kabul and a new settlement of former refugees impossible and this procedure is risking their survival. The core of reasoning of the Mahringer report – the traditional supportive networks from former times, has been destroyed by war, conflict, poverty and corruption. Several reports dissent the Mahringer report – not only referring to his estimation of minimum income for survival at Kabul, but also the chances for returnees finding an accommodation or a job and getting support by a social network. Moreover, the networks of anti-government elements – such as the Taliban or the Daesh/Islamic State Khorasan and others are frequently underestimated, as they are acting nationwide in Afghanistan. Consequently, the persecution of concerned persons is crossing provincial borders – and so cities like Kabul cannot offer a safe alternative.
Furthermore, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is suffering from chronic corruption and internal divisions that perpetuate a state which propagates instability and insecurity. This has further deteriorated the condition of the average residents of Afghanistan. Therefore, it is a threat to the safety of Afghan asylum seekers to be deported to Afghanistan as the country poses a constant threat to the life of its inhabitants. According to the Convention on the Status of Refugees this is a ``well-founded reason`` to not return to Afghanistan.
3) Provision of qualified interpreters for both the initial interview and the appeal process
Lack of qualified interpreters has been a major source of misunderstanding and miscommunication which has led to asylum case rejections. It is necessary to have a clear oversight of interpreter staff in the initial interview process, as well as the appeal process in case of initial rejection. This means: adequate training and education of interpreters; ensuring adequate accountability of interpreters through secondary evaluation of the initial interview for appeal process (availability of audio recording and transcripts of the interviews for appeal reevaluation), and of course, has the asylum claimant been sufficiently informed in advance about the right to decline a specific interpreter due to biases perceived by the claimant.
4) Provision of Legal Support for the adequate understanding of refugee rights by the asylum applicant.
According to the Convention & Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951, 1967) ``a refugee shall have free access to the courts of law on the territory of all Contracting States.``(1951 Convention, Chapter II, Article 16) Free access must be interpreted as access to appropriate understanding and representation wherever necessary. Access to legal counsel for the initial asylum interview and throughout the process with adequate interpretation is a right. This right – affordable legal counsel - should be extended to the instance of the highest court.
We need more access to information and judicial advice in our native languages; a quicker handling of our cases; the recognition of our refugee status; and the right to family reunion on timely manner.
5) Provision of education facilities for children, young adolescents fifteen (15) years of age and older, as well as, young adults for better integration
It is commonly an accepted conclusion among scholars and professionals that integration is directly tied to education of children, youth, and young adults. It is to this end that we request that education – in public schools, as a necessary part of integration -will be available to all refugees – also for those who are over 15 years old and their compulsory school attendance has ended. Vocational training for young adults, as well as language classes for all ages are fundamental to a cohesive integration.
We will continue our protest until all deportations are halted!
The Afghan Refugees in Austria of the Vienna Refugee Protest Camp 2017“
 The background information was compiled by Monika Mokre of the editorial team of ROR-N.
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