* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Forcing millions of Afghans back to a country in turmoil could destabilize the whole region
The spate of violent attacks in Afghanistan over the past two weeks sent shockwaves around the world. From the heinous act of using an ambulance to blow up a crowded street in Kabul, to the deadly siege on Save the Children’s office in Jalalabad, each was a sobering wake-up call about Afghanistan, and a stark reality check for Western capitals: the war is back and worsening.
The optimistic narrative spun by NATO countries when they left Afghanistan is dangerously misplaced. The country is far from stable and secure.
As the attack on our colleagues in Jalalabad city unfolded last Wednesday, I was launching a report in Brussels on how to better protect Afghans fleeing conflict. We found that an astonishing 7 out of 10 people surveyed who returned to the country after living as refugees abroad, have since been displaced by violence two or three times. The message is clear: Afghanistan is no place for involuntary returns, and this is no time for Europe or Afghanistan’s neighbours to deport families.
Despite the intensifying conflict, the number of Afghans granted asylum in both neighbouring and European countries has declined sharply in the past two years. The United Kingdom, Pakistan, and my own country Norway, are among those likely to regret pushing for massive involuntary returns. It can destabilize the whole region and lead to immeasurable suffering for families that have been deported.
The popular rhetoric among political leaders is that refugees are best helped in their own countries. My organisation, the Norwegian Refugee Council, is doing just that. We have over 1,400 aid workers helping vulnerable communities across 17 Afghan provinces. We work in areas where politicians, diplomats or immigration authorities rarely tread. We are finding increasingly dangerous, difficult and costly to reach communities caught up in the conflict.
Aid agencies are frequent targets of armed attacks; the country is one of the most dangerous in the world in which relief workers operate. Seventeen humanitarians were killed last year, and others 32 injured. These attacks often result in the suspension or downscaling of relief operations in a bid to protect staff. The regrettable consequence is that communities in need get less aid and protection.
The operating environment for aid workers is worsening because violence is mounting across Afghanistan. The United Nations quietly reclassified Afghanistan from ‘post-conflict’ to a country in active conflict in 2017. The country is reeling from the highest number of civilian casualties ever documented, where almost 100 people were killed every day last year. Suicide attacks, targeted civilian killings, car bombs and aerial attacks were all on the rise.
Since 2012, we have also seen a dramatic spike in the number of people forced to flee violence. Less than half a million Afghans were displaced in 2012. This tripled to more than 1.5 million by the end of 2016. On top of that, more and more areas of the country are now engulfed in violence.
Is this what safety and security looks like?
The politicians, diplomats and immigration officials need to sit down with the aid organizations working deep inside Afghanistan. We are barely hanging on by our fingernails in many vulnerable areas.
The crisis calls for renewed, holistic efforts that see Afghanistan’s new reality, and where we all are fiercely self-critical. A bigger push for local and national mediation and reconciliation, substantial investment by donors to respond to growing humanitarian needs, and an end to forced returns are only part of what is needed.
Afghan government-led initiatives for displaced and vulnerable communities have been plentiful on paper. But this has not translated to action on the ground. Eight out of ten Afghans we surveyed had received no aid in recent months. Few state entities have sufficient resources or skilled personnel to carry out well-meaning policies.
With political competition likely to mount as the country sees elections this year and next, it’s crucial that these issues are addressed now. Afghans were given solemn promises when the West took over the country in 2002, and more recently when many foreign forces pulled out. These horrendous attacks on innocent civilians and aid workers must not pass in vein.
Jan Egeland is Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the largest humanitarian agencies in Afghanistan.