Amnesty International urges halt to Afghan refugee returns

KABUL (Reuters) - The human rights group Amnesty International urged European nations on Thursday to stop sending Afghans who do not qualify for asylum back to their “deeply unsafe” home country, saying the policy risked causing serious harm to those affected.

The call comes after a steady rise in violence over recent years as the Taliban has gained ground across the country and cities including the capital Kabul have been hit by a wave of suicide attacks.

“Amnesty International is calling on all European countries to implement a moratorium on returns to Afghanistan until they can take place in safety and dignity,” the group said in a report issued on Thursday.

It said the Afghan government should not cooperate with sending people back, despite its dependence on foreign aid.

The report follows a sharp increase in the number of Afghans returned from Europe, either as a result of forced deportation or “assisted voluntary return”. It said the total almost tripled from 3,290 to 9,460 between 2015 and 2016.

“In their determination to increase the number of deportations, European governments are implementing a policy that is reckless and unlawful,” said Anna Shea, Amnesty International’s Researcher on Refugee and Migrant Rights.

She said governments were being “wilfully blind” to evidence that violence was at a record high.

Afghans have been among the main groups of asylum seekers in Europe, with 108,455 first time asylum seekers registered in the European Union in the 12 months to the end of June, second only to Syrians, according to EU statistics agency Eurostat.

However numbers have fallen over the past year, dropping 24 percent between the first and second quarters and 83 percent between the second quarter of 2017 and the same period in 2016.

European governments, faced by voters angry at hundreds of thousands of arrivals from the Middle East, Africa and South and Central Asia over recent years, have cracked down, pledging to send rejected asylum seekers back to their home countries.

The policy has proved particularly controversial in Afghanistan, where many European governments say that despite widespread violence, safety is sufficient to allow returns to some parts of the country.

According to United Nations figures, at least 1,662 civilians were killed and 3,581 wounded in the first half of the year, with nearly 20 percent of civilian casualties coming in the capital Kabul itself.

“Afghanistan is deeply unsafe, and has become more so in recent years. Yet European countries are returning people to Afghanistan in increasingly large numbers, even as the violence in the country escalates,” the report said.

Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Richard Balmforth