KABUL, Afghanistan – European countries are returning many more Afghan asylum seekers to their homeland even as violence in the war-torn country escalates, Amnesty International said in a new report Thursday.
The rights group says Europe's governments remain willfully blind to the dangers faced by the returnees and with the European Union are pressuring Afghanistan tremendously to accept the large numbers of returnees.
From 2015 to 2016, the number of Afghan citizens returned to their native country from Europe nearly tripled from 3,290 to 9,460, according to Amnesty's report, citing EU statistics.
Meanwhile, civilian casualties remained high, with, 11,418 people killed or injured in 2016, according to the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. That's up from 11,002 civilian casualties in 2015, according to UNAMA.
Amnesty called for a moratorium on Afghan returns until they can take place with "safety and dignity."
"In their determination to increase the number of deportations, European governments are implementing a policy that is reckless and unlawful," Anna Shea, Amnesty International's researcher on refugee and migrant rights, said in a statement. "Willfully blind to the evidence that violence is at a record high and no part of Afghanistan is safe, they are putting people at risk of torture, kidnapping, death and other horrors."
This report is based on desk and field research conducted between May and September 2017 and documented a total of 26 cases.
Afghanistan has suffered four decades of violent conflict and 16 years of war that began with the U.S. invasion in 2001 to target the instigators of the 9/11 attacks. Ordinary Afghans are frustrated by the relentless violence as well as the failures to keep them secure or achieve peace.
Intelligence service reports say at least 20 militant groups, including the Taliban and Islamic State group affiliates, operate in Afghanistan, mostly in border areas near Pakistan.
Between 2009 and 2016, UNAMA calculates that nearly 25,000 civilians were killed and more than 45,000 wounded.
The violence and deteriorating security has persisted this year.
In August, militants stormed a packed Shiite mosque in Kabul during Friday prayers, ending with at least 20 worshippers killed and another 50 seriously wounded. On May 31, in one of the largest attacks in Kabul's history, more than 150 people were killed and twice as many injured when a bomb exploded near several European embassies, in one of the best-protected districts of the capital.
Many Afghans who leave the country to seek asylum in Europe do so by crossing into countries such as Iran and Turkey with a visa, then crossing the Mediterranean Sea by boat.
Rahim, a 20-year-old man whom Amnesty International researchers met in Kabul in May, had fled to Norway in late 2015, according to the report. "I felt like a human being in Norway, I had never felt that way here in Afghanistan," he told researchers.
However, his asylum claim was denied and in December he was deported. Norwegian authorities told Rahim that he would be safe if he lived in a different province from the one where he had grown up.
"Here I live in fear. I can't study, I can't find a job and I can't go to my place of origin," he said.
In 2016 the five European countries from which the most Afghans were returned were: Germany (3,440), Greece (1,480), Sweden (1,025), the United Kingdom (785) and Norway (760), according to the report.
Norway appears to be the European country responsible for the largest number of forcibly returned Afghans, the report found. Citing Afghan authorities, Amnesty said of all the forced returns in the first four months of this year, 32 percent (97 out of 304 people) came from the northern European country.
Horia Mosadiq, Amnesty International's Afghanistan researcher, said the returns violate international law.
"The same European countries that once pledged support for a better future for Afghans are now crushing their hopes and abandoning them to a country that has become even more dangerous since they fled," Mosadiq said.
In response to the report, Germany's Interior Ministry said the country always evaluates each case individually with regard to the security situation facing the deportee.
But, it said, "there is a consensus within the government" that Amnesty's findings do not preclude Germany from deporting "criminals, security risks and people who steadfastly refuse identity checks," as it has been doing.
Associated Press Writer David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.