Calls for the Home Office to stop returning asylum seekers to Afghanistan have intensified after a report that showed that the number of civilian casualties in the country exceeded 10,000 for the fourth year running in 2017.
In all, 3,438 civilians were killed last year and 7,015 were wounded, according to a report released last week by the UN assistance mission in Afghanistan (Unama).
The number of civilian casualties in 2017 was 9% lower than in 2016, which was the deadliest year on record, but the total was above 10,000 for the fourth consecutive year. More than a quarter of the deaths (27%) came in attacks directed at civilians. Vicki Aken, the Afghanistan director at humanitarian organisation the International Rescue Committee, described the figures as “unspeakable”.
Despite this, the Home Office still regularly returns asylum seekers to Kabul whose claims to remain in Britain have failed.
In 2016, 785 people were returned from the UK to Afghanistan, and between 2007 and 2015, 2,018 people who had sought refuge in the UK as unaccompanied child asylum seekers were deported to Afghanistan, according to a report from Amnesty International.
The annual report quoted Eklil Hakimi, Afghanistan’s finance minister, who told the Afghan parliament the country needed to accept returnees from Europe in order to guarantee aid.
The Home Office often justifies returning Afghan nationals, even those whom it accepts have a reasonable fear of persecution in their home province, on the grounds that the person could safely relocate to Kabul.
However, the Home Office’s own country guidance on Afghanistan recognises that it “ranks the second least peaceful country in the world after Syria” and cited last year’s Unama report that found Kabul recorded the highest number of civilian casualties of any province in Afghanistan.
Last month, 22 people were killed in an attack on a hotel in Kabul after a 14-hour siege. Kabul was also the site of the deadliest attack since Unama began documenting civilian casualties in 2009, when a suicide attacker killed 92 civilians and injured almost 500 in May last year.
“It’s perverse … their own guidance directly contradicts what they’re doing in practice,” said Toufique Hossain, the director of public law and immigration at Duncan Lewis solicitors, who has worked on high-profile Afghan asylum cases.
He said the Home Office’s acknowledgment that Kabul was dangerous for civilians was “obviously at odds with their current action, which is to refuse people protections claims on the basis that they can return to Kabul … They’re accepting that apart from Syria, this is the next most dangerous place, but we’re still sending 18-year-olds to that place.”
Steve Valdez-Symonds, the refugee and migrant rights programme director for Amnesty International, said the Home Office policy of returning Afghans was “reckless”, did nothing to help the stability of the region and “sends a terrible message” to Iran and Pakistan, where there are at least 2 million Afghan refugees, which occasionally engage in mass returns of people to Afghanistan.
“The UK has known for a long time that the situation in Afghanistan has been getting steadily worse and is extremely dangerous,” he said. “The relatively small proportion of Afghan refugees who make it to Europe and the UK need to be recognised, supported to rebuild their lives and work rather than face this awful limbo and the threat of being returned to this disastrously unsafe place.”
Catherine Gladwell, the director of the Refugee Support Network, said a key concern was that the UK government did not monitor what happened to those people it returned to Afghanistan. The network published a report in 2016, after following the experiences of 25 young people who were returned to Afghanistan after being refused asylum in the UK.
“What we found was that it was anything but safe and this is before the recent run of high-casualty incidents over the last couple of months,” she said. “The logic is that young people can be returned to Kabul, but Kabul has become a very dangerous city to be in.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection. Where a decision has been made that a person does not require international protection removal is only enforced when we and the courts conclude that it is safe to do so, with a safe route of return.”