Every few weeks a new boat carrying asylum seekers reaches Australian shores. Many are full of Afghan men, women and children who have risked their lives for the chance that they might be granted refuge.
The war-weary Afghans come from various places. Many are from provinces in Afghanistan where last year more than 2,400 civilians were killed – mostly due to attacks by the Taliban and other armed opposition groups, according to the UN.
But despite the worsening security environment in Afghanistan, in January the Australian Government announced the signing of an agreement that will allow both forcible and voluntary returns of Afghan asylum seekers who are found not to be refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), signed between the governments of Australia and Afghanistan and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), fails to acknowledge the deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan and the real security risks that returnees would face.
According to the Afghanistan NGO Security Office, which advises non-governmental organisations on safety conditions in Afghanistan, in 2010 there were more than 12,000 attacks by armed opposition groups. That is roughly 33 attacks every day. By comparison, in 2009 there were about 12 attacks a day. These attacks include ambushes, abductions, suicide bombings and rocket attacks, killing and injuring thousands of innocent people.
Such violence has halted and even reversed much of the progress made since Afghanistan’s reconstruction began in late 2001. Schools and health clinics have shut down in many rural areas where communities have been threatened by the Taliban to stop using government services.
Afghans who are returned to these conditions face potential human rights abuses.
The Afghan Government and UNHCR lack the capacity to monitor the safety of people that the Australian Government is seeking to return. And the Afghan National Police cannot be relied on to protect returnees – police presence is limited outside urban centres and police are notorious for corrupt and abusive practices.
Children and families at risk
Of major concern are provisions in the MOU for the return of unaccompanied minors. In many cases, reuniting these children with their families is not possible because whole families have fled to neighbouring countries.
A top UNHCR official has criticised some European countries for denying protection for people fleeing "generalised violence" in countries like Afghanistan. The official said that their approach to asylum seekers "often defies common sense". The same could be said about this MOU.
The Australian Government has a legal obligation not to return anyone to a place where there are substantial grounds for believing they would be in danger of being subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Given Afghanistan’s steadily deteriorating security conditions, Australia, Afghanistan and the UNHCR should be considering how they can offer protection to more Afghans, not looking for ways to turn around the few Afghans whose lifeline is the safety of Australian shores.
Halima Kazem is Amnesty International’s Afghanistan researcher.