City’s Dr Liza Schuster was recently among a group of experts invited to Copenhagen by the Danish Refugee Council to discuss the risks facing Afghans inside the country and those forced to return from abroad

By Chris Lines (Senior Communications Officer), Published

It is now more than a year since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, since the UK and other countries who had invested time and money in supporting the previous government fled the country, taking with them some – but not all – of the Afghans who had made their work possible.

In the meantime, some governments are refusing to grant asylum on the grounds that: “Afghanistan is now safe. The war is over.” But they are unable – yet – to deport Afghans. This leaves people in a state of limbo, unable to move forward, to reunite families, to build a life and fearful that, as soon as practicable, they will be deported.

Against this background, in December 2022, the Danish Refugee Council*, invited a panel of experts including: Richard Bennett, UN Special Rapporteur Afghanistan; Ehsan Qaane, Afghanistan Analysts Network; Thomas Ruttig, Afghanistan Analysts Network; and Dr Liza Schuster, City, University of London, to address an audience of policymakers, asylum officials and asylum lawyers at their headquarters in Copenhagen on the situation in Afghanistan today and the risks facing those who might be returned.

Richard Bennett began by detailing his findings from a recent visit, focusing on how the rights of women and girls have been restricted, but also on the economic situation facing the population as a whole. By the spring of 2022, girls were barred from access to secondary schools, most employment, and to travel over 45km without a muharram, with their faces banned on television. The end of 2022 saw women forbidden entrance to universities, employment in local and international NGOs, travel anywhere without a muharram, and their voices as well as their faces banned from the media.

At the time of the Taliban takeover, a question frequently addressed to those of us who witnessed the fall and evacuation was ‘have the Taliban changed?’, to which our response was a clear ‘no’. And now, in the second year of their new regime, the justice of that assessment is clear. Thomas Ruttig noted that the Taliban had never left throughout the past two decades.

High rates of unemployment mean parents struggle to feed their families, provide medical care or keep a roof over their heads. Those who don’t have family abroad have no safety net, nothing with which to get through the coming winter. But those that do have family abroad are also facing challenges, quite aside from the Taliban’s threat to block remittances.

Ruttig discussed the Taliban itself and emphasised that the situation is complex and contradictory, the return to power meant there were opportunities for exacting revenge for past slights, there are frequent conflicts between what the Taliban say and what they do, between Taliban in different provinces and at different levels, that Taliban ambitions and intentions are sometimes frustrated by reality on the ground. He also detailed some of the opposition to the Taliban, not all of which is public.

Ehsan Qaane focused on marginalised and minority groups, particularly the Hazara ethnic group, who are persecuted both because of their ethnicity and their religion. He noted the attacks on Hazara educational centres, hospitals and mosques, as well as areas with a high concentration of Hazara residents.

Dr Liza Schuster concentrated on the risks to those forcibly returned, noting that it is possible to return voluntarily, and a major risk would arise for those deported from the West because they would be seen as disloyal to the new regime and its values.

She showed a clip of a Mullah warning that those who went to the west should be viewed as sinners. She noted that those who had spent prolonged periods in the West risked being seen as ‘contaminated’ by that time. She pointed out that those who had not lived in Afghanistan for many years would have to relearn how to behave.

Foreigners and those who had settled abroad would be spotted by the way they walked, talked, laughed, did or did not make eye contact.

Dr Schuster concluded by arguing that it was not safe to deport Afghans from European countries to Afghanistan.

*The DRC, like the Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children and a number of other INGOs have suspended operations following the Taliban’s ban on women employees