Is Afghanistan «safe»?

By Frode Forfang, Director General of the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration

(This blog post was first published in Norwegian on 9 June 2017)

A bomb exploded close to the embassy area in Kabul on 31 May. At least 150 people were killed and hundreds were injured. One of many questions being raised in the aftermath, was if Afghanistan and Kabul could be considered a safe place to return rejected asylum seekers.

It is easy to understand that such questions are asked. What does it mean that a country is «safe» or «unsafe»? Afghanistan has suffered from war and conflicts for decades. Many have fled the country, mostly for neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Iran. For years, Afghans have also been amongst the largest groups applying for asylum in Europe. When asylum arrivals reached a peak in the autumn of 2015, Afghans were the second largest group after Syrians, both in Norway and in Europe as a whole.

Central question in asylum cases
What constitutes a safe country or a safe area, is a central question for all those dealing with asylum cases. To be granted asylum there must be a well-founded fear of being persecuted or being subjected to inhuman treatment in the home country. Some are personally persecuted. Others fear persecution because they belong to a vulnerable group due to their ethnicity, religion or other reasons.

In some cases the situation in a country is so dangerous that staying there is considered unsafe for everyone. That is currently the case for Syria. No one is being returned there.

High treshold
There are only a few cases where a whole country is declared so unsafe that all its inhabitants can be recognised as refugees. There is, and should be, a high threshold for granting all asylum seekers from a specific country protection in Norway. Syria has crossed such a threshold. Afghanistan has not. At present, the clear majority of applicants from Afghanistan are rejected asylum in Norway.

Nonetheless, I do understand that many people perceive Afghanistan as unsafe. But the widespread attacks conducted by rebel groups are mainly targeted towards the government and is also linked to the international presence in the country. The risk for civilians is not high enough for us to define the country as a whole as unsafe. There must be other individual reasons as well.

For the asylum system to be sustainable, the threshold for being recognised as a refugee must be high. This means even people coming from countries with a high level of conflict and extensive breaches of human rights, cannot always count on being granted asylum in Norway. However, one can always question how high the threshold should be. And I understand why Afghanistan is part of such a discussion.

Political measures
For the last few years, and especially after the high influx of asylum seekers in the autumn of 2015, there has been widespread political interest in tightening the rules. Some of the measures that have been taken have a direct effect on Afghan asylum seekers. An important example is the use of internal flight. Even if it may be considered unsafe to return an asylum seeker to his or her home region, we will always consider if that person can get effective protection in other parts of the home country. Norway has applied this principle for a long time. Until last year, the Norwegian Immigration Act also stated that one could not return a person to other parts of the country for protection if it was considered «unreasonable». A large majority in the Parliament (Stortinget) voted last year to delete that reservation. This means that it is now even more difficult for Afghan asylum seekers to be granted asylum in Norway.

Conflicting interests
Asylum policy will always entail the balancing of conflicting interests and requirements. On the one hand, there is a political interest in limiting the number of people that are given asylum. But in individual cases the outcome will depend on protection needs and humanitarian considerations, where international conventions set some absolute boundaries. This is what the immigration authorities try to deal with in the best way possible within the legal framework established by our politicians.

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