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New report on “westernised” young males returned to Kabul


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A new report helps fill some of the gaps in our understanding of the situation facing young men sent back to Afghanistan, writes Maya Pritchard of Asylos.

While we await the outcome of AS (Afghanistan), the country guidance case currently before the Upper Tribunal addressing the safety of Kabul, for the moment the key challenge in Afghan asylum cases remains getting past AK (Article 15(c)) Afghanistan CG [2012] UKUT 00163 (IAC). In that case, the tribunal maintained that most Afghan men could reasonably be expected to relocate, and thus be returned, to Kabul.

This position was reaffirmed in the case of R (Naziri and Others) v Secretary of State for the Home Department (JR – scope – evidence)(IJR) [2015] UKUT 00437 (IAC) in which the Upper Tribunal found that despite evidence of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan

we find no warrant for departing from the current country guidance promulgated in AK. In particular, we find that the evidence falls short of satisfying the stringent Article 15(c) test.

As such, Kabul remained safe for returns.

This was a disappointing decision, following the activity in 2015 around a series of charter flights when the Afghan Minister for Refugees and Repatriation urged European countries to suspend forced returns to Afghanistan due to heightened security risks. The decision was particularly bleak for the many young men who are now appeals rights exhausted having been denied asylum as minors, at a time when the Home Office was granting discretionary leave to remain to unaccompanied Afghan children as a blanket policy (see KA (Afghanistan) and others v SSHD [2012] EWCA Civ 1014).

As pointed out in an earlier Free Movement blog by Colin Yeo, it is incredibly hard for these young people to evidence that they would face persecution or harm on return when it is several years after they have fled and more often than not there will have been no recent threats or indicators of danger.

Lawyers working with these young Afghan men have repeatedly raised concerns about this trend. Evidence shows that young men who have spent their formative years in Europe are indeed at risk if returned to Kabul. Despite the excellent research published by RSN, After Return: documenting the experiences of young people forcibly removed to Afghanistan, there remains a general lack of understanding and recognition of these issues in the decision-making process and a wide gap in country information.

It is this gap that Asylos hopes to fill in our report Afghanistan: Situation of young male ‘Westernised’ returnees to Kabul, a Country of Origin Information report which combines publicly available sources and written or oral contributions by academics and practitioners with specific expertise on Afghanistan. Contributions and peer review were provided by the Asylum Research Consultancy Foundation and the Dutch Council for Refugees. The report covers:

  1. Return procedure
  2. State attitudes towards returnees
  3. Provision of support from the Afghan state/ NGOs
  4. Societal attitudes towards returnees
  5. Consequences of having a lack of support network as a returnee
  6. Access to healthcare for a returnee
  7. Access to housing for a returnee
  8. Access to employment for a returnee
  9. Access to food and basic services for a returnee
  10. The impact of mass returns of Afghans from Pakistan and Iran
  11. Anecdotal evidence of returnees’ experiences

Lawyers should refer to the full report for a comprehensive understanding but for now I have extracted some of our key findings, and excerpts from the interviews carried out.

Perceived westernisation often leads to ostracisation from Afghan society

These young men who have spent time abroad have changed. Their cultural, religious and traditional compass has been altered at an age where one is flexible and resilient, making it a challenge for them to fit into existing societal structures… The younger they are, the most difficult it is for them to re-integrate: a young Afghan male who arrived at 12 or 15 years old in the West usually attends school, makes friends, go out and grow up to be westernised. A return to Afghanistan is then a shock. Society doesn’t look kindly on those young men and refuse association with them…

Source: Dr. Anicée Van Engeland, Senior Lecturer in International Security at the Centre for International Security & Resilience of Cranfield University, written Expert Opinion, 11 June 2017.

In terms of westernised lifestyle and religious issues, they aren’t perceived very well. It has been very easy to recognise a person if someone has been to Europe from the way of style, haircut and clothes. Yes, there are times they are excluded from the society…

Source: Abdul Ghafoor, refugee rights activist and Director of Afghanistan Migrants Advice and Support Organization (AMASO) based in Kabul, Interview with Asylos, 28 May 2017.

Perceived westernisation can be associated with criminality

Very few communities welcome a returnee for fear of his past: is he a criminal? Did he leave to avoid the Taliban? Did he hurt a girl? In communities that are tight-knit, a stranger is never welcomed; a stranger who has spent time abroad and whose records cannot be checked is scary.

Source: Dr. Anicée Van Engeland, written Expert Opinion, 11 June 2017.

In the society people don’t think very positive about them, because the concept here is that if you have been deported, it means you have done something wrong in that country. There are case they have been asked ok, why your cousin’s asylum claim was accepted and yours wasn’t, so maybe you have done something wrong, something criminal. So overall, it has not been perceived very positively.

Source: Abdul Ghafoor, Interview with Asylos, 28 May 2017.

Perceived westernisation commonly leads to marginalisation from the family

The teenagers and young adults who left for Europe at a young age and returned with visible and invisible signs of their cultural change (clothing, behaviour, accent etc.) are sometimes seen by family and or the community as ‘contaminated’.

Source: Schuster, L. and Majidi, N., Deportation Stigma and Re-migration, 30 October 2014.

Regarding the westernised lifestyle let me talk about the stigma of deportation. We all know we have been raised in Muslim family. For someone who has been in Europe for 5 or 6 years and he has been away from religious issues, so it is very difficult to reintegrate into the family and society. Yes, there have been case that returnees were marginalised by the family because they are too westernised and they can create problems for their brother, their sister and parents, so they tell them don’t come to the area and stay away from us.

Source: Abdul Ghafoor, Interview with Asylos, 28 May 2017.

This is why many young men don’t return back home: they know they are not welcome. They prefer living in slums or be homeless than face disapproval.

Source: Dr. Anicée Van Engeland, written Expert Opinion, 11 June 2017.

Returnees without family support are at high risk of destitution if they remain in Afghanistan

As mentioned above, interactions between strangers meeting for the first time inevitably begin with establishing identity and trying to find common acquaintances or family members. Trust in Afghanistan has been severely tested through more than three decades of war, and until or unless someone’s identity has been established, they will be unable to find somewhere to stay, or someone to give them employment or support. Unless they have access to support networks, they will find it difficult, perhaps impossible, to find livelihood opportunities.

Source: Liza Schuster, Reader in Sociology of the City University of London, Expert Report Risks on Return to Kabul, 12 August 2016.

It is difficult to rebuild a life for these young male returnees due to the absence of network support in a new place: Afghanistan is a country of ethnic belongings and tribes where the family, extended relatives and the community provide support in all areas of life. This is even truer for minors who are still children and need assistance. When a young male returns to Afghanistan, he needs his family and community to help him find him a job, shelter him and provide financial support. He will be deprived of a safety valve and the protection granted by the group and will be exposed. In Afghanistan, removing an individual from his environment to place him in a new environment is a social death: relocation means exclusion.

Source: Dr. Anicée Van Engeland, written Expert Opinion, 11 June 2017.

Young returnees are prone to recruitment by non-state actors in Kabul

Kabul is prone to recruitment. The Taliban and other non-state actors have, so far, largely recruited from non-urban and remote areas; they are turning now to urban areas […] The recruitment takes all forms and happens everywhere. Besides, the young men who are returned and sent to Kabul (or any other large city) soon face unemployment because of the lack of community and family support. These children, adolescents and young adults often become homeless or drug addicts and are vulnerable to recruitment by non-state actors. This explains the presence of the Taliban inside Kabul and other cities: the Taliban know they can prey on easy targets, namely youngsters freshly arrived, lost and vulnerable.

In some areas, the Taliban and ISIS now offer a salary to new recruits; in a country where unemployment is rampant, young men who have been returned could be tempted to join an armed group.

Source: Dr. Anicée Van Engeland, written Expert Opinion, 11 June 2017.

Reports of young returnees being targeted by Anti-Government Elements

AGEs (Anti-Government Elements) reportedly target individuals who are perceived to have adopted values and/or appearances associated with Western countries, due to their imputed support for the Government and the international community. There are reports of individuals who returned from Western countries having been tortured or killed by AGEs on the grounds that they had become “foreigners” or that they were spies for a Western country. Individuals who fall under other profiles, such as profile 1.e (humanitarian workers and development workers) and profile 1.i (women in the public sphere) may similarly be accused by AGEs for having adopted values and/or appearances associated with Western countries, and may be targeted for that reason.

Source: UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNHCR Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Asylum-Seekers from Afghanistan, 19 April 2016.

There are several examples of persecution by insurgent groups based on chance encounters. A report from September 2014 highlighted the fate of an Afghan returning to Afghanistan after some years away, seen as a “Westerner” and dragged off a bus at a Taliban checkpoint. He was the only person on the bus this happened to. He was beaten, tortured and executed. In October 2014, a member of the Hazara ethnic group was captured and tortured by the Taliban after he had been returned to Afghanistan following an asylum bid in Australia.

Source: Email correspondence with Tim Foxley, independent analyst running a political/military research company specialising in issues concerning Afghanistan, 22 June 2017.

The Afghan authorities often have little interest in offering protection to returnees

This lack of sympathy is also explained by the security risk these young men represent: the Afghan National Police or local institutions are keen to avoid granting protection to returnees as this might impact the local security equilibrium. I have had cases where the local security was made possible through the collaboration of all institutional and non-institutional actors alike; yet this relative peace could be broken by the arrival a young male returnee if armed non-state actors began to fight to recruit him.

In other cases, young men have gone back to a community that was angry at them for different reasons (eloping with a local girl, losing cattle, refusing to comply with a jirga’s order to join the Taliban, giving information to NATO…). In such circumstances, local authorities will not protect the returnees as they have little interest in doing so: the returnee has alienated the family or a community and helping him would come down to taking sides with the weakest link.

Source: Dr. Anicée Van Engeland, written Expert Opinion, 11 June 2017.

The mental health needs of returnees are not being adequately met

Returnees suffering from mental health disorders can sometimes be abandoned by their families: shame is often associated with mental health troubles as disorders are thought to be the result of demons (djinn) that have taken over an individual. As a result, some families chase the family member suffering from mental health issues or lead him to be chained in front of a shrine. Others are left to beg in the streets. In such circumstances, returnees become extremely vulnerable, as not only do they suffer from mental health issues; they are also unable to provide for themselves. They then become prey for drug traffic, prostitution, human smugglers, warlords or the Taliban.

Source: Dr. Anicée Van Engeland, written Expert Opinion, 11 June 2017.

Mental health care in Afghanistan is virtually non-existent. There is one public mental health hospital in Kabul where some people are chained to their beds. There is also a private hospital in Mazar but they can’t cope with the demands. This is private and charges money. The drugs that are used to treat mental health complaints – there is no guarantee that they are genuine, the market is flooded with counterfeit drugs. Even if they were genuine, some doctors don’t know what to prescribe. Some of the doctors have actually bought their qualification in Kazakhstan, in Tajikistan, in Iran and Pakistan. So medical care is not available in particular for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, for anxiety, for schizophrenia. For these illnesses the treatment can be chaining some people to their bed or to putting them in in a cage.

Source: Asylos Interview with Liza Schuster on 22 April 2016.

More COI research notes

Asylos is a pan-European network of volunteers who find vital information to help refugees fleeing war, violence, and persecution claim their right to asylum. Over the past six years we have produced more than 300 research notes to support protection claims.

To access the full report and range of available COI research notes please register at https://resources.asylos.eu/registration/. Once we have approved your registration you can browse our COI database and sign up to our monthly research update.

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Maya Pritchard

Maya Pritchard has been supporting migrant young people and families in the UK since 2007, having worked in advice, support, research and administrative roles across the sector. She has been working as a Youth Caseworker for the South London Refugee Association since 2013 and as a researcher with Asylos since 2015. She now also works for Asylos as their UK Consultant and coordinates the Afghanistan and Pakistan research team. She is a Level 2 OISC accredited immigration and asylum caseworker, has a BA in politics and an LLM in Human Rights Law.