The French government’s last-minute U-turn on a joint Franco-British deportation charter flight to Kabul organised for 6 October was a victory for refugee and migrant rights groups.
Widespread public protest greeted the proposed deportation to Kabul of over one hundred former residents of the woodland squatted area of Calais known as the ‘jungle’ following its clearance in September 2009. An impressive coalition of thirty-two refugee, human rights and migrant support groups denounced the plan for the French government to participate in a joint Anglo-French deportation flight by putting the Afghan deportees on to the flight from the UK at Lille. The groups argued that ‘Afghanistan is a country at war. It is unacceptable to return those who have fled to seek protection in Europe.’ They also argued that joint charter flights are contrary to the prohibition on collective expulsion written in to the European Convention on Human Rights, leading to arbitrary practices and discriminatory and inhuman punishment in violation of fundamental human rights.
The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, agreed in July to step up the deportation of irregular migrants congregating in Calais to seek asylum in Britain, in exchange for British prime minister Gordon Brown’s promise of more money for technology to sniff out clandestine migrants entering Britain through French ports. The U-turn follows a similar change of heart in November 2008 in response to arguments that deportation to a war zone was illegal under United Nations conventions. According to the Daily Telegraph report of the French decision, flights returning refused asylum seekers, routine in the UK, are ‘much more controversial on the other side of the channel’.
According to the report, although the Home Office refused to comment directly on the details of the flight, ‘sources’ confirmed that the British side of the deportation flight – the removal of twenty-five Afghans from the UK to Kabul – would go ahead as planned.
UNHCR’s 2007 eligibility guidelines on Afghanistan, used by governments to assess whether asylum seekers need protection, said that a wide variety of Afghans still needed international protection and were at risk of persecution, while others ‘may still be in need of international protection owing to serious and indiscriminate threats to life, physical integrity or freedom resulting from events seriously disturbing public order. Significant areas of Afghanistan are still active combat zones and/or are not under effective government control.’ Since the publication of that report, the organisation’s September 2009 report on Afghanistan refers to a ‘sharp deterioration in security’, including twelve deaths by suicide bombings in under a month, which has led to a decrease in voluntary returns.
Despite UNHCR’s concerns, in 2008, of a total of 3,505 Afghan asylum applicants, of whom 1,800 were children, only one hundred were recognised as refugees and granted asylum by the UK Border Agency (UKBA), and another ten were granted humanitarian protection (recognising that the situation was not safe for return). 875 applicants were granted discretionary leave (840 of whom were children). A total of 3,840 Afghans were removed from the UK or made a ‘voluntary departure’ on being refused permission to stay, of whom 875 were returned to Afghanistan and 2,870 to an EU member state.
In the second quarter of 2009, the rate of removal actually increased, despite the deteriorating security situation, and 300 Afghan refused asylum seekers were sent back to Afghanistan. This is despite an official concession by the UKBA that Afghanistan is ‘in a state of internal armed conflict’, which potentially made all Afghan asylum seekers eligible for humanitarian protection.