Revival of plans to make reception centre in Afghanistan for unaccompanied minors

A former project was a total failure and had to be scrapped, but EU and Denmark are eager to show a tough line on unaccompanied minors

Photo: Burcu Ebru. Kabul 2015.

The number of Afghan asylum seekers in Europe has almost doubled during one year, and the unaccompanied minors constitute a rising part of them, not least in Denmark. Most of them will be rejected, but it is not allowed to return them without making sure they will be received in a responsible way. Practice in Denmark is to wait until they turn 18.

The recently signed Joint Way Forward-agreement between EU and Afghanistan is meant to make it possible to deport at least 800,000 rejected asylum seekers back to Afghanistan. Unaccompanied minors are included in this deal, and the union assures that considerations will be taken to "humane aspects according to international law", and that vulnerable groups such as unaccompanied minors will be ensured "adequate protection, assistance and care through the whole process."

The text of the deal is open for deportations of unaccompanied children to Afghanistan in the future, saying: "Unaccompanied minors are not to be returned without successful tracking of family members or without adequate reception– and care facilities in Afghanistan." In this way, return is still an option, even if family members were not found.

The Danish government is on the same path, as No. 25 among the 44 new proposals on refugees presented in August was reading: "The government will aim to establish a reception- and care facility for unaccompanied minors in their home country, making it possible to return a number of minors."

According to assistant professor Martin Lemberg-Pedersen from Global Refugee Studies (GRS), Aalborg University, Denmark, EU and the Danish government have in this way revived the idea behind the so-called ERPUM project, ending in 2014: "The idea of opening up for administrative mass deportation of unaccompanied minors from Europe to Afghanistan was also the goal of the ERPUM pilot, but it was not a success. It was based on the same ideas of either returning them to tracked family members, or, if that did not work out, to so-called reception centres."

Martin Lemberg-Pedersen has done thorough research on the pilot, among other things he has written a working paper on ERPUM for Refugee Studies Centre at University of Oxford in 2015.

The Joint Way Forward deal between EU and Afghanistan is not legally binding, and at this moment it seems there are no specific plans to open a reception centre for unaccompanied minors. With the ERPUM experiences in mind, Martin Lemberg-Pedersen does not see any chance of that happening:

"The Danish government's proposal and the EU-Afghanistan deal seem to be designed for a home  audience, not necessarily aware of the situation in Afghanistan. Therefore things are being described which are not realistic at all. The thing with ERPUM was, it was not possible to track the families and there could be no guarantees of security. If this was not the case, European governments had made massive corridors for deportation long ago. You may have a political wish to do something, but actually carrying it out in a safe way is another thing," he says.

ERPUM was a pilot among six EU countries; Sweden was the coordinator of the project, and Norway, Great Britain and Netherland participated fully. Belgium and Denmark were observers, though the Danes were actually deeply involved. The pilot was running 2011-2014, and the goal was to establish a reception centre in Kabul, where unaccompanied minors could be returned to while trying to track their families, or if the tracking turned out to be impossible.

It was no success, and it had to be abandoned, as there was never made a deal with Afghanistan, it was not possible to track family members, and no adequate place for the reception centre was found. Therefore, not one single unaccompanied minor was deported during the time of the project.

The countries behind ERPUM were counting on family tracking, in spite of very meagre results on tracking attempts during the years before the pilot. Many experts saw the focus on tracking as politically motivated and claimed that the reception centre was really the core of the project. UNHCR, UNICEF and Human Rights Watch have raised concern about how long time the children would risk staying in the centre.

In the Danish parliament, former minister of justice Morten Bødskov of the SR government caused some turmoil in 2013, when he claimed that plans for a reception centre were almost ready, only waiting for the signature of the Afghan government. When Save the Children and Børnerådet asked 25 questions about the case and asked to see the actual plans, he refused to make them public, referring to relations to foreign states.

Though Bødskov was not handing out information, it was possible to catch a glimpse of the plans on ERPUM level. In 2012, there was discussions of using the second floor of the Janga Lak building in Kabul, where adult people were accommodated shortly on deportation, for the unaccompanied minors. However, both UNHCR and UNICEF dismissed the idea as being not in accordance to the best interest of the child. The people in charge of ERPUM talked less about the centre during 2013, but Denmark continued to mention the idea of a centre. In relation to the Joint Way Forward deal, the EU Commission has stated that there are no specific plans at the moment for a reception centre for unaccompanied minors. At the same time, Danish minister of integration Inger Støjberg has, however, admitted that the ERPUM pilot was unsuccessful, but also answered: "I am considering the options on establishing a reception and care facility, and I am in dialogue with Norway on this matter."

Støjbergs admitting of a cooperation with Norway is new information, and especially Norway has during the latter years, after having Fremskrittspartiet in charge, been in the absolute elite of Europe when it comes to deporting rejected asylum seekers to Afghanistan. In both Norway and Afghanistan, it has been strongly criticised that families with children have been returned to the war stricken country. Last year, Denmark and Norway received, with 6 other European countries, official diplomatic notes from the Afghan authorities, asking us to stop deportations until a new deal on returns was agreed upon.

During the ERPUM cooperation, Afghanistan also refused forced deportations, warning how they were not able to protect unaccompanied minors from criminal networks, drug addicts and forced recruitment from militias. At that time, the Afghan wish was not respected, and once again in spring 2015 it was ignored. Forced deportations from Norway and Denmark have continued, but recently the Afghan authorities refused to accept a young man and a family who had been sent from Denmark under extreme use of force.

A tragic example of the risks concerning deportation of children to Afghanistan came in the summer of 2015, when Denmark sent a pair of brothers, Vahid and Abolfazl Vaziri, to Kabul. Shortly after arrival, the big brother Vahid accidentally got separated from his younger brother Abolfazl, who was still a minor, and after some time Vahid found his younger brother killed, and he fled to Iran.

The security situation in Afghanistan and Kabul has seriously deteriorated while the ERPUM pilot was running. According to UNHCR, the number of internally displaced in the country rose from 250,000 in 2008 to more than 1,2 million in 2015, and the Taliban is now controlling around 1/3 of the territory. The amount of internally displaced will continue to rise, as both Iran and Pakistan have started deporting hundreds of thousands of Afghans back across the borders.

Children are extremely vulnerable in this context: Besides hundreds of closed schools, UN bodies are reporting about a rising number of children who get mutilated or killed when picking up fragments of bombs. More children are being forcefully recruited by local militias or Taliban to become child soldiers, and in certain rural regions, a widespread tradition of sexually abusing boys as so-called `dancing boys' continues.

For these reasons it has become even more difficult and dangerous to track families and to guarantee the security in potential reception facilities. During the ERPUM pilot, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which assists on voluntary returns, withdrew from the project. This happened after its head quarter in Kabul was exposed to an attack. Shortly after, the EU police mission in Kabul was also the target of a violent attack. In the absence of a reception centre, Norway has after the ERPUM time been using a Kabul hotel to accommodate the deportees, but in October 2016 this was also exposed to an attack.

Because of the failure of the ERPUM project and the worsened security situation in Afghanistan, the Danish governments policy and the text of the EU deal are sensational according to Martin Lemberg-Pedersen:

"ERPUM was just a pilot, meant to explore the options and the limitations. The project was very far from meeting its goals, which turned out to be unrealistic, and in spite of the bad experience, the idea of the pilot has now been introduced as Danish and common European policy, without any evaluation or reflexion."