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Demonstrators call for international protection for Afghans at home and abroad

Illustration picture shows a protest of Afghans in the city center of Brussels, Wednesday 18 August 2021. (BELGA PHOTO JULIETTE BRUYNSEELS)
05:43 19/08/2021

Between 500 and 600 demonstrators gathered in support of the Afghan people on Wednesday afternoon at the Schuman roundabout in Brussels, in front of the European Commission, the European Council and the European External Action Service. The gathering was initiated by the Network of Afghan Diaspora Organisations in Europe (NADOE) and the Afghan Refugee Committee in Belgium.

The organisers of the demonstration, which lasted for around three hours and passed without incident, urged the leaders of the European Union and Belgium to ensure the safety and freedoms of Afghans in their home country and here in Europe.

"It is a good thing that the secretary of state for asylum and migration, Sammy Mahdi, has finally changed his mind, deciding not to temporarily return any Afghan to this country at war," said Abdul-Azim Azad, Coordinator of Afghan Refugees and spokesperson of the National Coordination of Undocumented Migrants in Belgium.

"But we ask him to step out of his political role and act humanely towards Afghan asylum seekers. Given the security situation in Afghanistan, we are claiming war refugee status, for all Afghans in an irregular situation here in Belgium, so that they can benefit from international protection.”

Six EU member states, including Belgium, had sent a letter to the European Commission in early August asking not to suspend deportations of Afghan migrants. While the Netherlands, France, Germany and Denmark had reviewed their position, it was only after the Taliban had taken control of Kabul that Mahdi decided on Monday "not to send anyone back to a region that is not safe."

In the wake of this, the General Commission for Refugees and Stateless Persons (CGRA) announced the suspension until the end of September of all decisions on granting subsidiary protection status to all Afghan asylum seekers. This status, valid for one year, gives – initially – the right to a limited stay in Belgium.

"I took this decision independently," Dirk Van den Bulck, commissioner general of the CGRA, said in a statement. "We continue to process cases on a case-by-case basis, to make decisions for refugee status. But for the moment, as it is very difficult to assess the risks of being a victim of indiscriminate violence in Afghanistan, we are suspending decisions on subsidiary protection statuses."

It is difficult to give an estimate of the number of Afghans present in Belgium today, although according to Abdul-Azim Azad - himself an Afghan and an undocumented asylum seeker who arrived in Belgium in 2012 – the figure is between 3,000-4,000 people.

According to the CGRA, in the first six months of this year, of the 2,608 applications submitted by Afghans – examined on a case-by-case basis – and of the 1,648 final decisions, 225 resulted in the recognition of refugee status, and 337 for subsidiary protection status. Refusals, in this period totalling 1,048, are mainly decisions of inadmissibility concerning subsequent applications i.e., applications submitted by persons who have previously received a refusal decision in Belgium.

"The priority for the European Union today is the issue of Afghan refugees on European soil," said Ahmad Wali Ahmad Yar, a Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) PhD student on international migration and a member of the Afghan Diaspora Organisations in Europe. "However, we want the living conditions of Afghans in their country to be a priority for the international community."

The Taliban have promised to work for reconciliation in Afghanistan and have said they have forgiven their opponents and want to protect women's rights in accordance with Islamic law.

"The Taliban say they have changed," Ahmad Wali Ahmad Yar added, "but we believe that the situation will not be different from what Afghans experienced in the 90s. Music will be banned, cafes will be closed, opinions will be controlled, individual freedoms – especially those of women – will be destroyed. The Taliban are imposing on you the way you have to dress, how you have to think... The international community must not accept this."

"We don't want to lose everything we've gained over the last twenty years," another protester added.

At the end of a meeting of European foreign ministers on Tuesday, High Representative of the European Union Josep Borrell said that the European Union must engage in dialogue with the Taliban, "as quickly as necessary to avert a humanitarian and potentially migratory catastrophe" in Afghanistan.

He said, however, that such discussions did not imply official recognition of the Taliban regime by Brussels. The Taliban will be judged "according to their actions," German foreign minister Heiko Maas said. "What matters above all is that the transition takes place peacefully," he said.

"The international community must not recognise the Taliban regime," Ahmad Wali Ahmad Yar said during the demonstration. "Afghans must have the right to decide democratically on their government and continue to be free."

"The Taliban are demanding international recognition," he added. "But they have no resources, no budget. They do not have the means to run a country or to conduct a policy. If the European Union decided to send aid, the minimum would be to impose conditions to preserve the freedom of the Afghans and respect their rights and freedoms."

According to a joint statement, the European Union and the United States said on Wednesday they were "deeply concerned" about the situation of women in Afghanistan, calling on the Taliban to avoid "all forms of discrimination and abuse" and to preserve their rights.

In a declaration co-signed by 18 other countries including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Senegal, Norway, Argentina and New Zealand, the EU and US said: "We call on those who hold power and authority across Afghanistan to guarantee their protection. Afghan women, like all Afghans, deserve to live in safety and dignity. All forms of discrimination and abuse must be avoided."

The international community "stands ready to assist (the women of the country) with humanitarian aid and support, to ensure that their voices are heard," the signatory countries stressed. "We will closely monitor how any future government (in Kabul) guarantees the rights and freedoms that have become an inalienable part of the lives of women and girls in Afghanistan over the past 20 years," the statement concluded.

A virtual meeting of G7 leaders is planned in the coming days to discuss the situation in Afghanistan.

Written by Nick Amies