Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

We must stop failing those we have pledged to protect

The chaos of Kabul is no place for a returning refugee, writes Emily Bowerman

‘The government in the United Kingdom do not care whether I live or whether I die. After eight years of being in the UK, when I came back to Afghanistan everything had changed. I feel like a non-Afghan citizen here.’

These are the words of a young man who spent his formative years in our care system as an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child but found himself forcibly returned to Afghanistan after he turned 18.

Over the past few weeks, the plight of the Windrush generation has cast light on the complexity of the immigration system, the impact of the ‘hostile environment’ on people in communities across our country, and the fact that individuals are forcibly removed to countries where they have few, if any, support networks and opportunities. Many of those affected by these realities came to this country as unaccompanied children seeking asylum.

Between 2007 and 2016, 2,018 former unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were forcibly removed back to Afghanistan, a country described by current home office guidance as the ‘second least peaceful country in the world after Syria’.

As an organisation working to support young asylum seekers and refugees in the UK to build more hopeful futures through education, we were concerned by the way that the forced removal of young Afghan care leavers was so at odds with the government’s stated aim to support care leavers into more secure and settled futures, and by the lack of evidence about what happened to returnees. So, over an 18 month period, we tracked what happened to 25 young men who had been sent back

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Even before the recent spate of violence in Afghanistan, including the bombings in Kabul in which 26 people were killed, our research showed that life in Afghanistan was anything but safe for young people who were forcibly returned.

Over three quarters of the young people we monitored identified insecurity as a critical issue. Seven of them reported incidents where either they or others close to them were targeted simply because they were a returnee. One young man was particularly distressed when he told us:

‘I have just made one friend here. […He] told me he could not stay, that he would go back to the European Union. I told him not to go, but he was arrested by the Taliban on the way to Iran … and they killed him because he had all his international papers and bank card on him. They killed him by cutting his head off and leaving it in the street.’

Insecurity itself was not the only issue. Returnees face a huge range of challenges and lack the essential structures needed to support them. This ranges from a lack of family and social networks, difficulty in accessing institutional support and insecurity and victimisation as a result of their original asylum claim and their identity as a returnee. Furthermore, they return to a country where it is nearly impossible to continue their education or find sustainable work. The lack of social networks and means of achieving economic independence, combined with a lack of access to essential support and health care also has a huge impact on their mental and emotional wellbeing, causing returnees further trauma.

In recent weeks, new country guidance has been published in cases concerning removal to Kabul. While offering some encouragement that an individual’s particular circumstances – such as their age, support networks, physical and mental health, education and skills – should be taken into account, for some this will be a ‘double-bind’, according to the Free Movement blog, because ‘signs of integration — for instance, having learnt English, or undertaken educational or vocational training — will be held up by the home office as examples of adaptability, and therefore of the reasonableness of their internal relocation to the Afghan capital’.

Migration policy is about people, not just numbers. We must remember this when we choose to remove those in our care back to one of the world’s most dangerous countries.

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Emily Bowerman is a programme manager at Refugee Support Network. She tweets @BowermanEmily

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Emily Bowerman

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