In light of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, Afghan migration to Germany accelerated in recent years. This has prompted debates and controversial calls for return.
Afghan migration to Germany goes back to the first half of the 20th century. To a large extent, the arrival of Afghan nationals occurred in waves, which coincided with specific political regimes and periods of conflict in Afghanistan between 1978 and 2001. Prior to 1979 fewer than 2,000 Afghans lived in Germany. Most of them were either businesspeople or students. The trade city of Hamburg and its warehouses attracted numerous Afghan carpet dealers who subsequently settled with their families. Some families who were among the traders that came to Germany at an early stage still run businesses in the warehouse district of the city.
Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the number of Afghans seeking refuge and asylum in Germany increased sharply. Between 1980 and 1982 the population grew by around 3,000 persons per year. This was followed by a short period of receding numbers, before another period of immigration set in from 1985, when adherents of communist factions began facing persecution in Afghanistan. Following a few years with lower immigration rates, numbers started rising sharply again from 1989 onwards in the wake of the civil war in Afghanistan and due to mounting restrictions for Afghans living in Iran and Pakistan. Increasing difficulties in and expulsions from these two countries forced many Afghans to search for and move on to new destinations, including Germany. Throughout the 1990s immigration continued with the rise of the Taliban and the establishment of a fundamentalist regime. After reaching a peak in 1995, numbers of incoming migrants from Afghanistan declined for several years. However, they began to rise again from about 2010 onwards as a result of continuing conflict and insecurity in Afghanistan on the one hand and persistently problematic living conditions for Afghans in Iran and Pakistan on the other hand.
A particularly sharp increase occurred in the context of the ’long summer of migration’ in 2015, which continued in 2016 when a record number of 253,485 Afghan nationals were registered in Germany. This number includes established residents of Afghan origin as well as persons who newly arrived in recent years. This sharp increase is also mirrored in the number of asylum claims of Afghan nationals, which reached a historical peak of 127,012 in 2016. Following the peak in 2016 the Afghan migrant population has slightly decreased. Reasons for the numerical decrease include forced and voluntary return to Afghanistan, onward migration to third countries, and expulsion according to the so-called Dublin Regulation. Naturalisations also account for the declining number of Afghan nationals in Germany, albeit to a much lesser extent (see Figures 1 and 2).
The Afghan Migrant Population in Germany
Over time, the socio-economic and educational backgrounds of Afghan migrants changed significantly. Many of those who formed part of early immigrant cohorts were highly educated and had often occupied high-ranking positions in Afghanistan. A significant number had worked for the government, while others were academics, doctors or teachers. Despite being well-educated, professionally trained and experienced, many Afghans who came to Germany as part of an early immigrant cohort were unable to find work in an occupational field that would match their professional qualifications. Over the years, levels of education and professional backgrounds of Afghans arriving to Germany became more diverse. On average, the educational and professional qualifications of those who came in recent years are much lower compared to earlier cohorts of Afghan migrants.
At the end of 2017, the Federal Statistical Office registered 251,640 Afghan nationals in Germany. This migrant population is very heterogeneous as far as persons’ legal status is concerned. Table 1 presents a snapshot of the different legal statuses that Afghan nationals in Germany held in 2017.
Similar to other European countrie , Germany has been receiving increasing numbers of unaccompanied Afghan minors throughout the last decade. In December 2017, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) registered 10,453 persons of Afghan origin under the age of 18, including asylum seekers, holders of a temporary residence permit as well as persons with refugee status. The situation of unaccompanied minors is specific in the sense that they are under the auspices of the Children and Youth support services (Kinder- und Jugendhilfe). This implies that unaccompanied Afghan minors are entitled to specific accommodation and the support of a temporary guardian. According to the BAMF, education and professional integration are priority issues for the reception of unaccompanied minors. However, the situation of these migrants changes once they reach the age of 18 and become legally deportable. For this reason, their period of residence in Germany is marked by ambiguity.
Fairly modest at first, the number of naturalisations increased markedly from the late 1980s, which is likely to be connected to the continuous aggravation of the situation in Afghanistan.
With an average age of 23.7 years, Germany’s Afghan population is relatively young. Among Afghan residents who do not hold German citizenship there is a gender imbalance with males outweighing females by roughly 80,390 persons. Until recently, most Afghans arrived in Germany with their family. However, the individual arrival of Afghan men has been a dominant trend in recent years, which has become more pronounced from 2012 onwards with rising numbers of Afghan asylum seekers (see Figure 2).
The Politicization of Afghan Migration
Prior to 2015, the Afghan migrant population that had not received much public attention. However, with the significant increase in numbers from 2015 onwards, it was turned into a subject of increased debate and politicization. The German military and reconstruction engagement in Afghanistan constitutes an important backdrop to the debates unfolding around the presence of Afghan migrants – most of whom are asylum seekers – in Germany. To a large extent, these debates revolved around the legitimacy of Afghan asylum claims. The claims of persons who, for example, supported German troops as interpreters were rarely questioned. Conversely, the majority of newly arriving Afghans were framed as economic migrants rather than persons fleeing violence and persecution. In 2015, chancellor Angela Merkel warned Afghan nationals from coming to Germany for economic reasons and simply in search for a better life. She underlined the distinction between “economic migrants” and persons facing concrete threats due to their past collaboration with German troops in Afghanistan. The increasing public awareness of the arrival of Afghan asylum seekers and growing skepticism regarding the legitimacy of their presence mark the context in which debates on deportations of Afghan nationals began to unfold.
Deportations of Afghan Nationals: Controversial Debates and Implementation
The Federal Government (Bundesregierung) started to consider deportations to Afghanistan in late 2015. Debates about the deportation of Afghan nationals were also held at the EU level and form an integral part of the Joint Way Forward agreement between Afghanistan and the EU. The agreement was signed in the second half of 2016 and reflects the commitment of the EU and the Afghan Government to step up cooperation on addressing and preventing irregular migration  and encourage return of irregular migrants such as persons whose asylum claims are rejected. In addition, the governments of Germany and Afghanistan signed a bilateral agreement on the return of Afghan nationals to their country of origin. At that stage it was estimated that around five percent of all Afghan nationals residing in Germany were facing return. To back plans of forced removal, the Interior Ministry stated that there are “internal protection alternatives”, meaning areas in Afghanistan that are deemed sufficiently safe for people to be deported to and that a deterioration of security could not be confirmed for the country as such. In addition, the BAMF would individually examine and conduct specific risk assessments for each asylum application and potential deportees respectively.
Country experts and international actors such as the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) agree on the absence of internal protection alternatives in Afghanistan, stating that there are no safe areas in the country. Their assessments are based on the continuously deteriorating security situation. Since 2014, annual numbers of civilian deaths and casualties continuously exceed 10,000 with a peak of 11,434 in 2016. This rise in violent incidents has been recorded in 33 of 34 provinces. In August 2017 the United Nations changed their assessment of the situation in Afghanistan from a “post-conflict country” to “a country undergoing a conflict that shows few signs of abating” for the first time after the fall of the Taliban. However, violence occurs unevenly across Afghanistan. In 2017 the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), registered the highest levels of civilian casualties in Kabul province and Kabul city more specifically. After Kabul, the highest numbers of civilian casualties were recorded in Helmand, Nangarhar, Kandahar, Faryab, Uruzgan, Herat, Paktya, Kunduz, and Laghman provinces.
Notwithstanding deteriorating security conditions in Afghanistan and parliamentary, non-governmental and civil society protests, Germany’s Federal Government implemented a first group deportation of rejected asylum seekers to Afghanistan in late 2016. Grounds for justification of these measures were not only the assumed “internal protection alternatives”. In addition, home secretary Thomas de Maizière emphasised that many of the deportees were convicted criminals. The problematic image of male Muslim immigrants in the aftermath of the incidents on New Year’s Eve in the city of Cologne provides fertile ground for such justifications of deportations to Afghanistan. “The assaults (sexualized physical and property offences) which young, unmarried Muslim men committed on New Year’s Eve offered a welcome basis for re-framing the ‘refugee question’ as an ethnicized and sexist problem.”
It is important to note that many persons of Afghan origin spent long periods – if not most or all of their lives – outside Afghanistan in one of the neighboring countries. This implies that many deportees are unfamiliar with life in their country of citizenship and lack local social networks. The same applies to persons who fled Afghanistan but who are unable to return to their place of origin for security reasons. The existence of social networks and potential support structures, however, is particularly important in countries marked by high levels of insecurity, poverty, corruption, high unemployment rates and insufficient (public) services and infrastructure. Hence, even if persons who are deported to Afghanistan may be less exposed to a risk of physical harm in some places, the absence of social contacts and support structures still constitutes an existential threat.
Debates on and executions of deportations to Afghanistan have been accompanied by parliamentary opposition on the one hand and street-level protests on the other hand. Non-governmental organisations such as Pro Asyl and local refugee councils have repeatedly expressed their criticism of forced returns to Afghanistan. The execution of deportations has been the responsibility of the federal states (Ländersache). This leads to significant variations in the numbers of deportees. In light of a degrading security situation in Afghanistan, several governments of federal states (Landesregierungen) moreover paused deportations to Afghanistan in early 2017. Concomitantly, recognition rates of Afghan asylum seekers have continuously declined.
A severe terrorist attack on the German Embassy in Kabul on 31 May 2017 led the Federal Government to revise its assessment of the security situation in Afghanistan and to temporarily pause deportations to the country. According to chancellor Merkel, the temporary ban of deportations was contingent on the deteriorating security situation and could be lifted once a new, favourable assessment was in place. While pausing deportations of rejected asylum seekers without criminal record, the Federal Government continued to encourage voluntary return and deportations of convicted criminals of Afghan nationality as well as individuals committing identity fraud during their asylum procedure.
The ban of deportations of rejected asylum seekers without criminal record to Afghanistan was lifted in July 2018, although the security situation in the country continues to be very volatile. The decision was based on a revised assessment of the security situation through the Foreign Office and heavily criticised by the centre left opposition in parliament as well as by NGOs and churches. Notwithstanding such criticism, the attitude of the Federal Government has been rigorous. By 10 January 2019, 20 group deportation flights from Germany to Kabul were executed, carrying a total number of 475 Afghans.
Assessing the Situation in Afghanistan
Continuing deportations of Afghan nationals are legitimated by the assumption that certain regions in Afghanistan fulfil the necessary safety requirements for deportees. But how does the Federal Government – and especially the BAMF – come to such arbitrary assessments of the security situation on the one hand and individual prospects on the other hand? While parliamentary debates about deportations to Afghanistan were ongoing, the news magazine Spiegel reported on how the BAMF conducts security assessments for Afghanistan. According to their revelations, BAMF staff hold weekly briefings on the occurrence of military combat, suicide attacks, kidnappings and targeted killings. If the proportion of civilian casualties remains below 1:800, the level of individual risk is considered low and insufficient for someone to be granted protection in Germany. The guidelines of the BAMF moreover rule that young men who are in working age and good health are assumed to find sufficient protection and income opportunities in Afghanistan’s urban centres, so that they are able to secure to meet the subsistence level. Such possibilities are even assumed to exist for persons who cannot mobilise family or other social networks for their support. Someone’s place or region of origin is another aspect considered when assessing whether or not Afghan asylum seekers are entitled to remain in Germany. The BAMF examines the security and supply situation of the region where persons were born or where they last lived before leaving Afghanistan. These checks also include the question which religious and political convictions are dominant at the place in question. According to these assessment criteria, the BAMF considers the following regions as sufficiently secure: Kabul, Balkh, Herat, Bamiyan, Takhar, Samangan and Panjshir.
In addition to executing the forced removal of rejected Afghan asylum seekers, Germany encourages the voluntary return of Afghan nationals. To this end it supports the Reintegration and Emigration Programme for Asylum Seekers in Germany which covers travel expenses and offers additional financial support to returnees. Furthermore, there is the Government Assisted Repatriation Programme, which provides financial support to persons who wish to re-establish themselves in their country of origin. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) organises and supervises return journeys that are supported by these programmes. Since 2015, several thousand Afghan nationals left Germany with the aid of these programmes. Most of these voluntary returnees were persons who had no legal residence status in Germany, for example persons whose asylum claim had been rejected or persons holding an exceptional leave to remain (Duldung).
The continuing conflict in Afghanistan not only causes death, physical and psychological hurt but also leads to the destruction of homes and livelihoods and impedes access to health, education and services for large parts of the Afghan population. This persistently problematic situation affects the local population as much as it affects migrants who – voluntarily or involuntarily – return to Afghanistan. For this reason, migration out of Afghanistan is likely to continue, regardless of the restrictions which Germany and other receiving states are putting into place.