Aasif needs to see a dentist. It’s been two years since he has been to a doctor, and he’s watched in the mirror as five teeth have gone black. Unfortunately, paying a visit to a physician’s office — or any office where he’d have to present identification — is not an option for the 32-year-old Afghan who has been living illegally in Norway since early 2015. For two years, he’s been furtively shuttling between friends’ houses, staying up at night listening for the police and trying to avoid being deported.
Aasif, who requested that his real name not be used, says it’s not safe for him to return to Afghanistan. Norway disagrees. In Kabul, Aasif and his family were threatened by militants because he had worked as a U.S. military translator. He fled to Norway, but the government, which has taken a hard line on deporting Afghans, rejected his asylum claim and subsequent appeals, saying Kabul was reasonably safe, among other reasons. While Aasif waits to hear whether the U.S. might allow him entry under a special visa program, he is stuck. “I’m just not going outside,” he says. “If my friends have visitors, I stay in the other rooms so nobody sees my face.”
Millions of people have left their homes around the world in recent years, desperate to escape conflict and persecution or grinding poverty at home. There were 65.3 million forcibly displaced people globally in 2015, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, including nearly 25 million asylum seekers and refugees. The vast numbers of asylum seekers and migrants on the move have sparked a profound political backlash in many “receiving” countries, testing many governments’ long-standing commitment to internationally-recognized refugee rights set out after the World Wars. “The refugees have become this symbol in people’s minds of flows of migrants that can’t be stopped,” says Anne Hammerstad, a refugee expert with the University of Kent. “If a government can be seen to be dealing this influx, it’s seen as being strong on migration control.”
To do that, governments have been drawing harder lines between who is and who isn’t welcome. Over the weekend, mass airport demonstrations spontaneously erupted across the United States and protests were staged around the world as U.S. border officials detained travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries that President Donald Trump had ordered barred from entering despite possession of lawful visas. His executive order, signed late Friday afternoon and partially blocked by a federal judge on Saturday, stopped all refugees from entering the country for 120 days and suspended for 90 days the visas of all asylum seekers and anyone from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, and denied entry indefinitely to Syrian refugees. The executive order, which came into effect as some travelers were already in transit, drew furious condemnation from civil rights organizations, government officials from around the world, and countless people who took to social networks to register their outrage.
But the president’s executive order also closely tracked with his campaign rhetoric and played an important role in his successful campaign for office in November. Refugee policy has become a global lightning rod for political and social division. That’s led to some countries flouting international refugee law by pushing back asylum seekers from their borders, rights groups say, violating the principle of non-refoulement that forbids states from returning refugees to countries where they face threats to their lives or freedom. In other countries, there is simply an eroding sense of collective responsibility, with governments deporting rejected asylum seekers or ramping up pressure on long-standing refugees to return to home countries that remain insecure. “It may not be a case of non-refoulement per se, but it may be a case where it is not reasonable to expect people to return,” says Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch’s refugee rights program.
Many of the world’s nearly 25 million refugees and asylum seekers are from countries entangled in drawn-out, simmering conflicts with no real end in sight, such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. In 2015, only 201,400 refugees returned home, according to the UNHCR, compared to, say, 2.4 million in 2002. “The problem at the moment is that for many refugees, there is no prospect of a solution,” says Jeff Crisp, a research associate at Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre and former UNHCR official.
Hosting large numbers of refugees indefinitely is a hard sell for any government — let alone governments in countries where nationalist movements are on the rise or in power – and the legal process of determining who fits the narrow definition of refugee as set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention and who is seeking better economic opportunity can be a long, resource-intensive exercise. Often, people fit both profiles. Trying to keep people from coming at all has become the go-to reaction in many parts of the world, whether through physical barriers, anti-immigrant rhetoric, deportations designed to send a message to people back home, or deals with “sending” countries to bolster their own migration controls. Macedonia and Hungary, for instance, have fenced or blocked parts of their borders, sending both migrants and potential asylum seekers away. The EU has penned deals with Turkey, Afghanistan and African nations aimed at stemming the flow of illegal migrants from those countries into Europe.
But keeping everyone out is a blunt instrument. With fewer legal ways to enter, desperate migrants and asylum seekers have made it clear they are willing to take ever-greater risks by illegal means, particularly in Europe. In 2016, the number of migrants and asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean to Europe was just over 360,000 – far less than the more than one million people who made the journey in 2015. But more died trying. Over 5,000 people – or 14 people each day – died or went missing during the crossing as smugglers have crammed more people onto flimsier boats. “The level of desperation hasn’t gone down,” says Babar Baloch, a UNHCR spokesman in Geneva. “But refugees don’t see legal pathways to come to Europe.”
Europe’s hardening stance has provided a ready excuse for officials elsewhere who are fed up with hosting large refugee populations. Kenya has hosted hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees in the UN-managed Dadaab camps since the early 1990s. In May, several weeks after the EU signed a deal with Turkey to take back “irregular migrants” who crossed from Turkey to Greece in exchange for aid money, the Kenyan government revived an old pledge to close Dadaab on the basis that militants were operating and planning terrorist attacks there. “We will not be the first to do so; this is the standard practice worldwide,” Joseph Nkaissery, Kenya’s cabinet secretary for the Ministry of Interior and Coordination, said at the time. “In Europe, rich, prosperous and democratic countries are turning away refugees from Syria, one of the worst war zones since World War Two.”
As the deadline for the camps’ closure has been extended to this spring, an increasing number of Somali refugees have chosen to go home under a three-way agreement between Kenya, Somalia and the UNHCR. Though UNHCR mandates all returns under its supervision be voluntary, safe and dignified, human rights groups have raised concerns that is not what is happening in Dadaab. The Norwegian Refugee Council found in a report last year that most refugees in Dadaab were unwilling to return to Somalia, fearing for their safety there, and that the Kenyan government’s pressure to close the camps had led to a program of “chaotic and disorganized returns.” (UNHCR’s office in Kenya did not respond to requests for comment on those findings.)
Similar concerns have been floated in Pakistan, where some two million Afghans, both registered refugees and undocumented migrants, now live, many for decades. Last year, 381,000 registered Afghan refugees returned home from Pakistan, compared to 58,000 in 2015, due in part to fresh pressures from the Pakistan government, including reports of harassment by law enforcement officials. As in Kenya, those returns are classified as voluntary under an agreement between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and UNHCR, but it’s not unreasonable to think that some Afghan refugees may have felt compelled to go. UNHCR says it is monitoring the situation carefully. “We are talking to everyone to make sure registered Afghans are not harassed or pushed to go,” says Duniya Aslam Khan, a public information officer for UNHCR in Pakistan. “If they don’t want to go, they shouldn’t be pressured.”
Indeed, pushing people to return to Somalia and Afghanistan, where some argue security is actually deteriorating, may make those countries’ security situation worse – and perpetuate the cycle of departures. Neither country is well equipped to deal with a large influx of returning citizens that will require help getting back on their feet. People whose home villages are too dangerous to resettle in are at risk of joining the vast numbers of internally displaced people in both countries, living in crowded, informal settlements in cities where children may not have the same access to health care and education they had in their previous host countries. Young men may become targets for militant recruiters who prey on frustrated youth, or they may simply choose to go back over the border and try again.
For refugees, part of a solution could be if more countries shared the burden of hosting them. In 2015, the U.N. estimated nearly a million refugees needed to be resettled, or given permanent homes in third countries, but just over 107,000 were resettled that year. In recent years, the U.S. has resettled the most refugees, along with Canada, Australia, and the Nordic nations. Under the new policies of the Trump administration, however, it’s unclear how the U.S. resettlement program will move forward. An attempt to get an emergency resettlement program going in Europe to help countries like Turkey and Lebanon, which host 2.5 and 1.1 million refugees respectively, has also been met with a tepid response, observers say.
But even if governments stop trying to keep asylum seekers out and start finding places for registered refugees to lead peaceful lives, people like Aasif will still fall through the cracks. The system doesn’t quite account for him: Norway has determined he doesn’t need its protection, and with no legal means of staying, the government is within its rights to deport him. In cases like these, individuals must be treated humanely, says Baloch of UNHCR. “The responsibility lies in the (sending) countries to make sure they don’t go through more tragedies when they’re back home.”
In Europe, the threat of being sent back to insecure places could also prompt rejected asylum seekers to hop to another country. Governments are within their rights to deny asylum claims if their legal systems don’t find those claims to be valid, and to deport people who do not have a legal right to live in that country. As more countries go that route, some may take the risk getting on a bus and trying to get to another country in Europe to try again, rather than waiting to be sent home to a place they’re given up everything to leave.
That’s Aasif’s plan, at least. If he doesn’t get the U.S. visa, he says he’s thinking about trying to make his way to Sweden or, more likely, Germany, in hopes that earlier work he did back home for a German development agency might help him make his case. He knows says there are a lot of people already in line in Germany, and he’s right. In 2015, Germany received 441,900 new asylum applications, more than any other country in the world. But the political backlash since Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the nation’s door to migrants and a subsequent series of attacks in the country has led to a tightening of Germany’s policies, including for Afghans. In December, Germany deported a group of 34 rejected Afghan asylum seekers under a recent agreement between the two countries.
Aasif, however, is undeterred. “There are so many applicants,” he acknowledges. But he still thinks he might have a shot there. “Maybe I could actually convince them or provide them with proof about why my life is still in danger. Norway ignored that.”
This story was produced with support from Robert Bosch Stiftung