"Western governments today claim that because the Taliban was defeated it is safe for many Afghans to return," said Alison Parker, a refugee expert at Human Rights Watch. "But the reality is quite different. Many refugees who have returned from Pakistan and Iran are being attacked, robbed and sexually assaulted. Persecution is persecution, whether at the hands of the Taliban or at the hands of local warlords now in control."
Many Western governments are considering forced repatriation of Afghans to their war-torn country, and several nations are openly engaging in pressure tactics to speed returns.
The United Kingdom forcibly returned 21 Afghans to their war-torn country in April after denying them refugee status, and Denmark returned two this month. In Belgium, some 100 Afghans occupied a church and launched a hunger strike on July 25 after the Belgian government rejected their requests for asylum. However, the Belgian authorities did recently decide to review the humanitarian and security conditions before commencing returns to Afghanistan, scheduled to begin in March 2004. In Australia, the government is offering Afghan refugees cash incentives of US $5,640 to return home; the British government is offering US $3,818 per family.
Governments are required by international law to protect refugees from return to places where their lives or freedom will be threatened. Recent reports by Human Rights Watch and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees show that many returning refugees face serious human rights abuses, and that violence continues throughout the country. Police and soldiers have arrested and beaten Afghans for criticizing the government and trying to form political parties. Women and girls have been staying home from work and school to escape harassment, attacks and abductions.
Human Rights Watch urged Western governments to take the current instability in Afghanistan into account when denying requests for asylum or visa renewals, and to offer all potential returnees a full and accurate description of what awaits them in their region.
"Too often, governments are making these decisions based on generalizations about Afghanistan, without taking into account the individual refugee's region, gender, ethnic background or political affiliation," Parker said. "Even the so-called voluntary returns can't be truly that unless Afghans have access to accurate information about conditions in their home areas.
Human Rights Watch also called on the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to disseminate this information.