As the Taliban have taken over almost all of Afghanistan, including the capital Kabul, Belgian State Secretary for Asylum and Migration Sammy Mahdi has recanted his previous position on sending Afghan asylum seekers back to their country.
Last Thursday, Mahdi said he would refuse to follow the example of neighbouring Germany and the Netherlands, and would not suspend the forced return of Afghan refugees who have exhausted all legal remedies in Belgium. However, he has now shifted his ground.
"Now, also as the situation in the airport has become chaotic in Kabul, it is impossible to send those people back at the moment, as most repatriations go through Kabul airport," Mahdi's spokesperson told The Brussels Times.
Mahdi said the situation in Afghanistan had now become so terrible that "it is clear that Afghan refugees cannot be sent back to their country at this moment."
He added that Belgium had to make sure that anyone fleeing war and persecution is taken care of and "can find protection wherever they end up."
"In the individual assessment of each case, it is clear today that the situation in Afghanistan is terrible and that you cannot send anyone back in a proper way," Mahdi stressed, despite just last week sending a letter to the European Commission in which he argued it should remain possible to send back those "who do not need real protection".
As opposed to the Netherlands, no moratorium or general repatriation stop is needed following this decision, as all asylum seeker cases are processed individually, Mahdi's spokesperson stressed.
"There, it is necessary to be able to extend the legal decision periods for asylum to 21 months. In Belgium, that is not necessary. You have different systems, but de facto our view is exactly the same: today you don't send anyone back to a region where there is war or the Taliban has completely occupied the area," Mahdi explained.
Timing for a safe return
According to Mahdi's spokesperson, there were no planned returns to Afghanistan at the moment, but the process of returning those who have exhausted all legal remedies will once again be based on each individual's case.
However, it is not Mahdi, but Commissioner General for Refugees, who decides when or whether someone can be safely sent back to their country of origin, based on the situation there.
Following months of a gradual take-over of territory in Afghanistan, the Taliban, a movement that promised to restore peace and enforce their own austere version of Sharia, or Islamic law, once in power, has seized more power as more large cities fell to the group following the retaliation of US troops earlier this year.
Meanwhile, the Afghan government has collapsed, and the country's President Ashraf Ghani has fled. The presidential palace has now been captured by Taliban forces.