Six EU countries have triggered an outcry by insisting that deportations to Afghanistan must continue in order to deter refugees.
A leaked letter from the Austrian, Belgian, Danish, Dutch, German and Greek interior ministers said stopping deportations would “send the wrong signal”.
They told the European Commission that a lenient stance was “likely to motivate even more Afghan citizens to leave their home for the EU”.
Gains made by the Taliban in Afghanistan after Nato troops all but ended their 20-year mission have raised fears of an imminent refugee crisis.
More than 200,000 Afghans have been displaced in three months.
Afghanistan wants a three-month halt to deportations because of the deteriorating security situation in the country, while NGOs are urging Europe to reconsider failed asylum claims.
While some countries including Sweden and Finland have agreed to pause deportations, other EU countries are determined to continue them.
The letter by six EU ministers, first reported by Belgian newspaper Knack, led to fierce criticism from watchdogs who said Europe had its priorities wrong.
“Afghanistan is on fire, but let’s keep sending refugees back, EU members say,” said Rik Goverde of Save the Children. “Humanity at its finest.”
The European Council on Refugees and Exiles, a network of NGOs, took issue with the ministers’ call for neighbouring countries to take in more refugees.
It said that only a small proportion of Afghan refugees would come to Europe and that the EU should focus on ensuring security and humanitarian aid.
“The vast majority of displaced Afghans will be hosted in neighbouring countries as is currently the case,” it said.
“Turmoil and violence in Afghanistan, escalating alarmingly. Priority for six EU states: returning people and preventing displaces Afghans arriving in Europe.”
Jan Kooy, a deputy media director at Human Rights Watch, pointed out that some countries saw Afghanistan as too dangerous for their own citizens.
“This letter went out as Taliban extremists are winning ground all over Afghanistan, and many countries urge their nationals to leave because their lives may be at risk,” Mr Kooy said.
The ministers said in their letter that Brussels should press Afghanistan to take back nationals who do not have “genuine protection needs” in Europe.
They said some Afghan nationals had committed serious crimes in Europe or merited “particular attention when it comes to integration challenges”.
Hannah Neumann, a German member of the European Parliament, criticised her country’s government for putting its name to the letter.
“It’s Taliban slaughter that motivates people to run away from Afghanistan, not EU member states stopping forced returns,” she said. “Why is the German government signing this disgraceful letter?”.
About 400,000 Afghans have been forced from their homes since the beginning of the year, more than half of them in the last three months, it is estimated.
Iran hosts about a million Afghans, with another 1.4m living in Pakistan, according to the UN’s refugee agency.
Responding to criticism of the letter, Belgium’s Asylum and Migration Minister Sammy Mahdi said those who did not need protection should be deported.
“The fact that regions of a country are not safe does not mean that every national of that country is automatically entitled to protection,” he said.
The European Commission said it had received the letter from the six countries and would reply in due time.