By Dominique Soguel Special correspondent -Basel, Switzerland
When Yonous Muhammadi fled his native Afghanistan for Greece in 2001, he was able to successfully obtain political asylum. But he doubts that his relatives still back home would prove as fortunate if they managed to escape today.
After the Taliban seized Kabul on Aug. 15, the Greek government was quick to declare it would stop Afghan refugees from crossing into Europe, for fear of a repeat of the European migration crisis of 2015-16. Although the government promised to rescue eight Afghans who worked with its NATO deployment in Afghanistan – “We will not stop until we bring them back to our country,” a spokesperson said – Greece also rapidly completed a 25-mile wall on its frontier with Turkey.
“We cannot wait, passively, for the possible impact,” Michalis Chrisochoidis, the Greek minister for citizens’ protection, said. “Our borders will remain safe and inviolable.”
Why We Wrote This
With the fall of Kabul, the EU has been trying to get its people and Afghan allies out. But the collapse of Afghanistan has also reignited European fears of unregulated migration – setting priorities at odds.
When Mr. Muhammadi hears European politicians say such things, he is disappointed.
“Not just disappointed that they cannot respond to this crisis,” says the former asylum-seeker, now president of the Greek Forum of Refugees. “Disappointed that the West, after 20 years, failed on their mission in Afghanistan. It is a complete, shameless failure.”
Ever since Kabul fell, European nations, much like the United States, have been scrambling to evacuate their citizens and Afghan allies. That effort has been mixed up with conflicting messages: a sense of solidarity and responsibility toward the Afghan people, and fears of mass migration that experts warn are unfounded and potential fodder for the far-right.
“There’s been two strands to the European response,” says Catherine Woollard, director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles. “One element has been quite an insular response based on panic, or attempting to generate panic, about the number of people who may eventually arrive in Europe … [which] plays into the hands of extremists and the far-right, anti-immigration forces that are still there.”
The other, she says, has been the massive – and even surprising – effort by European nations to evacuate as many people as possible in a race against the clock.
From Lisbon to London, Madrid to Vienna, cities across Europe have come forward to welcome Afghan refugees. In Germany, more than 300,000 people signed a petition to create safe pathways for refugees. “We must adopt an attitude of openness and maximum welcome,” declared Marina Sereni, the deputy foreign minister of Italy, taking stock of the many municipalities, associations, and civil organizations that have “made it known that they are ready to welcome people, families, women, and children who want to flee Afghanistan.”
Group of Seven leaders held an emergency meeting on Afghanistan on Tuesday. Central to the discussions were how to get as many Afghans as possible out of Kabul in the short term and how to coordinate a resettlement program for at-risk Afghans in the midterm.
Britain, France, and Germany wanted the U.S. to stay in Afghanistan beyond the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline to complete evacuation operations – even though the Taliban warned against this. The contrast is sharp. Days before Kabul fell, six European nations lobbied the European Commission to maintain the deportation of rejected Afghan asylum-seekers to prevent motivating “even more Afghan citizens to leave their home for the EU.”
“There was a window of opportunity of several weeks, if not months, to bring these people safely to Europe, to North America and elsewhere,” says Alberto Horst Neidhardt, an analyst at the European Policy Centre. “And yet nothing was done. These people were left there. Their visa applications were not processed. And now we see absolute panic both in Afghanistan but also in Europe and in North America because nothing was done.”
The thornier question is how to deal with the Taliban to make repatriation and resettlement possible and also ensure that the once-ousted regime forms an inclusive government.
“Are the Taliban really going to be a soft version of what they were in the in the late 1990s, or [will they] manifest themselves as most people fear they will? Depending which way things go, there’s going to be more and more Afghans rightly fleeing the country,” says Kemal Kirisci, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who in April warned that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan risked triggering a mass exodus of refugees.
He now believes the Taliban are more likely to prevent people from leaving – indeed, the Taliban announced Tuesday that they want Afghan nationals to stay in the country, and that they would no longer be allowed to go to the Kabul airport. But Mr. Kirisci says that he expects young Afghans who grew up with freedoms to constantly trickle out with the help of smugglers.
Not a new crisis
But despite the rhetoric of far-right politicians who have turned migration into a toxic issue in Europe, only a small, manageable number of Afghans are likely to reach Europe, experts say. The majority will probably stay in the Central Asian and Mideast region, they add, and a repeat of the mass migration movements witnessed in 2015 and 2016 is unlikely.
“The kind of fear-mongering themes of recent days is unjustified, and the comparison with 2015 and 2016 is misleading,” says Mr. Neidhard. “There are significant differences.” The European Union has spent the last several years building strong partnerships, especially with Turkey, to prevent irregular migration, he notes. The Syrian crisis was the focal point, but the 2015-16 population movements were the product of instability across the Middle East and North Africa region, not just one country.
Since then, Europe has massively fortified its borders and now boasts a robust border and coast guard agency, Frontex.
“Afghans are not going to face a welcoming Europe or welcoming neighboring countries,” says Angeliki Dimitriadi, senior research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. “They’re going to face deterrence measures and they are going to face hostile policies. Most member states are unified in that they don’t want too many asylum-seekers. There’s no doubt that Europeans have a fatigue with the refugee issue.”
The Afghan crisis also finds Europe in a weaker state economically, and the pandemic hasn’t helped, she adds. France and Germany have key elections. Europe also failed to hammer out a common migration and asylum policy. And the idea of European solidarity still hits a wall when it comes to spreading the refugee load.
“Virtually none of the structural reforms that are so badly needed in European migration policy have happened in the last five-plus years,” says Mr. Neidhard. “This means that should we witness a big rise in irregular arrivals – and that’s a big if – the EU could potentially face another governance crisis in the area of migration.”
“The crisis at the moment”
Many experts see current discussions to expand the EU-Turkey Statement – a migration control pact with safeguards for Syrian asylum-seekers – to include Afghans or to use it as a blueprint for deals with Afghanistan’s neighbors as misguided. What is needed, they say, is a global resettlement program and robust support for international organizations already supporting Afghans inside their country and the surrounding region.
“We should keep in mind that these are not countries that can function for an indefinite period of time as host countries to the Afghans,” says Dr. Dimitriadi.
Turkey, a transit country, is already home to about 500,000 Afghans living in often difficult conditions, in addition to nearly 4 million Syrians. Pakistan and Iran each host more than 3 million Afghan refugees, most of them without formal refugee status. Since 2015, nearly 600,000 Afghans have requested asylum in the EU.
“The EU and other wealthy countries must set up a sweeping resettlement scheme for vulnerable Afghan refugees from the region,” says Niamh Nic Carthaigh, director of EU policy and advocacy for the International Rescue Committee. “It is critical that the EU protects the people of Afghanistan and supports countries in the region rather than pouring any effort into preventing people from reaching safety in Europe.”
She points out that the majority of Afghans are internally displaced, and recent events have only amplified the huge humanitarian needs within the country. The EU had increased its humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan by 18% this year. However, only 37% of the United Nations humanitarian response plan has been funded for 2021. There are more than 80 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan.
“The crisis at the moment is for the people of Afghanistan,” she stresses. “That’s where the attention needs to be focused.”