The aftermath of a war in Afghanistan: the European Union’s response to Afghan refugees

Abstract

In August 2021, two decades after being removed by the US forces from Afghanistan, Taliban insurgents seized control over Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, shortly after the withdrawal of US troops. President Joe Biden has stated that the US has attained its primary objective, which is to ensure that Afghanistan will no longer represent a terrorist threat to US security. Kabul airport remained controlled by the government and was the only chance for the Afghan people to leave the capital. Subsequently, thousands of people have chosen to flee the Taliban regime. Afghans represent the second largest refugee population globally and the second largest group of asylum seekers in Europe, after Syrians, with 2.2 million refugees in neighboring countries and 3.5 million internally displaced. Therefore, the developments in the last months have only exacerbated the already strenuous crisis.

How have the European Union and its member states reacted to the ongoing influxes of Afghan refugees? What is the current stance of the EU on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan? The analysis below explores the possible answers to these questions.

European Union’s statement on the situation in Afghanistan

As per the final statement of the European Union ministers, EU’s main concern was to avoid a repetition of the 2015 migrant crisis, when around 1.3 million asylum seekers arrived in Europe. 6 years ago, Syrians were followed by Afghans as the largest group of refugees in Europe. Regarding the current situation of the Afghan refugees, Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, stated that „the best way to prevent migration crisis is to prevent a humanitarian crisis”, highlighting that the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan could lead to a surge in the number of Afghan refugees in Europe.

It is noteworthy to mention that the EU has promised urgent cooperation with neighboring and transit countries that are large hubs of migrants and refugees in order to impede illegal migration, strengthen border management capacity and counter smuggling and human trafficking of the Afghan migrants. In this light, strict security checks would be used and third-country clauses in the readmission agreements between the EU and certain transit countries were to be applied where necessary. Therefore, one can observe that the EU’s biggest concern was from the beginning an attempt to prevent refugees from coming to Europe. Coordination with international organizations, in particular the UN, on the provision of humanitarian assistance to vulnerable categories, mostly women and children, has played a key role in the EU’s initial plan. Hence, the EU has increased its financial aid to the international organizations for this purpose, by allocating a package of €1 billion to avoid a humanitarian disaster.

A significant point stressed in the Commission’s statement was the security of the EU citizens. The Taliban regime that took control of Afghanistan is perceived as a potential hub for terrorist and organized crime groups. Therefore, a permanent and comprehensive surveillance mechanism is of utmost importance for the safety and security of the EU citizens. In addition, the protection of persons that required immediate evacuation from Afghanistan, both Afghans, as well as international diplomatic personnel, was an essential element in the work of the EU.

Neighboring countries’ position on Afghan refugees

It is true that the EU feared that a wave of Afghans would flood the bloc, particularly in the current context of migrants coming from Iraq and Syria entering Europe via Belarus. Nevertheless, according to the UNHCR, 85% of the Afghan refugees choose to flee in neighboring countries, especially Pakistan and Iran. Germany is the European country that hosts the most Afghan refugees (around 5.5% in late 2020). Austria, France and Sweden are other choices for the Afghan population that decides to come to the EU.

Top 25 countries hosting Afghan refugees in 2020
(chart realized by The Conversation). Source: UNHCR

According to the UNHCR, Pakistan is the country that hosts the largest number of Afghan refugees, with an estimated 1.5 million and Iran comes second, with 780.000. Although Pakistan had decided to close its borders and discard refugees, later it reopened them for refugees in need. Nonetheless, the influxes of refugees in these countries complicate the already strained economic situation of both Pakistan and Iran. They are determined to impede the degradation of the situation because it is impossible for them to deal with another wave of displaced persons, fearing a possible crisis.

Member States’ response to the situation of Afghan refugees

Although the Human Rights Watch and the International Rescue Committee have encouraged the EU member states to ensure safe pathways and resettlement for Afghans in need for the next 12 months, member states have lacked an integrated response regarding the Afghan refugees. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, assured that the Commission would provide the required funds to the countries receiving refugees as it “our moral duty”. However, von der Leyen stressed the idea that Afghanistan’s neighboring countries should be the ones that resettle Afghan refugees at first.

In this light, Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, has issued the proposal to use the Temporary Protection Directive, a mechanism that has not been applied since 2001, which involves an extraordinary measure meant to facilitate immediate and temporary protection to non-EU displaced people that have been forced to flee their homeland.

Despite these official statements, many member states have encountered the idea of taking Afghan refugees with resistance, such as Slovenia, the current holder of the rotating presidency of the EU, and Austria. In this sense, the Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa addressed the issue of Afghan refugees on Twitter, stating that: “#E.U. will not open any European ‘humanitarian’ or migration corridors for #Afghanistan” in order to not repeat the “strategic mistake” made in 2015. On the other hand, Austrian and Serbian Prime Ministers had a meeting in early September on the topic of halting the arrival of Afghans refugees in Europe. Austria has instead proposed creating deportation centres for people that have not received asylum in neighboring countries, as Austria has had a huge problem dealing with migrants since 2015.

EU interior ministers held an emergency meeting on the situation in Afghanistan on Tuesday, and afterwards put out a statement making clear that the EU’s approach will revolve around helping Afghanistan’s neighbors receive and hold refugees.

Although Germany is the biggest hosting country in Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated in July that: “We cannot solve all of these problems by taking everyone in”, thus clarifying that Germany is not willing to become a hub for Afghan refugees. Nevertheless, regarding Afghanistan’s arduous situation, Merkel has announced that approximately 40.000 people that could not leave Afghanistan would have the right to enter Germany if they are at risk.

On that account, approximately 4600 people, the majority of whom were Afghan citizens, arrived in Germany from Kabul in August. The first were German nationals evacuated, and on September 14, Germany announced that it would provide protection to Afghans at risk and an estimated 2600 Afghan human rights activists, artists, scientists, journalists from Afghanistan and neighboring countries arrived in Germany.

At present, the negative economic situation in Afghanistan may lead to an additional wave of refugees in Germany. However, as the German Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer, said, the exact number cannot be predicted. Seehofer added that: „We are also increasingly registering that Afghans (refugees) who had been flown out to other European countries are moving towards Germany. Refugees from Afghanistan are currently ranked second in Germany with 13,644 people”.

In addition, after the general election in September, Olaf Scholz, Germany’s likely next Chancellor, emphasized in a speech during his political campaign that the Afghan refugees would be provided help and protection, and that they would ensure that there are “prospects for integration, that they can stay there, that they can have a secure future there”. Henceforth, Germany is not interested in risking their national safety for the protection of migrants and their main interests lay in the policy of the far right, avoiding a repetition of the 2015 migrant crisis.

France’s stance on the Afghan refugees could be identified in President’s Macron speech on the evacuation of Afghan human rights activists, journalists, artists and defenders: “We will help them as it is the honor of France to be side by side with those who share our values as much as we can”. Moreover, Macron has proposed the establishment of a UN-led “safe zone” in Kabul for the departure of Afghans that wanted to leave. Macron also highlighted that Afghan women would find an ally in France and that it will do its duty to protect the people in high danger. Nevertheless, the French President also stressed that Europe must “anticipate and protect” against “significant irregular migratory flows that would endanger those who use them and feed trafficking of all kinds”. Another significant idea was that Afghanistan could at any time become a haven of terrorism and that cooperation and coordination with the EU, US and Russia were needed if extremists could pose a security threat.

Turkey, which represents the most important refugee host in the world, with 980 registered Afghan refugees and 116.000 Afghan asylum-seekers, has called on the member states to handle the refugee issue and tackle any migrant crisis. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that: “Turkey has no duty, responsibility or obligation to be Europe’s refugee warehouse”.  Furthermore, Turkey has increased its efforts to build a border wall with Iran to prevent illegal entries and frontier patrols have been amplified. Metin Çorabatir, president of the Ankara-based Research Centre on Asylum and Migration (IGAM), said that Turkey’s decision to prevent illegal entries caused Afghans to suffer violent deaths since they were forced to cross Lake Van and drowned.

Regarding the response of Greece on the Afghan refugees, the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis met with Erdoğan and discussed the predicament in Afghanistan at the end of August. Additionally, Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi stated that: “We cannot have millions of people leaving Afghanistan and coming to the European Union… and certainly not through Greece”. Thus, Greece has established an automated surveillance system and a 40-km long wall across the border with Turkey in order to deter migrants from entering Greece. The main worry of Greece is avoiding a repetition of the 2015 migrants’ crisis.

It is important to mention that Greece called Turkey a “safe third country” for nationals of Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which represents the legal basis for the inadmissibility of refugees that claim asylum. Nonetheless, Marion Bouchetel from the Legal Centre stated that this decision was “an abusive and dangerous misapplication of the safe third country concept provided under EU law”. This decision resulted in the rejection of asylum seekers, affecting the Afghan refugees and their safety. As of 7 October 2021, the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) and Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) filed judicial review applications before the Greek Council of State to obtain an annulment of the decision as it infringes the human rights of refugees. For instance, given the situation in Afghanistan, Afghan refugees are in high need of international protection under international law.

Is the European Union letting its guard down?

A week after the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, the EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated that the bloc would not neither recognize, nor meet to discuss with the Islamist militants. Nevertheless, the situation took a different turn in October, when a joint United States-European Union delegation met in Doha, Qatari, for the first time with representatives from the Taliban regime. The EU promised assistance of €1 billion ($1.2 billion) for Afghanistan to prevent a humanitarian and socio-economic disaster. Von der Leyen mentioned that the financial aid would be provided to the international organizations in charge of aid delivery and not to the Taliban regime, which Brussels has not recognized as legitimate government yet. The funds provided are meant to achieve stabilization of the hard hit country and avoid a future security threat to the EU member states.

EU spokesperson Nabila Massrali noted that the meeting has the objective to „allow the U.S. and European side to address issues”, such as women’s rights and preventing Afghanistan from becoming a terrorism hub. Massrali made it clear that the informal meeting does not represent a recognition of the EU of the interim government of Taliban.

On the other hand, Taliban acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi stated: „We want positive relationships with the whole world. We believe in balanced international relations. We believe such a balanced relationship can save Afghanistan from instability”.

Furthermore, at the end of October, the EU announced that the diplomatic representative office in Kabul would be reopened in the next 30 days, as part of the „calibrated approach” secured by the bloc in order to provide the required aid and evacuate the remaining Afghans. In this light, Brussels is willing to collaborate with the Taliban interim government, but recognition remains off the table at the moment. Consequently, it is clear that only a direct presence of the EU in Kabul can impede the outbreak of a humanitarian crisis and ensure respect of human rights, especially women’s rights.

Recommendations

  1. Implementation of rigorous security checks at Afghanistan’s frontiers to prevent illegal smuggling of migrants and trafficking in human beings. At present, the situation in Afghanistan continues to be unsafe and it will most certainly continue in this direction for the foreseeable future. Therefore, an enhancement in border management is crucial for tackling forced displacement of Afghans in neighboring countries and in the EU. Afghans, including civil servants and former soldiers, pressured by the economic collapse in the country and the daily hardships endured, resort to paying a small fee to the Taliban to transport them through the dessert into neighboring countries. The rising poverty and the potential hunger announced by the UN in the next months determines people to leave the country with no visas or passports, since they cannot afford them, in order to find salvation in other countries. 
  2. Continued financial support for Afghanistan. As discussed above, the main cause of forced displacement and migration is the economic crisis which completely engulfed Afghanistan. Prior to the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan already relied on international aid, which amounted to 75% of government spending. Afterwards, assets in the United States and other countries remained frozen and international organizations have suspended disbursements. Winter will only exacerbate the already precarious situation if the international community, with the EU leading, will not continue to support the financial system in Afghanistan with funds. The trust fund established by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to mobilize resources from donors to solve the economic implosion intends to provide cash in local currency. Ensuring people keep their livelihoods also limits the risk of an additional wave of refugees in Europe. Therefore, member states should follow Germany’s example (the first contributor to the fund that already promised 50 million euros) and provide money to Afghanistan to bring the economy back afloat.
  3. Creating humanitarian corridors may be an adequate solution for the refugees from Afghanistan. A comprehensive approach embraced by member states should involve the provision of humanitarian visas, resettlement quotas for Afghan people in need, and ensure family reunification with relatives in Europe.
  4. Cooperation with China, as an essential partner of Afghanistan, is vital for ensuring European security. It would be a win-win situation, since the EU would guarantee its long-term security and China could extend its BRI program.
  5. Putting into practice the Temporary Protection Directive may alleviate the negative consequences of the influxes of refugees in the EU.

Conclusions

The EU must act quickly because inaction may yield additional instability at its external borders, as recent developments in Poland have highlighted. Taking action and being an active player confirm that the bloc guarantees its core values, such as human dignity, respect of human rights and freedom to both EU and non-EU citizens. 

The EU has repeatedly proved its poor competences of migration and refugee management because slow responses and ineffective measures have not led to concrete solutions to migration problems. Removing the Taliban from power is crucial in creating a safe socio-economic environment in Afghanistan that could halt forced displacement across Europe and ensure the security of member states. As afore-mentioned, EU’s main concerns have been the protection of the bloc’s security and assuring that Afghanistan’s neighboring countries have the support to receive Afghan refugees and keep them within their borders in order to avoid a repetition of the 2015 migration crisis.

Analysis conducted by Adina-Gabriela Mergea, MA graduate of the International Relations and European Integration Department (SNSPA) and member of the SNSPA European Studies Center. Main photo source: Impakter