The European Union is hoping to stave off an “uncontrolled large-scale” wave of migration from Afghanistan, after the Taliban took over the country following the US withdrawal of troops. EU governments are worried about a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis, but migration observers say that much has changed since then, and concerns of a massive influx are ungrounded.
The United Nations refugee agency says that up to 500,000 Afghans could flee their country by the end of the year.
“The number of people who will get to Europe’s borders will not be that high,” Yves Pascouau, programme director of the Res Publica NGO that works with migrants, told RFI.
“European citizens think that all Afghan refugees will show up in their villages and towns,” he said. “But in reality, the road is long,” as families with children or elderly relatives will stay close to home, and not travel across the Middle East to get to Europe.
“People are looking for protection. The immediate protection is offered on the other side of the border. It’s a search for survival.”
And yet, the EU is bracing for an onslaught.
"Based on lessons learned, the EU and its Member States stand determined to act jointly to prevent the recurrence of uncontrolled large-scale illegal migration movements faced in the past,” said a draft of a statement that the interior ministers of the 27 nations are to release later Tuesday after an emergency meeting in Brussels.
Paying Afghanistan’s neighbours
Europe’s plan is to provide financial aid for the neighbouring countries to keep the Afghans there.
The EU "will engage and strengthen its support to third countries, in particular the neighbouring and transit countries, hosting large numbers of migrants and refugees, to reinforce their capacities to provide protection, dignified and safe reception conditions and sustainable livelihood for refugees and host communities," said the draft statement, which could still change.
Europe provided assistance in 2016 to Turkey, which pledged to stem the flow of migrants heading to Europe.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, repeated a call for neighbouring countries to keep their borders with Afghanistan open and share the responsibility with Iran and Pakistan, which already host 2.2 million Afghans who left when the Taliban took over in 1996-2001.
Both countries are in different political and economic situations than they were 20 years ago, and are unlikely be able to step up to the task again.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said on Tuesday at a joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who is visiting Afghanistan’s neighbours, that his country lacks the capacity to absorb more refugees.
Iran’s economic situation has degraded since the imposition of international sanctions.
Beyond Iran is Turkey, and then Greece, both of which have started erecting walls to keep people out.
Turkey currently hosts 3.7 million Syrian refugees, along with about 300,000 Afghans.
"We have sufficiently carried out our moral and humanitarian responsibilities regarding migration," Turkey Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday, after meeting with Maas.
Europe could have anticipated
“It’s important that we are in a position where we can avoid a humanitarian crisis, migratory crisis and a security threat from Afghanistan," European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said Tuesday, before the EU interior ministers' meeting.
“But then we need to act now and not wait until we have big flows of people at our external borders or until we have terrorist organizations being stronger.”
Observers say that Europe has already acted too late, treating the Afghan crisis as an emergency, rather than one that could have been anticipated, with a bit of foresight.
“We have the impression that the only reaction is one of urgency, which is emotional,” Gérard Sadik, director of the asylum programme for the Cimade NGO, which provides support for refugees and migrants in France, told RFI.
Some 114,000 people were airlifted out of Afghanistan over the past two weeks, many of them Afghans. Nearly 5,000 went to Italy, 4,100 to Germany, and France took in 2,600.
Many of the Afghans arriving in France are family members of Afghans already living in France, whose visas had been blocked for some time due to the security situation and Covid, according to Sadik.
“If we had anticipated and had them come today, despite the [Covid] confinement, we would have had many fewer requests today,” he said.
Imagining a new system
Europe recognises the need to provide protection to Afghans, granting about 70 per cent of asylum claims between 2015 and 2020, according to Sadik, who wonders why protection cannot be more systematic.
“Can we come up with a system where people are not required to take this extremely dangerous route?” he wonders.
Refugee resettlement programmes around the world are small, and run into political concerns.
In France, the presidential election in 2022 is already gearing up to be focused on immigration, which makes policy makers uneasy about being open about migration policies.
“We have the spectre of populism that forces it to be done on the sly,” he said, adding that what is needed is clear policies, “to reassure people”.
“France can welcome a large number of refugees, and notably Afghans, if it is well organised,” he said. “We can organise arrivals while blocking irregular migration. But if we don’t organise the arrivals, people will come irregularly anyway, taking a lot of risks.”