The Taliban in Kabul: What does it mean for Refugee Policies in Europe

August 31, 2021, marked the deadline set by the US and NATO to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan after a two-decade long military presence. In the wake of this decision, the return of the Taliban to power has led to a surge of Afghan refugees fleeing their country and to a renewed debate over asylum policies in Europe.

On August 21, during a visit to a center for evacuees in Spain, the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, stated: “This resettlement of vulnerable people is […] our moral duty” [1]. However, several European leaders have expressed fears of another wave of refugees resembling the 2015 refugee crisis caused by the Syrian war – when around 1.3 million people applied for asylum in the EU.

Since 2015, 570,000 Afghans have requested asylum in the EU, 44,000 of which in 2020 alone – which represented 10.6% of the total number of asylum seekers [2] –, making Afghanistan the second main citizenship of asylum applicants last year, only behind Syria. Irregular entries from Afghanistan to the EU have been estimated at about 4,000 so far for 2021[3]. Given the new circumstances, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, declared on August 17: “We need to ensure that the political situation created in Afghanistan by the return of the Taliban does not lead to a large-scale migratory movement towards Europe.” [4]

The images of chaotic crowds at the Kabul airport trying to catch a flight out of the country, have made the whole world a witness of their desperate situation. Even after escaping Afghanistan, the different asylum policies are making it hard for the refugees to settle and, in some cases, they have faced deportation.

The lack of an EU-coordinated response

Some of the denied Afghan asylum seekers have faced forced returns to their country of origin, overrun by Taliban militants – although according to EU officials, only about 200 of the overall 1,200 returns in 2021 were forced [5]. On July 22, amid concerns over the increased violence in Afghanistan, an NGO Joint Statement – signed by Human Rights Watch, Oxfam, Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee, among others – urged European countries to cease all deportations of Afghan asylum seekers immediately [6].

It is worth emphasizing that the deportation policy is a decision made at the national level. On August 5, six EU member states – including Austria, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece and Germany – announced in a letter to the European Commission that “stopping returns sends the wrong signal and is likely to motivate even more Afghan citizens to leave their home for the EU” [7]. They urged the Commission to intensify talks with the Afghan government on how returns to Afghanistan will continue in the coming months. The letter sparked a debate about the EU’s role in determining deportation policies. Nonetheless, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands have since changed course, and decided that they would suspend deportations.

Another issue under debate is the EU’s reliance on third parties – Afghanistan’s neighbor countries – to manage refugee crises. The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, said on 22 August: “Partnerships with third-party countries will be at the heart of our discussion in the European Union. We have to adopt strategies that ensure migration is possible in an orderly and consistent fashion,” and added: “We need to find that balance between the dignity of the European Union and the capacity to defend European Union interests.” [8] Two days later, the G7 leaders met by video conference to discuss the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan and coordinate international action. In the meeting, Charles Michel assured: “The EU will do its part to support the safety and proper living conditions of Afghans who flee their country. We [the EU] will work with the countries in the region, especially Iran, Pakistan, and central Asia, to address the different needs. International protection will be needed for those facing persecution and for other vulnerable Afghans. And EU member states will contribute to this international effort” [9]. He also underlined the EU’ s determination to keep the migratory flows under control and the EU’ s borders protected. Notwithstanding, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has urged European countries to take responsibility for those fleeing Afghanistan, saying that Turkey has no intention of becoming “Europe’s migrant storage unit”. Turkey, which currently hosts about 300,000 Afghans, has reinforced measures in its eastern border to prevent crossings.

National approaches

So far, most European countries have focused on evacuating, before the August 31 deadline, their own citizens from Afghanistan and those who helped Western forces during the country’s two-decade war. There have only been few concrete offers from European countries besides evacuating Afghan collaborators, and most refugees have chosen to flee to neighboring countries such as Pakistan and Iran. As of December 31, 2020, there were over 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan and 780,000 in Iran [10].

The UK government said that it is working on launching an Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme (ACRS), which will provide protection for those most at risk, such as women and girls. Through this framework, the country would welcome 5,000 refugees in 2021 and would resettle 20,000 Afghans in the coming years [11]. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the country could grant asylum to about 10,000 Afghans in total. Nonetheless, some analysts have pointed out that Germany’s welcoming of Afghan refugees could be short-lived, ahead of country’s federal election on September 26 – as, during the political campaign, the far-right AfD party would likely accuse the Chancellor of risking another migration wave [12].

Greece, which has been one of the main entry points into Europe for many Afghan refugees –who made up 45% of the total sea arrivals to Greece as of June 2021 [13] –, has made it clear that it does not want to see another mass wave of refugees. In early August, before the Taliban forces took Kabul, the Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said that “the EU is not ready and does not have the capacity to handle another migration crisis” [14]. Hence, Greek officials have called for a united response. In the meantime, the country has erected a 40km fence in its border with Turkey to keep out migrants who try to reach the EU states. Similarly, French President Emmanuel Macron said Europe must protect itself from a wave of Afghan migrants. In his view, France would “protect those who are in the most danger”, but added that Europe “cannot take on the consequences from the current situation alone” [15]. Along with Britain, the country proposed some days ago the UN’s creation of a “safe zone” in the Afghan capital, Kabul, to protect humanitarian operations. On August 28, Macron also announced that discussions had started with the Taliban to “protect and repatriate” Afghan nationals at risk beyond the 31 August deadline, likely via civil airports in Kabul or from neighboring countries [16].

On the other hand, the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has ruled out taking in any more Afghan refugees. In a recent interview with Puls 24, he highlighted that the country had accepted 40,000 Afghans in the past few years, which he described as a “disproportionately large contribution”. The country, which is among the EU’s migration hard-liners, has proposed as an alternative to deportations to Afghanistan, the creation of “deportation centers” in countries neighboring Afghanistan so that the EU countries could deport those who are rejected asylum without returning them to their country of origin.

Amidst this complex situation, the two suicide attacks near the Kabul Airport on August 26, claimed by the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), which killed over 70 Afghans and 13 US soldiers and wounded many others, have aggravated the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. On August 27, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) launched a Regional Refugee Preparedness and Response Plan (RRP) which anticipates a worst-case scenario of 515,000 Afghan refugees arriving in neighboring countries by the end of 2021. In this plan, UNHCR highlighted that “any major influx will require the international community to support an immediate and sustained intervention to Afghanistan’s neighbors, in a spirit of responsibility- and burden-sharing” [17]. Meetings at the EU level on how to tackle the potential Afghan refugee crisis are ongoing, with for example an exceptional meeting held in Brussels on August 31 [18] where Interior Ministers, representatives of the European Commission, the European External Action Service, Frontex, Europol, the European Asylum Support Office and the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator were invited to attend.

By Ada Mullol

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