With European leaders seemingly caught off guard by the abrupt withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, fears are rising that the exodus could create another wave of displaced people headed towards Europe as did a US decision in Syria years earlier.
The international crisis also again placed EU military impotence in the spotlight. As one European analyst said: “When the US said it was over in Afghanistan, it was over for everyone.” Some think it provides added impetus for a joint EU military force.
Withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan has led the news cycles in Europe as governments and citizens publicly worry about the safety and future of women and the many locals who assisted the coalition.
That unprecedented influx — 1.3 million in 2015 alone — caused political turmoil that threatened to destabilise the continent through the rise of nationalistic, anti-immigrant populists. And already reeling from a pandemic, one of the last things European leaders want today is another wave of illegal migration.
Except for those who helped Western forces in the country’s two-decade war, the message from Europe is clear: go to neighbouring countries if you have to leave, but don’t come here.
“It must be our goal to keep the majority of the people in the region,” Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said as the security situation unravelled.
Even Germany, which admitted more Syrians than any other Western nation since 2015, has a different response. German politicians, including Armin Laschet, leader of the Christian Democratic Union and a candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, warned that there must be “no repeat” of the migration crisis of 2015.
French President Emmanuel Macron said that “Europe alone cannot shoulder the consequences” of the Afghanistan collapse and “must anticipate and protect ourselves against significant irregular migratory flows”. It was an ignominious end to a high-minded mission to fight terrorism that began in 2001. In its last configuration, the Nato-led Resolute Support Mission had nearly 10,000 troops from 36 nations stationed in Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, the US tops the list with 2,500 soldiers. Germany had the second-largest contingent, some 1,300 troops, followed by Italy with 895.
Now European nations are making preparations for the aftermath. The continent “should not wait until people stand at our external border”, said EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johanson.
EU Council president Charles Michel noted challenges facing Europe as he visited Spain’s emergency hub for Afghan refugees.
“Partnerships with third-party countries will be at the heart of our discussion in the European Union,” said Michel. “We need to find that balance between the dignity of the European Union and the capacity to defend European Union interests.”
Greece, whose islands facing the Turkish coast have been hit by waves of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others, is determined it will not be a recipient of that magnitude again. Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said Greece won’t accept being the “gateway for irregular flows into the EU”. Even erecting a new border fence, Greece wants overland refugees blocked in Turkey.
Yet Turkey says it cannot be the terminus. “Turkey has no duty, responsibility or obligation to be Europe’s refugee warehouse,” Turkish President Recep Erdoan warned in a speech last week.
Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said the Taliban takeover is not certain to result in a new refugee crisis. “I would warn against a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he told the press. He said it depends on the Taliban allowing development and humanitarian work to continue.
“If you would have a collapse of public services and if there would be a major food crisis, there will be, for sure, a mass movement of people,” said Egeland.
If the past is any guide, Europe does have cause for concern. In 2015 and 2016, some 300,000 Afghan refugees arrived on the continent, the second-largest group following Syrians.
Though many were facing deportation until the latest Taliban takeover of their home country, the existing Afghan refugee population in Europe is unevenly distributed, with Germany the largest host followed by Austria, France and Sweden.
In the first three months of 2021 about 7,000 Afghans were granted permanent or temporary legal status in the European Union. The majority were distributed between Greece, France, Germany and Italy.
But by far most of those who fled in the past didn’t make it to Europe. Pakistan, which shares a 1,640-mile land border with Afghanistan, has long absorbed the largest number of Afghan refugees beginning with the 1979 Soviet invasion. Today there are nearly 1.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and some 800,000 in Iran.
If events of the past provide any benefit today, Europe is now highly experienced in refugee matters, better equipped to either block or rationally provide asylum-seekers with sanctuary.
At this point there’s a great deal of goodwill amongst the population of Europe for the long-suffering Afghan people. Yet battered by a recent migrant crisis and a stubborn pandemic, one suspects the compassion might be wide — but not very deep.
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are journalists based in Milan
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