The European Union should intervene before Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban rule begin to arrive at its external borders, Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, has warned.
“The situation is extremely worrying. We know what the Taliban are capable [of], so a lot of people are in immediate danger in Afghanistan right now: those fighting for women’s rights, for fundamental rights, journalists, authors. So it’s important to protect them,” Johansson told Euronews on Wednesday afternoon.
“We have learned the lesson from 2015 so that we will not see a new migration crisis in the European Union,” she said, underlining that member states should not take unilateral action on their own and instead act as a united bloc.
“We should not wait until we have Afghani refugees at our external borders. We have to intervene much earlier. And that also, of course, includes money.”
This money, the Commissioner said, should serve to support the displaced and vulnerable Afghans who are currently inside the country, a number the Commission estimates to be over 3.5 million people.
Johansson said the EU should equally support the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and neighbouring countries, such Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan, which are likely to be the most immediate destination for refugees.
This extra aide must “make sure that we don’t end up in a situation where a lot of people embark on dangerous smuggling routes ending up at our external borders,” she said.
“And this is an important gender issue because we know that those that are going on the irregular routes are mainly men. But we also know that those that are in the most danger right now in Afghanistan are women and girls. And that’s why we need to protect women and girls.”
Johansson’s warnings come as G7 leaders failed to convince the US administration of President Joe Biden to extend the withdrawal of troops beyond 31 August. Despite pleas from European allies who believe the tight deadline won’t be enough to complete evacuations, President Biden stood firm.
Following the G7 meeting, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a package of humanitarian aid for Afghanistan worth €200 million. The President also said a multi-year €1-billion programme in development assistance has been temporarily frozen until there’s greater clarity surrounding the new Taliban government.
The question of resettlement
The fall of Afghanistan and growing fears of an impeding influx of migrants has brought back to the table the unresolved question of resettlement: How can the EU agree on a fair and proportionate system to distribute refugees among member states?
In recent days, Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, and Paolo Gentiloni, the EU Commissioner for the economy, have floated the idea of activating the Temporary Protection Directive, an obscure 2001 EU law that has never been used.
The directive envisions a rapid system to manage mass influxes of displaced people who are forced to leave their homes due to an armed conflict, endemic violence or systematic violations of human rights.
The scheme is based on burden-sharing and a “balance of efforts” among all EU countries (except Ireland and Denmark, who at the time used their opt-out clauses) and can grant temporary protection, including residence permits, for up to three years.
Johansson disagreed with her two colleagues and said the mechanism was “not the issue for today”.
A 2020 regulation, introduced under Johansson’s supervision, suggests the Temporary Protection Directive must be adapted because it “no longer responds to member states’ current reality” and its activation is virtually impossible.
The EU’s focus, the Commissioner said, should instead be on working with member states and external allies, like Canada and the United Kingdom, who are willing to give shelter to the Afghan population in need of international protection.
Johansson said “a lot” of EU countries are “ready to step up on resettlement”, although she avoided naming them. Interior ministers, together with the Commission, are set to discuss the question in the coming days.
However, some heads of government, like Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Slovenian Prime Minsister Janez Janša, have already made clear their opposition to welcoming any Afghan refugees. Meanwhile, Greece is building a 40km fence on its border with Turkey in anticipation of an influx.
“Member states are in position to decide how they protect their external borders and they are the best one to to assess how to do that,” Johansson said about the Greek initiative, adding that “sometimes it’s necessary” to do so with fences.
“But they’re also obliged to comply with the fundamental rights and the  Geneva Refugee Convention so that people have the right to apply for asylum.”