UN chief ‘asked EU states to take in more than 40,000 Afghan refugees’

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The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, has asked the European Union to take in more than 40,000 Afghan refugees over the next five years, but the plea failed to receive the backing of EU countries.

Grandi’s request comes as the situation inside Afghanistan turns increasingly dire following the fall of the Western-backed government and the sudden takeover by the Taliban.

“Half of the Afghan population is in the need of humanitarian assistance,” said Ylva Johansson, EU Commissioner for home affairs, warning about a “huge risk of famine” and a near “total collapse of the economy” inside the country.

Johansson spoke to the press on Thursday afternoon after hosting a high-level forum on resettlement with Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs chief. It was attended by interior and foreign affairs ministers from the bloc’s 27 member states.

The meeting didn’t result in any specific pledge from the bloc and simply reaffirmed the existing line of action: the EU must support Afghans inside Afghanistan to avoid a humanitarian crisis.

“It’s our moral duty to also give protection to Afghans at risk,” said Johansson.

Johansson said Filippo Grandi — who also took part in the forum — asked the EU to resettle 42,500 of the 85,000 displaced Afghans that the UNHCR considers the most vulnerable. The resettlement should take place over a period of five years.

Member states didn’t endorse Grandi’s plea but Johansson said it was “doable”. Member states, she added, have other ways to provide humanitarian assistance besides resettlement, such as increasing support to civil society organisations working on the ground.

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“We will have time to find the right number,” the Commissioner said, admitting it wasn’t possible to evacuate or resettle “all those in need”.

As part of the chaotic evacuation from Kabul airport, the EU has already welcomed around 22,000 Afghan citizens. Grandi’s appeal should come on top of that number, Johansson clarified, stressing that evacuation and resettlement are two different things.

Despite the lack of a collective pledge, the Commissioner said she was “satisfied” with the forum and noted “some member states”, which she did not name, were ready to step up their actions, be it through renewed resettlement pledges or additional humanitarian aid.

Johansson said there has been no marked increase in Afghans leaving the country and attempting to reach the European Union, but the bloc should continue working to assist those inside Afghanistan and especially in the neighbouring countries, like Pakistan. The European Commission is preparing an “Afghan Support Package” to be unveiled in the coming weeks.

The high-level forum was also attended by other countries of the Schengen area as well as representatives from Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, three countries that have already established concrete pledges of resettlement.

Canada has committed to welcome 40,000 Afghans fleeing the Taliban rule while the UK will receive 5,000 in the first year and up to 20,000 over the coming years. The United States is in the process of resettling over 60,000 refugees that were brought to the country as part of the military evacuation from Kabul.

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Resettlement efforts focus on the most vulnerable sectors of the Afghan population, particularly women, children, human rights activists, journalists and lawyers.

Johansson decided to convey the high-level forum after a ministerial meeting in late August, where EU interior ministers agreed to boost financial support for neighbouring countries, like Pakistan, in order to prevent a massive wave of refugees from reaching the bloc’s external borders.

The forum “is a good opportunity to avoid a migration crisis,” Johansson said.

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