With Afghanistan on the brink, is Europe set for a refugee influx?

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When foreign policy expert Kemal Kirişci warned of “a mass exodus of refugees fleeing Afghanistan that could spark another migration crisis” in April, his research received little attention.

Now, as the Taliban makes rapid territorial gains ahead of the US and NATO military withdrawal at the end of the month, his predictions may have already started to materialise.

An estimated 270,000 people in the country have been forced to flee their homes since the beginning of the year, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency.

Relief organisations have raised the alarm on what could only be the beginning of a much bigger humanitarian crisis with devastating consequences for Afghan civilians.

“We are alarmed by the rise in violence that we have seen over recent months and the consequences we see, in particular on children,” Anita Bay Bundegaard, Director of Save the Children Europe, told Euronews.

The charity says 80,000 children have been displaced over the past two months and a record number killed or injured.

As more and more Afghans try to seek shelter from conflict and violence, many European leaders are concerned migrant numbers will increase on the Old Continent.

The European Union is still scarred by the migration crisis of 2015-16, which saw hundreds of thousands of arrivals from Syria. The episode sparked intense disputes within the 27-nation bloc on sharing the migrant burden among themselves, with populist parties in some parts of Europe surfing on anti-immigration sentiment.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who massively welcomed Syrian refugees in Germany in 2015 under her famous motto “We can do it”, has changed tune. She addressed the issue of Afghan refugees at a press conference last month saying: “We cannot solve all of these problems by taking everyone in.”

“It cannot be the case that Austria and Germany are solving the Afghanistan problem for the EU,” Austrian Interior Minister Nehammer told reporters as he complained of a surge in irregular migration this year.

Turkish authorities said last month they were closely monitoring any influx of Afghan migrants, with more than 27,000 caught crossing the Iranian border so far this year. The Iranian-Turkish border has long been a popular smuggling route for Afghan migrants seeking to enter Turkey before continuing their journey to Europe.

In addition to the Turkey route, Lithuania says Afghan refugees have begun arriving into the country via Belarus, suggesting a new route could be in its infancy. Vilnius has accused Minsk of organising illicit border crossings as part of a “hybrid war” against the EU.

But while all the ingredients for a major refugee crisis are there, experts told Euronews that Europe’s focus on trying to deter a hypothetical wave of Afghan migrants was misplaced.

Is Europe already seeing an influx of Afghan migrants?

Numbers show there hasn’t been a massive influx of Afghan migrants in Europe over the past months thus far.

In the first half of 2021, around 3,200 irregular border crossings by Afghan nationals were reported at the EU external borders, a European Commission spokesperson told Euronews in a written statement.

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“This number represents a 41% decrease compared with the previous year,” the Commission added, noting that “border and travel restrictions linked to the coronavirus pandemic had an impact on last year’s figures.”

While it’s “very likely” that a large number of Afghans will need refugee protection in the coming months, “this massive crisis doesn’t mean people reach Europe,” said Gerald Knaus, the founding chairman of the European Stability Initiative (ESI), a think tank.

“To reach Europe, you need to cross a lot of borders which are very much harder to cross today than they were a few years ago,” the migration expert went on, pointing to the alleged Greek policies of pushback at its land and sea borders — which Athens denies.

In recent years, the EU has invested significant resources to strengthen its external borders and deter migrants. In 2016, the bloc agreed to pay Turkey €6 billion to prevent Syrian asylum-seekers from crossing to Greece.

“When it comes to the facts, we don’t yet see a large number of Afghans arriving in Turkey and certainly not in Europe. And it’s not clear how many will be able to leave Afghanistan — Pakistan claims that it can protect the border,” Knaus noted.

“In 2015, in six months more than 500,000 people came spontaneously from Turkey to Greece. In comparison, now in the last six months, the total number of people reaching from Turkey to Greece, not just Afghans but everybody, was about 4,000. So that is 125 times less,” he insisted.

When it comes to the Belarus route, the numbers are even lower. “It’s been around 3,000 so far, so less than the 4,000 to reach Greece,” Knaus said. Out of these 3,000, the majority were Iraqis.

“So you have a hysteria about big numbers and the reality, is very few people cross borders.”

“This is fear-mongering and populism. If we confront this and say, ‘No, the real crisis is a different one.’ It’s that at our borders, we’re breaking EU laws, and in Afghanistan, a lot of people are in need of protection. These are people that we fought with and for, to rebuild the country for 20 years, and we’ve abandoned them,” Knaus said.

Kirişci, who is a non-resident senior fellow at Brookings think-tank, said that large numbers of Afghans “kept streaming into Turkey through Iran,” citing UNHCR figures.

But both experts agreed on one thing: it will be extremely difficult for Afghan migrants to enter the EU.

“There is going to be a massive humanitarian crisis on the [Greece-Turkey] border, the kind of crisis that is going to damage the reputation of the European Union internationally as the world is going to see how the European Union resists refugees from entering the Schengen area,” Kirişci told Euronews.

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How has Europe responded so far?

Brussels says its current focus is on preventing an escalation in Afghanistan to avoid mass displacements.

“Our efforts and engagement as European Union together with our international and regional partners are focusing on contributing to stabilising the situation in Afghanistan. This will also help avoid situations that would force people to leave,” a European Commission spokesperson told Euronews.

The US announced this week that it was expanding its refugee programme for at-risk Afghan citizens. Those eligible will now include current and former employees of the US government and NATO, US-based news organisations, aid agencies and other relief groups that receive US funding.

Knaus said Europeans ought to think about a similar programme, “giving at least the option to have access to Europe to those who have put their trust in working with our institutions in the last 20 years and who might be at real risk”.

While no such announcements have been made so far at the European level, several EU countries are continuing to deport Afghans who were denied asylum back home despite escalating violence in the country.

In July, Afghanistan urged Europe to stop deportations for three months, as Finland, Sweden and Norway had done.

Germany, Denmark and Austria are among those who still have not suspended expulsions of Afghans. In the case of Germany, these deportations are only for migrants who have committed a criminal offence.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) asked Austria to postpone the deportation of an Afghan man this week.

Several NGOs, including Save the Children, have called on the EU and its member countries to suspend deportations of Afghans.

“We are calling on all EU member states to suspend returns, in particular returns of children, to Afghanistan, because children need to be protected now and not returned to a country where we put their lives at risk,” Bay Bundegaard told Euronews.

“And we call on the European Commission to encourage the Member States not to do so, and also to refrain from coordinating these returns,” the Save the Children executive added.

What are the options to tackle the crisis?

“There are a lot of people who might be at serious risk of persecution in Afghanistan who will not find protection unless Western policy finds a way for them to leave regularly,” Knaus told Euronews.

Both Kirişci and Knaus told Euronews that the EU and other Western nations should respond to the crisis with a sweeping resettlement programme, on the scale of what was done with the Vietnamese boat people back in the late 1970s and 1980s.

“In the crisis of the boat people from Vietnam after 1979, there was a coalition of countries that had fought in Vietnam, or that was shocked by the humanitarian catastrophe of people leaving in boats to Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines and that said: we will bring people to our countries through resettlement in an orderly way.”

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The US programme announced last week does not go as far, since applicants must leave Afghanistan without any support to begin the adjudication process that may take 12-14 months in a third country.

The European Commission told Euronews that it “strongly” supported resettlement, including “through the provision of EU funds.”

“Since 2015, EU resettlement programmes have provided protection to the most vulnerable refugees (more than 81,000 resettlements so far).”

Last month, the bloc launched an EU resettlement forum to mobilise funding for the resettlement of 30,000 refugees until the end of 2022.

But as the European Commission notes, “resettlement is a voluntary effort for the Member States; the decision to engage in resettlement and individual admission decisions lie with the Member States.”

“I think it would be wrong to make this a European issue in the sense that it’s the 27. They will not agree on anything, that’s clear because governments don’t. But the question is really for France, Germany, Spain and Italy and individual countries that fought in Afghanistan,” Knaus said.

What does this mean for EU-Turkey relations?

As Europe is concerned over a new refugee crisis from Afghanistan, its thorny partnership with Ankara over migration issues is likely to come under the spotlight again. Often when the EU has a falling out with Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatens to stop preventing refugees from heading to Europe.

Kirişci predicted that as Greek security forces will try to stop Afghan migrants from entering from Turkey, there might be a major “humanitarian and possibly political crisis between Turkey and Greece.”

According to him, Erdogan might try to use the crisis for “domestic purposes to show how the glorious European Union doesn’t live up to its own standards and how Turkey receives vulnerable people, especially from Muslim states, with open arms.”

However, he noted, “one of the consequences of these Afghan refugees arriving in Turkey is that it has revealed the growing public resentment of refugees at large in Turkey.”

“The fact that the Turkish economy is going from bad to worse is exacerbating these feelings in the public opinion,” he added.

It is not clear if Erdogan will try to “bargain” with the EU as his government did in 2015-16 when it negotiated its €6 billion migration package, the expert added.

But the EU seems prepared to keep the cash flowing. “The EU will continue to support its partners protecting refugees and people in need of international protection and supporting host countries,” the European Commission spokesperson said.

Every weekday, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to get a daily alert for this and other breaking news notifications. It’s available on Apple and Android devices.

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