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EU response to Afghan refugees: from crisis and containment to resettlement?


By Dr Alan Desmond  

At the end of 2020, Afghan refugees – citizens of Afghanistan who have been granted protection by other states – numbered 2.6 million, constituting 10% of the global refugee population and making Afghans the third largest refugee group in the world after Syrians and Venezuelans. Following the recent assumption of control of Afghanistan by the Taliban, the number of new outflows of Afghans in search of safety in other countries is set to rise sharply. The most likely immediate destinations for Afghans exercising their right to seek asylum are the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and Iran which already host 2.2 million refugees from Afghanistan. 

There are recent reports, however, that both Iran and Pakistan have tightened their borders with a view to preventing the entry of Afghans, and some of the half a million or so individuals estimated to flee Afghanistan by the end of 2021 will ultimately seek to reach Europe. Some Afghans will have a preference for a country in the EU on account of family or other personal ties, or because of their connections with the coalition forces that operated in Afghanistan from 2001 until their recent withdrawal. 

The more things change, the more they stay the same 

Recent decades have seen important places of destination in the Global North, such as the EU and its member states, resort to policies of containment as a way of reducing the numbers of asylum seekers who reach their shores. This kind of response to the arrival of asylum seekers and other migrants intensified following the 2015 migration ‘crisis’ during which over a million migrants, including nearly 200,000 Afghans, arrived in Europe. Examples of such policies include the EU-Turkey statement concluded in 2016 and the Memorandum of Understanding signed by Italy and Libya in 2017. Measures of this sort essentially provide financial and other forms of support to the transit countries in question who, in return, prevent asylum seekers from departing for Europe. 

The immediate response of the EU to the current Afghan crisis indicates an undimmed enthusiasm for other countries to host asylum seekers, rather than allowing them to travel to an EU member state to apply for refugee status. This was starkly illustrated in a statement on 31 August in which the EU pledged to support Afghanistan’s neighbours “to reinforce their capacities to provide protection … and sustainable livelihood for refugees”.

At the same time, the EU will cooperate with those countries “to prevent illegal migration from the region, reinforce border management capacity and prevent smuggling of migrants”. This makes it clear that the EU is keen for Afghan asylum seekers to obtain protection somewhere other than the EU. In the event that Afghan asylum seekers manage to make it to Europe, the EU will “protect the EU external borders and prevent unauthorized entries, and assist the most affected Member States.” This is clearly an allusion to the 2015 ‘crisis’ and the disproportionate burden it placed on Greece and Italy. 

Understanding the EU response 

The EU’s reflex recourse to containment as a general response to the predicted flight of Afghans from the Taliban regime must be understood as a desperate attempt to avoid the consequences that flowed from the large-scale migrant arrivals in 2015. That ‘crisis’ dealt a heavy blow to EU solidarity, sowing bitter divisions between member states on the allocation of responsibility for reception of asylum seekers. Those divisions severely undermined the operation of the EU’s Common European Asylum System and led individual EU member states to take unilateral measures in the field of migration, and to refuse to comply with their obligations under EU law.  

Other options in the EU’s migration policy toolkit 

Containment is not the only response, however, that can help avoid the arrival of Afghans en masse at the EU’s borders. Resettlement, a process whereby UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, identifies vulnerable refugees for transfer from countries of first asylum to suitable host countries, is a longstanding international practice. In 2020, around 8,500 people were resettled from countries of first asylum to EU member states. This is arguably a small number for one of the richest regions in the world, given the UNHCR’s estimate that in 2020 nearly 1.5 million refugees were in urgent need of resettlement. 

The EU’s response to Afghans fleeing the Taliban should extend beyond financial support for states hosting large refugee populations to encouraging its member states to liaise with UNHCR to resettle Afghan refugees from Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries. The legal framework for such measures is already in place, and the European Asylum Support Office is mandated to support member states to resettle refugees.  

There are good reasons for greater EU resettlement efforts as a response to the situation in Afghanistan. Firstly, it would be consistent with the commitment to resettlement expressed in the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, an important European Commission policy paper that was issued in September 2020 along with a Recommendation to increase the number of refugees resettled to the EU and the number of member states involved in resettlement. 

Secondly, it would remove the need for Afghan asylum seekers to make perilous journeys by land and sea in order to lodge an application for asylum in the EU. In that sense, effective resettlement efforts would not only help to prevent the very type of ‘crisis’ that concerns the EU, but would also reduce irregular migration and disrupt the business model of smuggling networks. Finally, resettlement would concretise the EU’s expression of solidarity with non-EU countries that host large numbers of refugees.  

The EU’s approach to the Afghan refugee situation is heavily coloured by the trauma of the 2015 crisis. In addition to paralysing EU legal mechanisms, the 2015 crisis led to ever more open endorsement of anti-refugee rhetoric by mainstream political movements and parties. The susceptibility of refugee issues to exploitation by right-leaning movements for political capital can make national and EU leaders reluctant to pursue, and to be seen to be pursuing, refugee-friendly policies. If the EU is serious about avoiding a repeat of the 2015 crisis, however, it needs to get serious about resettlement.

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