EU, fearful of refugee crisis, delays response on Afghan asylum

Migration and human rights experts call on the EU to deliver a more proactive and unified response on Afghan asylum.

Two Afghan migrant women hug, moments after they arrived on a dinghy on the island of Lesbos
Two Afghan women hug, moments after arriving on a dinghy on the island of Lesbos, Greece, on August 23, 2015 - the height of Europe's so-called refugee crisis [File: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters]

Brussels, Belgium – It has been two months since Kabul fell to the Taliban and thousands are still trying to flee Afghanistan, in search of refuge.

The United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, recently warned that by the end of 2021, the humanitarian crisis could displace half a million more Afghans as it called on countries to keep their borders open.

But for European Union members, this warning brought flashbacks of the 2015 migration crisis, delaying a unified response on Afghan asylum.

“Back then, the EU was caught completely by surprise by the arrival of so many refugees,” Jeff Crisp, research associate at the University of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre and associate fellow at Chatham House, told Al Jazeera. “Now with the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan, the priority of the EU is to prevent a repeat of that scenario.”

With the ghosts of the past influencing current migration decisions, European Commissioner Margaritis Schinas, who has been coordinating the bloc’s work on a migration and asylum pact, recently revealed a new report highlighting the EU’s plan to initiate a “regional political platform of cooperation with Afghanistan’s direct neighbours”, to handle the migration crisis.

“If we have learnt anything in recent years, it should be that flying solo on these issues is not an option,” Schinas told reporters in Brussels on September 29.

According to Crisp, the thrust of Europe’s asylum policy has always been to externalise the management of refugees.

“The support the EU has provided the Libyan coastguard and countries like Turkey to limit the number of people crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach European borders in the past, is something some EU leaders might argue has been beneficial for migration management. But it is in fact extremely expensive and undermines basic human rights principles,” he said.

At the height of the refugee crisis in 2015-2016, the EU struck a deal with Turkey in 2016, under which the union allocated six billion euros ($6.96bn), paid in two instalments, to Turkey, for Ankara to stop Syrian migrants from crossing into European borders.

Similar cooperation is once again in the works.

“We discussed challenges resulting from the situation in Afghanistan and other areas of concern – challenges that can only be solved by working together,” tweeted Ylva Johansson, the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, after her recent visit to Ankara.

Catherine Woollard, director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), argues that continuing externalisation in this manner, is a flaw in the EU’s migration strategy.

“We have to go beyond the money. As a part of the EU-Turkey deal of 2016, Turkey was able to construct barriers at its border with Syria and prevent Syrians from leaving. This also gave Turkey the power to do what it wants in Syria without opposition or reaction from EU countries.

“So while EU money and security is given in exchange for migration controls, such an externalisation strategy gives leverage to countries that are also playing a role in generating the displacement of people,” she said.

Unclear resettlement pledges

Since August, the EU has managed to evacuate around 22,000 people from Afghanistan to 24 member states.

They mainly included EU officials and their dependents, as well as Afghans who helped EU operations in the country.

Since then, countries such as Ireland have also begun an Afghan Admission Programme which facilitates family reunifications. Italy has proposed developing humanitarian corridors with Afghanistan’s neighbours and admitting Afghans directly from there.

“Our work is not over. The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has called on all member states to provide sufficient resettlement quotas and secure pathways,” an EU spokesperson told Al Jazeera.

At a high-level Resettlement Forum on Afghanistan organised by the EU on October 7, the UNHCR asked EU members to take in 42,500 Afghans over the next five years.

Though Commissioner Johansson said this was doable, there were no actual commitments from EU countries.

“It is striking to see that the US committed 100,000 global places of resettlement, Canada and UK committed to 40,000 and 20,000 respectively. But from the EU’s side, we have no figure at all. It is urgent for the EU to act now and be more responsible in front of the crisis,” said Philippe Dam, Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia.

Anti-migration rhetoric

Meanwhile, anti-migrant rhetoric and action continues in some EU countries, with recent investigations revealing violent pushbacks along the bloc’s external borders in Croatia, Romania and Greece.

“It is not illegal for people to cross borders and seek protection. It is also prohibited under international law to treat people differently based on how they arrive and claim that their method of arrival is illegal,” said Woollard.

But as Afghans already in the bloc have also seen their asylum applications rejected, HRW’s Dam said: “It is not safe to deport Afghans back to the country. We are calling on the EU to revoke the temporary protection directive which would grant instant protection to Afghans in need.”

The temporary protection directive is an extraordinary measure used by the EU to provide protection to displaced people who cannot return to their country of origin due to conflicts or humanitarian reasons.

Speaking to journalists after the Afghanistan Resettlement Forum, Johansson said that she did not see the need to revoke this directive at present since the migration influx from Afghanistan to the EU was not alarming.

Path forward

As talks continue, Corinne Linnecar, advocacy officer at Mobile Info Team, an organisation that supports refugees in Greece with their asylum procedures, highlighted the urgency to reform the asylum procedure across the EU and implement it consistently.

“Some European countries (Sweden, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Ireland, Portugal, Malta, Poland, Romania, Hungary) have a single procedural step to register an individual’s claim, which automatically leads to the claim’s examination.

“Whereas others (Germany, France, Italy, Greece, Spain, Belgium, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Turkey) recognise ‘registration’ and ‘lodging’ as discrete stages,” she told Al Jazeera.

“There are always positive and negative aspects of the European response to asylum,” said ECRE’s Woollard. “But there needs to be more effort in refining the common asylum system which would be pragmatic for refugees and the people handling their papers.”

Source: Al Jazeera