Europe is politicising Afghan refugees instead of helping them

It is high time for the EU to come up with a migration policy that reflects its moral responsibility towards Afghans at risk.

Taliban Badri fighters stand guard as Afghans, hoping to leave Afghanistan, wait at the main entrance gate of Kabul airport in Kabul on August 28, 2021 [Wakil Kohsar/AFP]

After decades of wars and Western occupations, Afghanistan today is a devastated country. Given the active role European countries have played in these military interventions, one would think that the fate of the Afghan citizens would be one of the main preoccupations of European societies and their politicians. Footage of desperate Afghans clinging on two aeroplanes taking off from Kabul has shocked Europeans.

But European politicians have done relatively little to help Afghans in view of their moral responsibility for their plight. France and the United Kingdom have gone only as far as proposing the creation of a United Nations-run safe zone in Kabul for those wanting to flee Taliban rule, while Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, has said “evacuations, immediate humanitarian aid, longer-term development aid” were discussed at a G7 meeting.

But for a country like Afghanistan that is facing an imminent humanitarian catastrophe and an exodus of people seeking asylum, this is by far not enough. Worse still, some European politicians have started using the Afghan crisis as an opportunity to score political gains.

Far-right leader Nigel Farage in Britain – which waged three wars against Afghans before joining a fourth one in 2001 – was quick to resurface the Islamic “wave” trope. “You can now see a wave of people leaving Afghanistan, and we already have numbers we quite simply can’t cope with,” he said. “How do we know that the Taliban and other extremist groups aren’t using this route to get their operatives into our country?”

Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League and Italy’s former interior minister, echoed Farage in his August 18 tweet, saying: “Humanitarian corridors for women and children in danger, certainly yes. Doors open for thousands of men, including potential terrorists, absolutely not.”

But it is not just the far right politicising what should be a simple humanitarian disaster response. The centre-right in Europe has come up with some equally questionable statements, having been swayed by the anti-Islam and nationalist right into adopting more openly hostile, anti-immigrant rhetoric.

In an August 17 statement, French President Emmanuel Macron said France should “anticipate and protect itself from a wave of migrants” from Afghanistan. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has gone as far as suggesting that Europe should keep Europe-bound Afghan refugees in third countries. “The people from Afghanistan should be helped in neighbouring states,” he said on August 22.

The European Union ministers of home affairs expressed similar concerns during their extraordinary meeting on the situation in Afghanistan on August 31. They made it clear that their main priority is preventing “illegal immigration”. In a statement published after the meeting, they declared that the EU and its member states “remain determined to effectively protect the EU external borders and prevent unauthorised entries” adding that the bloc should “strengthen the support to the countries in Afghanistan’s immediate neighbourhood to ensure that those in need receive adequate protection primarily in the region”.

The EU’s stance on the situation in Afghanistan, and the plight of the Afghan people, appears to be identical to that of the far right. Indeed, Georgia Meloni of the neo-fascist Brothers of Italy recently suggested that making millions of Afghans believe that they can all be moved to the West is “cynical mockery” and Europe should instead focus on helping Afghanistan’s neighbours host refugees.

Such proposals to externalise migration management and humanitarian protection through the creation of “buffer zones” or offshore reception centres are not new.

In 2016, the EU signed a deal with Turkey which saw Ankara agree to stop refugees from entering the bloc, and take back “all migrants not in need of international protection” who already crossed from Turkey into Greece, in exchange for funds allocated to the handling of the millions of refugees it hosts, among other benefits. The deal, however, did not result in these migrants and refugees finding safety and stability in Turkey. Ankara repeatedly accused Europe of not fulfilling the promises it made, and threatened to send all refugees into Europe if it does not receive further support. As a result, millions of vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers found themselves in a limbo state, uncertain of their future.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has already made it clear that his country is not willing to agree to a similar, disastrous deal in the aftermath of the US’s exit from Afghanistan. “On the issue of Afghan migrants,” he stated on September 1, “there will be no such cooperation if [the EU’s] approach would be based on ‘We give money and you keep them there’”.

For years, the EU has also been providing support to the Libyan coastguard to enable it to intercept at sea migrants and asylum seekers headed towards Europe, and take them back to Libya – with devastating consequences. Migrants and asylum seekers intercepted by the coastguard have been taken to detention centres in Libya, where they face inhuman and degrading conditions and the risk of torture, sexual violence, extortion, and forced labour.

As stated by Human Rights Watch, and many other international NGOs and activists, the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of migrants and asylum seekers in Libyan detention centres violate international law. While the Libyan authorities are undoubtedly accountable for these abuses, the EU, which continues to pursue a flawed strategy to empower Libyan coastguards to intercept migrants and asylum seekers and take them back to Libya, is also complicit in these violations.

Europe should not repeat these mistakes in its response to the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan. Many EU member states have been involved in Afghanistan since 2001 and they have just left the country alongside the Americans. They are similarly responsible for the ongoing humanitarian emergency in the country – they cannot wash their hands of millions of suffering Afghans saying they are the responsibility of Washington alone.

There are many ways in which the EU can fulfil its moral responsibility towards the Afghan people swiftly and efficiently. One of these ways is through the EU Temporary Protection Directive – an exceptional measure passed in 2001 with the aim of providing “immediate and temporary protection to displaced people from non-EU countries and those unable to return to their country of origin” when “the standard asylum system is struggling to cope with demand stemming from a mass influx”.

The provisions within this directive, based on solidarity between the EU states, have never been triggered in the past 20 years. By triggering these provisions in the face of the crisis in Afghanistan, the EU can show the world that it is not escaping from its responsibilities and that its member states are indeed working together to uphold the self-declared core values of the bloc: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law and human rights.

Exporting the migration crisis to third countries and adopting anti-migrant rhetoric may provide quick political gains for European leaders. But such strategies, as seen many times in the recent past, will not pay off in the long run. Attempts to build “Fortress Europe” does not keep the EU safe and prosperous, but instead fuels ethnonationalism and hate within the bloc’s borders. Moreover, it isolates Europe from the rest of the world.

It is high time for Europe to implement a responsible migration policy that addresses its ethical responsibilities towards peoples adversely affected by its foreign policy decisions and reflects its core values. The Afghan crisis can be a great opportunity to start building a new EU that genuinely cares for the rights of all human beings.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.