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Lack of Strategy Endangers the EU’s Afghanistan Migration Response

September 16, 2021
4 min read
Photo credit: Ajdin Kamber / Shutterstock.com
The return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan is expected to lead to another sizeable increase in the number of those who will decide to leave the country.

Afghans already make up the second-largest refugee population in the world and the second-largest group of asylum seekers in Europe after Syrians. Notwithstanding this, the EU seems unable to agree on a common strategy to face the situation.

In the days before the fall of the Afghan government and the entrance of the Taliban in Kabul, many EU leaders stated that they were not willing to accept any more refugees from Afghanistan. Austria, Denmark, and Czech Republic were among the EU countries that said they would not take in Afghans fleeing from the Taliban. Prime Minister Janez Jansa of Slovenia, which currently holds the presidency of the Council of the EU, said that “the EU will not open any European ‘humanitarian’ or migration corridors for Afghanistan.” Many leaders fear that opening humanitarian corridors and providing a legal way to reach Europe could make millions of Afghans believe that they can all do so. Consequently, they once again are looking at externalization of migration policy.

Many leaders fear that opening humanitarian corridors and providing a legal way to reach Europe could make millions of Afghans believe that they can all do so. Consequently, they once again are looking at externalization of migration policy.

On August 31, the interior ministers of the member states met in Brussels for an emergency meeting. They decided to rely on Afghanistan’s neighbors to avoid a situation similar to the migration “crisis” of 2015. They agreed to strengthen EU support to these countries and the transit countries already hosting large number of migrants and refugees through a still unspecified financial assistance package. This will be done not just to support and increase their reception capabilities, but also to prevent illegal migration from the region. As European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas said: “We are working to help Afghans to find something along the way.” He added that the EU package will be essential in combatting people smuggling and ensuring the safety of Afghans.

Strengthening support to Afghanistan’s neighbors is crucial as they experience the influx of people leaving the country, but this is not enough. To achieve its aims, the EU will need to use all the tools it can to reduce unwanted arrivals, such as the implementation of strict security checks at the external borders and the activation of readmission agreements with transit countries. Crucially, it also needs to implement as soon as possible a common strategy to evaluate asylum requests and to distribute successful applicants. Member states must implement resettlement quotas for Afghans in need, facilitate family reunifications for refugees and asylum seekers with relatives in Europe, and offer humanitarian visas. This will be achievable only through greater cooperation among member states. And, since a full-fledged EU strategy will be slow or difficult to reach due to the veto power of reluctant member states, some member states could in the meantime take the lead with joint initiatives to push forward solutions like humanitarian corridors.

An efficient answer to the challenge posed by large population flows toward the EU will be possible only if it abandons the idea that giving support to people in need risks creating a pull effect that will trigger further fluxes. The guiding principle for an EU strategy in the emergency caused by events in Afghanistan should be to focus instead on how to concretely assist and protect who decide to ask for asylum.

The guiding principle for an EU strategy in the emergency caused by events in Afghanistan should be to focus instead on how to concretely assist and protect who decide to ask for asylum.

One step would be to revive the debate over the Temporary Protection Directive, a special procedure designed to deal with mass influxes of displaced persons established in the early 2000s but never used. Last year, the European Commission included the directive in the framework of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum to make its application easier. Yet, since the package was presented, the discussion on it has not moved further. Reviving the process of approval for directive would be a first step toward concrete humanitarian support by the EU to the Afghan people.

The EU needs to act fast. Inaction risks leading to further instability at its external borders, as recent developments in Poland and Greece show us. The two countries are building walls on their border with Belarus and Turkey respectively, as they fear that these neighbors are weaponizing migration for political reasons. As Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi has said, “by remaining absent in this crisis, [the EU] has shown poor capabilities of migration management, and it is unthinkable to continue in this way,” stressing the risks that inaction in this field may constitute to the EU project itself. By taking concrete steps to finally provide help to those in need, the EU can demonstrate that its founding values like human dignity, freedom, and the respect of human rights are more than just words.