Helping Afghans is a ‘moral duty’ despite European fears of migrant influx, says EU chief

Still reeling from the 2015 immigration crisis, largely fueled by the wars in Syria and Libya, several European leaders have expressed fears of another massive influx of refugees, this time from Afghanistan, even as the head of the EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen said on Saturday it was a “moral duty” to help those fleeing the Taliban.

The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the president of the EU Council, Charles Michel, visited a reception center for evacuees established by the Spanish government near Madrid on Saturday.

“This resettlement of vulnerable people is of the utmost importance. It is our moral duty, ”said Von der Leyen.

Providing “safe and legal routes globally, organized by us, the international community, for those in need of protection” should be a priority of next week’s G7 meeting on the Afghanistan crisis, he added.

The two top EU officials were touring a facility that Spain has installed at the Torrejón military air base along with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who said it has the capacity to house 800 people.

But several European leaders have already voiced their fears of another wave of refugees that the continent will have a hard time accommodating.

Haunted by a 2015 migration crisis fueled by the wars in Syria and Libya, European leaders desperately want to prevent another large-scale influx of refugees and migrants from Afghanistan. Except for those who assisted Western forces in the country’s two-decade war, the message for Afghans considering fleeing to Europe is: if you must go, go to neighboring countries, but don’t come here.

French President Emmanuel Macron stressed on Monday that “Europe alone cannot bear the consequences” of the situation in Afghanistan, adding that the bloc “must anticipate and protect itself against significant irregular migratory flows.”

European Union officials told a meeting of interior ministers this week that the most important lesson of 2015 was not to let the Afghans drift and that without urgent humanitarian aid they will begin to move towards Europe, according to a confidential German diplomatic memorandum obtained. by The Associated Press.

Austria, among the EU hardliners on migration, suggested creating “deportation centers” in Afghanistan’s neighboring countries so that EU countries can deport Afghans who have even been denied asylum. if they cannot be sent back to their homeland.

“It should be our goal to keep the majority of the people in the region,” Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said this week.

The desperate scenes of people clinging to planes taking off from Kabul airport have only deepened Europe’s anxiety over a possible refugee crisis. US and NATO allies are fighting to evacuate thousands of Afghans who fear they will be punished by the Taliban for working with Western forces. But other Afghans are unlikely to receive the same welcome.

Even Germany, which has admitted more Syrians since 2015 than any other Western nation, is sending a different signal today.

Several German politicians, including Armin Laschet, the Union’s center-right bloc candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, warned last week that there must be no “repeat” of the 2015 migration crisis.

Europe “should not wait until people are at our external border,” said EU Internal Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johanson.

Britain, which left the EU in 2020, said it would take in 5,000 Afghan refugees this year and resettle a total of 20,000 in the coming years.

On top of that, there have been few concrete offers from European countries, which in addition to evacuating their own Afghan citizens and collaborators, say they are focusing on helping Afghans within their country and in neighboring countries such as Iran and Pakistan.

Refugee fatigue

Attitudes towards migrants have hardened in Europe after the 2015 crisis, prompting the rise of far-right anti-migrant parties such as Alternative for Germany, the largest opposition party in parliament ahead of the next federal elections. month.

Even in Turkey, migrants from Syria and Afghanistan, once treated as Muslim brothers, are increasingly viewed with suspicion as the country grapples with economic woes, including rising inflation and unemployment.

Greece, whose picturesque islands off the Turkish coast were the European entry point for hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others six years ago, has made it clear that it does not want to relive that crisis.

>> Read more: Thousands of refugees arriving overwhelm the villages of the islands of Greece

Afghan asylum seekers in the EU see the chaos of Kabul from afar

Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said on Wednesday that Greece will not accept being the “gateway to irregular flows to the EU” and that it considers Turkey to be a safe place for Afghans.

But Turkey is already home to 3.6 million Syrians and hundreds of thousands of Afghans. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has even used the threat of sending them to Europe to gain political influence.

“Turkey has no duty, responsibility or obligation to be Europe’s refugee warehouse,” Erdogan warned in a speech Thursday.

The Turkish president spoke about migration from Afghanistan in a rare phone call with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Friday and is also discussing the issue with Iran, a statement from Erdogan’s office said.

Acknowledging the public’s “unrest” over migration, Erdogan pointed out how his government has reinforced the eastern border with Iran with the military, gendarmerie, police and a new wall, which has been under construction since 2017. So far it only covers a third of the 540-kilometer (335 miles) of border, leaving plenty of space for migrants to glide in the dead of night.

Traffic on this key migration route from Central Asia to Europe has been relatively stable compared to previous years. But European countries, like Turkey, fear that the sudden return of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan could change that.

AP journalists near the Turkish border with Iran encountered dozens of Afghans this week, mostly young men, but also some women and children. Smuggled across the border at night in small groups, they said they left their country to escape the Taliban, violence and poverty.

“The situation in Afghanistan was intense,” said a young man, Hassan Khan. “The Taliban captured all of Afghanistan. But there is no work in Afghanistan, we were forced to come here ”.

Observers say there is still no sign of any massive movement across the border. Turkish authorities say they have intercepted 35,000 Afghans who entered the country illegally so far this year, compared with more than 50,000 in all of 2020 and more than 200,000 in 2019.

90% of Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan

The UN refugee agency, OHCHR, estimates that 90% of the 2.6 million Afghan refugees currently outside the country live in neighboring Iran and Pakistan. Both countries are also home to large numbers of Afghans who left in search of better economic opportunities.

By comparison, around 630,000 Afghans have applied for asylum in EU countries in the past 10 years, with the highest numbers in Germany, Hungary, Greece and Sweden, according to the EU statistics agency. Last year, 44,000 Afghans applied for asylum in the 27-nation bloc.

Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said it is not a foregone conclusion that the Taliban takeover will result in a new refugee crisis.

“I would warn against a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he told the AP. Afghans are “scared, baffled, but also hopeful that a very, very long war will end and maybe now they can avoid the crossfire.”

He said a lot depends on the Taliban allowing development and humanitarian work in the country and donor nations continue to fund those efforts.

“If there is a collapse of public services and if there is a big food crisis, there will surely be a massive movement of people,” Egeland said.

( Jowharwith AP)

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