The European Union’s asylum and migration policy compass has opened up an opportunity to unite in the face of the situation created by the Afghan crisis. However, there are many barriers to overcome before this can be achieved.
While the images of Kabul airport with hundreds of people desperately trying to board planes have expressed very well on our screens the general chaos that currently reigns in the Afghan country, multiple fronts of action and concern have opened up for European and national institutions. One of the most worrying has been the possible influx of migrants. Reactions from governments and institutions have not been slow in coming. A series of meetings took place, most notably the meeting of European interior ministers, accompanied by representatives of the Commission, just 20 days ago. Following this meeting, the sole objective of which was to focus on the Afghan crisis from a migratory perspective, a communiqué was issued in which a call was made to “reinforce” the capacities of Afghanistan’s neighbours to take in new refugees. This would be accompanied by assistance in border control in the face of illegal immigration and terrorism from European agencies. Such proposition would be once again endorsed by the southern European countries at the MED9 meeting, which also underlined the EU’s role in strengthening global security and preventing human trafficking, as well as calling for humanitarian access to the country. In addition, another high-level meeting is expected to take place later this month.
What does the Afghan crisis mean for European negotiations on asylum and migration policies?
This crisis once again has an impact on one of the policies having the loosest seams at EU level, and, therefore it may be able to resuscitate the crisis mode within the Union back from the asylum and migration crisis in 2015. As Susanne Baumann comments, this revival of fear over the possible arrival of migrant flows represents a “stress test” in the development of a new EU-internal agreement on migration and asylum based on a fairer sharing of responsibility and solidarity.
One objective seems to be clear, and that is not to repeat the actions of the 2015 crisis, as the statement indicates. However, two camps with opposing views remain, with one side advocating humanitarianism and the distribution of refugees with quotas, and the other in favour of border protection. The latter being formed by the Eastern and Baltic countries, but also other partners such as the Danish Social Democrats. After a lukewarm pact of common minimums in 2019, the opportunity to put an end to this Achilles’ heel under an effective common policy is becoming a reality. This fact is well known to the EU institutions, as Commission Vice-President Margiritis Schinas commented in an interview.
In contrast to 2015, the situation is radically different. Apart from an influx of migrants that seems unlikely to be very high in the short term due to the limited and manageable number of locals and activists that could be taken out of the country two more factors have to be taken into account. Being these the virtual sealing of borders in Afghanistan, and the fact that the conflict is taking place at a distance of tens of thousands of kilometres. That is why, this time around, ministers are ruling out a scenario of mandatory quotas from the outset and referring to “voluntary resettlement”, with priority given to vulnerable groups such as women, minors and the elderly. These common points will also focus on helping refugees in “Afghanistan and neighbouring countries”, as well as “controlling borders” and “discouraging illegal migration” in order to then try to coordinate international efforts for voluntary refugee resettlement.
On the European Parliament’s side, regularised migration has been promoted by approving the new European Blue Card a few days ago. Following the renewal of criteria in need of renewal – the previous rules dated back to 2009 – this one establishes less stringent criteria to allow non-EU migrants with high professional qualifications to work in the EU. At the same time, those benefiting from international protection, such as asylum seekers and refugees, will also be able to apply for this card in the rest of the Member States other than the one were asylum is provided. This new Card provides a parliamentary context, in which joint initiatives by a large part of MEPs aiming to improve and reshape asylum and migration policies, is demonstrated. This would not only generate greater freedom of movement for highly skilled asylum seekers but would have a two-fold effect. On the one hand, it would ease the situation for fleeing certain countries since they would not only have the option of applying for asylum but also easier entry into the labour market. On the other hand, the settlement of skilled migrants in countries could facilitate the adoption of refugees in safer and more welcoming environments. Hence, this opportunity must be seized.
How have the other countries involved reacted?
The potential influx of migrants has been subject to high political debate, even having a considerable impact on the German parliamentary election campaign. However, it is necessary to look at the rest of the global community and countries involved in the conflict if the EU is to carry out a plan in which its borders are not affected. The idea of convincing countries is not new but refers to the controversial deal with Turkey in 2016. To this end, 600 million euros and other incentives, as well as 300 million euros for the distribution of refugees and 200 million euros in direct humanitarian aid, will be transferred to neighbouring countries with a high number of refugees. These include Pakistan, which has a refugee population of 1.4 million Afghans, Iran, which hosts 780,000 Afghans, according to UNHCR. Including others equally far from the European orbit, such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and even Turkey, with an estimated 120,000 to 500,000 Afghan refugees.
The president of the Turkish parliament, Mustafa Sentop, after his official visit to Madrid at the end of September, assured that his country cannot take in any more immigrants. Currently hosting around four million refugees, including 3.7 million Syrians, the president considered a new wave of migration ‘unavoidable as long as the EU does not keep its promises. Similarly, Turkish foreign ministry spokesperson Tanju Bilgiç cited the meeting and the MED9 summit statement as “biased and short-sighted“. Although both have common goals in this situation, the present disagreements between both parts over the tense migration pacts, the domestic situation in Turkey, and the two-state solution make it very difficult to obtain an improvement in relations between the two countries through this crisis, as Luigi Scazzieri comments.
In the case of the Asian trio, this number of hosts has been very limited. Tajikistan has expressed it will temporarily take in around 100,000. And in the case of Uzbekistan, the government has revealed it will only allow passage to Afghans in transit going directly to Germany.
What about the Afghan migrants in Europe?
Although the number of Afghan refugees has not been very high, in the long term, more Afghans may come to Europe after analysing their situation in the country, either to join their families or to flee the conditions in the refugee camps. And while the EU and nation-states have time to coordinate, there are certain flaws in immigration and integration policies, as well as statements and reactions that make the arrival of Afghans have negative repercussions for the Afghans themselves.
In the recent statement made by the interior ministers, considerable emphasis was placed on the term “illegal migration”, which was mentioned five times, rather than “irregular migration”. It was the European Commission itself that pointed out that due to the association with criminality, the term “illegal migration” should be avoided, as most irregular migrants are not criminals. Furthermore, only one reference is made to resettlement, in this case, voluntary resettlement of vulnerable people.
In the case of policies, there have been numerous failures in implementation and, in the case of the Afghan population, in being granted asylum. The European Court of Editors recently found several inefficiencies in cooperation with non-EU countries in returning irregular migrants. This means that of the 500,000 migrants per year who receive return orders for having entered or resided in the EU without authorisation, only one third actually return to a third country (29% in 2019) . As a result, the “effective return rate” is below 20% in non-EU countries, due to few readmission agreements and the lack of a common European policy. This affects migrants, as they find themselves in a position of legal limbo in which no rights or solutions are granted to them.
The percentage of legal protection when applying for asylum is also decreasing considerably in the Afghan population. Since 2016, only 51% of Afghans have won asylum claims in the EU, while other countries such as Syria and Eritrea have 94% and 88% respectively. This fact, therefore, means that they are not eligible for relocation programmes from Greece to Northern countries.
Geopolitical games have also shaped such situations for Afghan migrants. This has been the case for Afghan migrants, who have been trapped between the borders of Poland and Belarus. While the Lukashenko government uses these migrants as a political weapon by letting them go through, Poland’s tough migration policy has led them to be cordoned off and in one particular case, this has resulted in one of them suffering serious health problems. In spite of international organisations’ appeals to the Polish government, there has been no improvement and the situation continues to occur, despite the attempts of several parliamentarians to help this group by all means. For instance, See the case of MP Franciszek Sterczewski, who is seen in a video trying to get past the cordon with food, medicine and water, in what might well be seen as a comedy sketch if it were not the harsh reality for these people.
Afghanistan crisis and the comprehensive push the EU needed
While television showed refugees arriving on planes and being welcomed by presidents and governments as they attempted to swing public opinion in their favour, the reality for most Afghan migrants has been bleak. Whether a particular case has hit the press or not, the European Union faces an opportunity to improve and strengthen many aspects. National governments seem to have found a consensus on how to react to this crisis, with a joint response based on stemming a hypothetical wave of refugees in Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries, as well as controlling borders and “discouraging illegal migration”. If this is to happen, they will need to convince the governments of these countries to improve their international role and diplomacy, both in global governance and bilateral relations. Finally, the pursuit of state-to-state agreement and an increase in pacts do not lead to an improvement in the implementation of these policies. All angles should be combined if the EU is not to lose its role both at home and abroad. Only by doing so, will the victims of this situation, the migrants, not continue to suffer so acutely.