EU’s Repeated and Limited Response to Afghan Refugee Challenge

European Union Flag at Berlaymont Building
Image by verchmarco is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Emmanuel Macron’s address to the nation on Aug. 16, pretty much summed up the reality that Europeans would face once the US troops withdraw from Afghanistan. Addressing the nation, Macron highlighted that Europeans would need to prevent the rise of international terrorist groups in Afghanistan and prepare themselves for a flow of irregular migrants. It is true that European states engaged in Afghanistan through NATO primarily to showcase their solidarity with the United States. However, the sudden collapse of the Afghan government and the hastiness with which the Biden administration executed the decision of withdrawal without consulting European allies highlights the problem of lack of geopolitical thinking among European leaders — the repercussions of which likely in the form of illegal migration have already become a cause for concern. 

On Aug. 31, the EU Ministers of Home Affairs held an emergency meeting to discuss recent developments in Afghanistan. Anticipating another wave of refugees and illegal migrants, the EU ministers rushed to prepare a roadmap for dealing with the current situation. Consequently, the leaders agreed to provide financial aid to neighbouring countries of Afghanistan — which are most likely to see a huge influx of refugees — in hope that they act as front lines for preventing further migration to Europe. The joint statement did not mention which countries the EU was talking about or how much financial aid would be provided. However, a day before the joint meeting Austria’s Interior and Foreign Minister together with the Migration Ministers of Greece and Denmark and the Interior Secretary of Germany hosted a security conference with Central Asian states of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, urging them to manage migration flows and prevent a potential migration crisis from reaching Europe. In a similar vein, European Council President Charles Michel also spoke with Kyrgyzstan’s President assuring that combating terrorism, tackling drugs trafficking and providing humanitarian aid are joint priorities. 

Additionally, on the same day, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas pledged €500 million to Afghan people and the neighbouring states in the form of humanitarian and economic aid. Furthermore, Germany has already planned to take in 40,000 Afghans either by plane or overland from neighbouring countries for which Uzbekistan agreed to cooperate, however it later closed its borders for security reasons. 

In contrast to Germany’s actions other EU member states mainly Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, and Poland disagreed on hosting Afghan refugees. Though there is a common European interest to fight illegal migration, EU interior ministers struggled to find common ground to adopt the joint statement on Tuesday’s meeting. Luxembourg nearly blocked the adoption of the joint statement on the basis that it lacked enough solidarity with the Afghan people, and accused some member states for their unwillingness to address the unfolding humanitarian crisis. 

Back in 2015, the migration crisis became an issue of contention among EU member states. The civil war in Syria saw a large number of refugees and illegal migrants make their dreadful journey to Europe. The situation was challenging not only from the point of European security but also from the legal mechanisms required to relocate and resettle asylum seekers. To deal with the situation, the EU at the time made a deal with Turkey that included a €6 billion operation budget for housing refugees; restarting negotiations on Turkey’s accession to the EU; and visa liberalization for Turkish nationals. However, the deal backfired in 2020, when Turkey opened its borders to let migrants and asylum seekers crossover to Europe, thereby violating the negotiated EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan. Turkey’s reasons to do so stemmed out of the political crisis which it faced when it sent its troops to fight against Assad forces in Idlib. The result was that Turkey faced heavy casualties, and the fighting saw nearly a million people move up to the north-western corner of Syria in their bid to escape across the border. Since Turkey already housed a large number of Syrian refugees, it faced internal political pressure to not accept more as anti-refugee sentiments heightened among its politicians as well as citizens. Moreover, Turkey being a NATO member country expected more from European allies but a lukewarm response from Europe egged Turkey to use humanitarian crisis as a political tool. 

The present solution for the impending Afghan refugee crisis is similar to the approach the EU adopted earlier — that is offering financial aid to neighbouring and transit countries in exchange for them absorbing the migrants. The EU in other words is once again relying on economic means to tackle the geopolitical repercussions of a conflict. Just as Turkey had set an example of using migrants for political gains from the EU, countries which will be offered funds to absorb Afghan migrants might as well use the same tactics in future to bargain with the EU. Central Asian republics for their part have already made it clear that they will not house Afghan refugees permanently. Moreover, the EU does not have considerable influence over the Central Asian republics, as the region is marked by Russian and Chinese influence. The use of migrants to create pressure on Europe has already become a norm with Belarus sending refugees to the bordering EU states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.

In retaliation to the sanctions which the EU put against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and his administration, following the controversial presidential election last year and arrest of dissident journalist Roman Protesevich, Belarus has started pushing migrants towards EU member states since June 2021. Approximately 4,100 migrants mostly from Iraq have entered Lithuania illegally from Belarusian borders. Latvia and Poland face a similar situation at their borders with Belarus. Since the last few weeks, a group of Afghans have been trapped in a forest at the border between Poland and Belarus. Poland has not let them enter its territory, whereas Belarus which let them travel to the border area is not willing to take them back. Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have declared a state of emergency on their borders with Belarus, and have discussed flagging it as an “Article 4” security threat with NATO. 

The EU is facing a refugee challenge not only at its southern borders but also on its eastern front. Once again, the EU ministers have failed to make any progress when it comes to sharing the burden of refugees or charting out a plan for accepting asylum seekers in future. Although the European Commission put forward a migration plan in September last year, the final deal between member countries has still not been reached. Now that there have been several instances where refugees/migrants have been used as a weapon against the EU for political ends, the EU is faced with the question to think beyond using economic measures for geopolitical problems.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.