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18 August 2021updated 14 Sep 2021 1:50pm

The Afghanistan crisis shows Europe cannot wall itself off from the world

As migration linked to conflict and climate change escalates, the EU will need to rethink its approach to refugees.

By Ido Vock

Soon after the fall of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, to the Taliban, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, gave a speech setting out how his government would respond to the crisis. “The destabilisation of Afghanistan risks triggering irregular migration flows towards Europe,” Macron said. “Europe cannot, by itself, deal with the consequences of the current situation. We must anticipate and protect ourselves against significant irregular migrant flows which would endanger those taking them and boost smuggling of all kinds.”

The comments enraged many, who view them as lacking compassion after an unexpectedly swift Taliban takeover. Following the US withdrawal, tens of thousands of vulnerable Afghans are reportedly seeking to leave the country. These include those who assisted Western militaries as translators and assistants, but also women, activists, former soldiers and those who do not wish to live under the Taliban’s draconian interpretation of Islamic law. More will likely attempt to leave over the coming months and years. 

Although much of Macron’s speech was about the need to welcome Afghans who had assisted French forces or who work in professions threatened by Taliban rule, the president’s subsequent claim that his words have been misrepresented rings hollow. Though caveated, he did call for Europe to “anticipate and protect ourselves against significant irregular migratory flows”.

Macron’s comments mirror a prominent strain of thought in Europe. In Germany, Paul Ziemiak, the general secretary of chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU, insisted that: “For us, it is clear that 2015 must not be repeated. We won’t be able to solve the Afghanistan question through migration to Germany.” “2015” is a reference to Merkel’s welcoming of hundreds of thousands of migrants from countries such as Syria that year.

The comments from French and German leaders typify how far the dial has swung away from the relatively permissive attitude towards migrants seen from some top politicians in 2015, when Europe last faced huge numbers of people attempting to cross its borders.

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As recently as this month (August) – as the Taliban was rapidly advancing across Afghanistan, and less than two weeks before the insurgents took the entire country – six EU member states, including Germany, signed a letter calling for deportations of failed asylum seekers to Afghanistan to continue. Stopping them would, the letter claimed, “send the wrong message”.

The prevailing view among European policymakers is that migrant flows from crisis-hit nations such as Afghanistan must be contained within neighbouring countries as far as possible, said Zoe Gardner, a policy adviser at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, a pro-migrant charity. That involves dissuasive measures that, in effect, make entering Europe more dangerous for migrants. Gardner argued that the EU is also fond of “dirty deals” with countries on its periphery, such as Libya and Turkey, intended to ensure that their governments prevent people from attempting to travel on to Europe.

The Taliban authorities’ hard-line rule will likely make it all but impossible for Afghan asylum seekers to be returned, at least in the near term. European leaders wanting to stem the likely coming flow of people from Afghanistan will likely have to find means to halt them before they get to Europe.

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But the comments from Macron and Ziemiak also underscore that although migration can be made more difficult and dangerous, it cannot be stopped. Europe, connected by land to the Middle East and Central Asia, and divided from Africa by the Mediterranean, cannot cut itself off from the world. A large proportion of migration flows, whether from Syria, Afghanistan or wherever the next great crisis unfolds, will likely attempt to get to Europe. “What happens in Afghanistan will inevitably affect Europe,” said Tara Varma, head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.

People will continue to flee conflict in unstable regions, whether on the EU’s doorstep, as during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, or from further afield, coming from countries such as Iraq and Eritrea. Sometimes there will have been Western military involvement in these conflicts. Increasingly likely, though, is that diminished appetite for costly foreign adventurism means conflicts could play out with only minimal direct intervention from Western countries. That will not stop displaced populations from seeking to get to the relative safety of the West.

And then there is climate change. Millions are likely to be displaced by changing weather patterns over the next decades, according to a growing body of research pointing to the decreasing habitability of areas around the world. Already climate change has been blamed for droughts which exacerbated the political strains in Syria that led to the outbreak of civil war in 2011, leading eventually to the 2015 migrant crisis. In the future, researchers fear that climate change-driven desertification in the Sahel, combined with the region’s rapidly growing population, will drive mass migration as states and populations compete for food, water and other resources. These patterns will likely be replicated around the world.

The Afghanistan crisis could be just a preview of what is to come. As migration linked to climate change escalates, the EU will need to think hard about its approach to refugees, who will not stop trying to get to Europe, Varma said. “‘Fortress Europe’ is not a sustainable approach. There is no way for Europe to wall itself off from the world – nor should it aim to.”

[See also: Afghanistan Diary: The fall of Kabul was predictable – if you were there]