Afghan refugees face cold reception in Europe

While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) pleads with the rest of the world to keep borders open and to provide Afghan migrants with access to asylum procedures, the leaders of several European Union countries have sent a clear and unwavering message: Afghan refugees are not welcome in Europe.

Poland erected barbed-wire fences, Austria proposed establishing “deportation centers” in countries bordering Afghanistan to house rejected Afghan asylum seekers, Greece vowed it “will not and cannot be the gateway of Europe” for refugees seeking entrance to the EU and France announced that it must “protect itself” from the wave of migrants to come.

Even Germany, a country that has been lauded by progressives for its willingness to take in Syrian refugees during the 2015 European migrant crisis, assumed a more cautious tone in response to the incoming Afghan refugee flows. Though departing Chancellor Angela Merkel affirmed that Berlin could grant asylum to about 10,000 Afghans, the projection is a far cry from the 515,000 refugees projected to flow out of Afghanistan this year and the space allotted for the 800,000 Syrian refugees in 2015. Compared to 2015, the scope of who qualifies for asylum status this time around is narrower, with Germany limiting eligibility only to Afghans who worked with German forces or German aid agencies.

The responses of these countries to the possibility of Afghan asylum seekers at their borders, however, are not isolated incidents. Rather, they are the culmination of an anti-immigrant shift that has been sweeping Europe for the past six years. To understand how Europe reached this point, it is important to examine the 2015 European migrant crisis and the EU response to the influx of Syrian refugees.

In the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring movements across the Middle East and North Africa, Syrians organized a series of protests against the Bashar al-Assad regime that escalated into a full-blown civil war persisting to this day. The consistent fighting between rebels and Assad’s forces, along with the military and financial involvement of countries like the United States and Russia, have severely destabilized Syria and created an environment where terrorist groups like ISIS are able to seize land and power.

To escape these dangerous conditions, millions of Syrian refugees fled to neighboring countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. These three countries were the primary destinations for Syrian refugees; together, their refugee camps sheltered more than 3.6 million people. As the civil war dragged on and more people fled from Syria, these camps reached their limit. Deteriorating conditions at the camps, including overcrowding and poverty, pushed Syrian refugees to make the perilous journey to Europe.

In 2015, the number of asylum seekers looking to gain entrance to the EU spiked to unprecedented levels — 1,321,560 total applications were received that year. Though this group also included migrants from other countries, like Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo, Syrians comprised the majority of applicants. Syrian asylum seekers typically reached Europe by traveling from Turkey to Greece and Italy or by traveling up through Russia to reach Norway. Refugees from Africa mainly arrived through Italy and Spain.

As per the Dublin Regulation, which is a key but controversial aspect of the EU’s migration policy, asylum seekers must be processed by the country where they are first detected. This policy creates a disproportionate burden for initial reception countries simply because of their proximity to Afghanistan and Syria. Even if these initial reception countries are part of the Schengen area, a group of 26 European countries through which anyone — including a migrant — is allowed to travel freely, the Dublin Regulation creates an implicit border around Western Europe by mainly relegating asylum seekers to Eastern Europe.

As a result, countries at Europe’s southern and eastern borders experienced overwhelming strain in the face of 2015’s refugee inflows. They lacked the immigration infrastructure necessary to efficiently process the millions of people seeking asylum. Images and reports of cramped quarters, unsanitary conditions and rampant violence fanned the flames of a growing anti-immigrant sentiment that blamed refugees for sapping Europe’s resources.

In an effort to relieve the pressure from these border countries, Merkel suspended the Dublin Regulation for Syrian asylum seekers and stopped returning them to their initial country of entry. Germany would go on to grant asylum to 103,975 Syrians — over 70% of the total number of Syrians granted asylum in the EU that year.

Merkel tried to share the responsibility with other EU leaders, urging them to follow suit and accept a predetermined quota of refugees and asylum seekers, but the countries simply could not agree to share responsibility. Frustrated, and stating that Germany could not continue its generosity indefinitely without the support of other countries, she reinstated German border controls.

In Germany, the common refrain “2015 mustn’t be repeated” has been said by both Merkel’s party and the opposition in response to the recent discussions about Afghan refugee policy. With important elections taking place in Germany and France, anti-immigrant voices that originally rose to power through the events of 2015 now hold significant political influence. The legacy of the 2015 European migration crisis — the images of overcrowded refugee camps and the memory of an ineffective and disjointed EU — persist to this day and inform Europe’s overall wariness toward potential Afghan refugee inflows. 

Interior ministers for the EU said in a draft meeting statement that, “Based on lessons learned, the EU and its member states stand determined to act jointly to prevent the recurrence of uncontrolled large-scale illegal migration movements faced in the past.”

They have pledged to donate more money to Afghanistan’s neighboring countries, like Iran and Pakistan, in an attempt to keep Afghan refugees out of Europe. But their commitment to Afghan refugees ends there.

Immigration advocates and human rights organizations, however, have been pushing the EU to view their response to Afghan refugee inflows as an opportunity to rethink the EU immigration regime and to push for a more humane and unified approach to migration. As Hugh Williamson, director of Human Rights Watch Europe and Central Asia director said, “People in Afghanistan who are facing serious risks of persecution from the Taliban present a landmark test of shared humanity and responsibility.”

How the EU and its member countries decide to proceed will have far-reaching implications. Not only will their decisions act as a bellwether for the future migration policy trends of the bloc, but they could also mean the difference between life or death for the hundreds of thousands of Afghans fleeing their homeland.

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