Following the end of international evacuations from Afghanistan, a new “refugee crisis” appears to be looming on the horizon, at least in the eyes of several European member states.
However, Afghan refugees, and the countries that currently host them, should be able to count on the solidarity of the European Union. And while solidarity can take different forms, the priority now should be to open safe and legal avenues for Afghans to find protection in Europe.
Resettlement, that is, transferring refugees to the EU from a third country to which they have already fled and granting them legal status, could and should be an important part of the EU approach.
Unfortunately, the immediate response from European leaders has focused on the need to intervene “before the Afghan refugees reach the external borders” and avoid at all costs another breakdown of the bloc’s asylum and migration policies.
The result of this week’s meeting of EU interior ministers it is a testament to this preventive approach, with considerable emphasis on “illegal migration” and little mention of protection needs. Legal pathways to Europe for Afghan refugees appear marginally in the Council statement, with only one reference to voluntary resettlement of vulnerable people.
After the meeting, the European Commission Offered continue coordinating common resettlement efforts. The next few weeks will be decisive in determining whether resettlement will remain a viable option for Member States or whether they will shift responsibility for refugee protection more decisively to third countries.
The international community has once turned a blind eye to the refugee crisis in Afghanistan.
Although it is difficult to pin down the exact number of Afghans in prolonged displacement, Pakistan and Iran host some 1.4 million and 780,000 refugees from Afghanistan, respectively, almost 90% of all displaced Afghans worldwide. according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). For its part, Turkey is home to roughly 120,000 to 500,000 Afghans, the country’s second-largest group after Syrians.
Refugees housed in these countries may be safe from the immediate threat of the taliban regime But they are often not granted a residence permit and face barriers in accessing basic services, education, and job opportunities. While a small part of Afghans at risk have been evacuated, many of those displaced within the country and the neighboring region should equally benefit from safe transit and protection.
In this context, the European Union must open its doors to those in need in a safe, humane and orderly manner, not least to relieve pressure from the states that have absorbed the majority of Afghan refugees for decades.
Last week, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that the bloc is ready to take the lead in coordinating member state resettlement efforts with the United States and Canada, as well as with UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The issue had already appeared prominently on the EU agenda in July and will do so again in September, when another High Level Resettlement Forum is held.
However, the ambitions expressed then and now can quickly fade, even as the urgency of resettlement increases. As such, and despite its show of force as a convening power, it remains to be seen whether the EU’s intention to lead international efforts will match its actions in terms of increasing its own numbers. So far this does not appear to be the case.
There are strong arguments as to why resettlement would be a viable policy option.
First, it is an opportunity to show that the EU can respond more unanimously to complex and unpredictable geopolitical challenges. While states may voluntarily decide to participate in resettlement efforts, this also means that individual governments cannot veto or prevent such efforts.
Furthermore, although resettlement cannot substitute for granting asylum to those arriving in the EU by other means, the fact that it offers more predictability and control over arrivals could convince even the most skeptical Member States, such as Austria o Slovenia – to receive at least a minimum quota of Afghan refugees.
Finally, resettlement is a tool that the bloc can agree to and put in place right now. Despite the COVID-related setbacks, national governments have enough experience to plan and launch resettlement operations. Setting ambitious quotas would send a signal to host countries that EU countries can work together to protect people, not just their external borders.
The EU’s own resettlement pledging exercise for 2022 is currently underway, but appears to be disappointing.
In recent days, Home Affairs Commissioner Johansson has mentioned that member states could commit up to 30,000 places, all with the support of EU funds. This is a modest increase compared to previous years and is too low to account for the growing protection needs in Afghanistan. By comparison, even before the situation in Afghanistan worsened, UNHCR and civil society organizations asked the EU commit at least 36,000 places by 2022.
In addition to this, it is unclear if Afghans would already be included in this number or if individual governments would offer additional slots. The Council statement remains vague and only states that any further commitments will be entirely at the discretion of the Member States. But the momentum is there, and EU countries should not miss this opportunity to use resettlement to show that they can respond to a crisis in a strategic, humane and forward-thinking way.
Resettlement, of course, is not the only option on the table to support Afghanistan and those whose lives are in danger afterward. the takeover of the Taliban.
The EU should approach the problem from different angles. It is essential that all Member States respect their international legal obligations on the right to seek asylum. The bloc must also continue its diplomatic efforts, support host countries and provide humanitarian aid, as well as conditional development aid. Looking ahead, there is certainly room for growth in terms of what the EU can offer in terms of legal pathways to protection.
Right now, it is imperative that resettlement is secured soon to pave the way for the EU to deliver on at least some of its promises.
Silvia Carta is a policy analyst and Helena Hahn is a junior policy analyst. They both work at the European Policy Center (EPC), a group of experts based in Brussels.
This article is part of The Briefing, Euronews’ weekly political newsletter. Click here for subscribe.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism