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 currently hosting them, should be able to count on the European Union”s solidarity. And while solidarity can take on different forms, the priority now should be to open up safe and legal ways for Afghans to find protection in Europe.
Resettlement – transferring refugees to the EU from a third country to which they have already fled and giving them legal status – could and should be an important part of the EU’s approach.
Unfortunately, European leaders’ immediate response has centred on the need to intervene “before Afghan refugees arrive at external borders” and avoid at all costs another breakdown of the bloc’s asylum and migration policies.
The outcome of this week’s meeting of EU interior ministers is a testament to this preemptive 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 to continue coordinating common efforts on resettlement. The next few weeks will be decisive in determining whether resettlement will remain a viable option for member states, or whether they will more decidedly shift the responsibility for the protection of refugees to third countries.
The international community has already once turned a blind eye to Afghanistan’s refugee crisis.
Although the exact number of Afghans in protracted displacement is difficult to pin down, Pakistan and Iran host an estimated 1.4 million and 780,000 refugees from Afghanistan, respectively – nearly 90 per cent of all displaced Afghans worldwide, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). For its part, Turkey is host to approximately 120,000–500,000 Afghans, the second-largest group in the country following Syrians.
Refugees hosted in these countries may be safe from the immediate threat of the Taliban regime but often are not granted any residence papers and face barriers in access to basic services, education and work opportunities. While a small share of Afghans at risk has been evacuated, many of those who are displaced within the country and the neighbouring region should equally benefit from safe passage and protection.
Against this background, the European Union must open its doors to those in need in a safe, humane and orderly manner, not least to take the pressure off of states that have for decades taken in the lion’s share of Afghan refugees.
Just last week, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that the bloc is ready to take the lead in coordinating member states’ resettlement efforts with the United States and Canada, as well as with the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The question had already featured prominently on the EU agenda in July and will do so again in September when another High-Level Resettlement Forum is set to take place.
Yet, the ambitions expressed then and now may quickly be watered down, even as the urgency of resettlement increases. As such, and despite its show of strength as a convening power, it remains to be seen whether the EU’s intent to lead international efforts will be matched by its actions in terms of increasing its own numbers. So far, this does not seem 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 in greater unanimity in the face of complex and unpredictable geopolitical challenges. While states can voluntarily decide to take part in resettlement efforts, this also means that individual governments cannot veto or prevent such efforts.
Moreover, even though resettlement cannot be a substitute for granting asylum to those who reach the EU by other means, the fact that it offers more predictability and control over arrivals could convince even the most sceptical of member states – such as Austria or Slovenia – to receive at least a minimum quota of Afghan refugees.
Finally, resettlement is a tool that the bloc can agree upon and put into action right now. Despite 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 only their external borders.
The EU’s own resettlement pledging exercise for 2022 is currently underway but looks to be underwhelming.
In recent days, Commissioner for Home Affairs Johansson has mentioned that member states might pledge up to 30,000 places – all supported by EU funding. This is a modest increase compared to previous years and is far too low to account for the growing protection needs in Afghanistan. By comparison, even before the situation in Afghanistan escalated, UNHCR and civil society organisations called on the EU to pledge at least 36,000 places for 2022.
On top of this, it is not clear whether Afghans would be already included in this number or whether individual governments would offer additional places. The Council statement remains vague, only pointing out that any additional pledges will be entirely up to member states’ discretion. But momentum is there, and EU countries should not miss this opportunity to use resettlement to show they can respond to a crisis in a forward-looking, humane and strategic way.
Resettlement is, of course, not the only option on the table to support Afghanistan and those whose lives are at risk after the Taliban’s takeover.
The EU should address the problem from different angles. It is critical that all member states uphold their international legal obligations on the right to seek asylum. The bloc should also continue its diplomatic efforts, support host countries and provide humanitarian aid as well as conditional development aid. Looking ahead, there is certainly space to grow when it comes to what the EU can offer in terms of legal pathways to protection.
Right now, it is imperative that resettlement is locked in soon to pave the way for the EU to live up to at least some of its promises.
Silvia Carta is a policy analyst and Helena Hahn is a junior policy analyst. Both work at the European Policy Centre (EPC), a Brussels-based think tank.
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