EU seeks to avoid Afghan migrant surge

Bloc says it will take the two-pronged approach of plentiful aid and strong borders

Afghan refugees in an Italian Red Cross refugee camp in Avezzano, Italy on Tuesday, The EU is looking to prevent more from joining them. AP
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The EU on Tuesday said it would work to stop a major influx of migrants from Afghanistan through aid and strong border protection.

But the bloc made no specific pledge to take in large numbers of people after the Taliban takeover.

"Based on lessons learnt, the EU [is] determined to act jointly to prevent the recurrence of uncontrolled, large-scale, illegal migration movements faced in the past," said the 27 interior ministers at the Brussels talks.

At the forefront of many European leaders' minds is how to avoid a repeat of the scenes from when hundreds of thousands of migrants, many from war-torn Syria, arrived seeking EU protection in 2015 and 2016.

Ylva Johansson, the EU’s Home Affairs Commissioner, said the bloc was better prepared than when more than a million people entered its territory six years ago.

“We need to avoid a humanitarian crisis. We need to avoid a migratory crisis and we need to avoid security threats,” Ms Johansson said.

“We need to act now, and not wait until we have big flows of people at our external borders or until we have terrorist organisations being stronger."

The strategy was questioned by human rights group Amnesty International, which said EU members should treat all incoming Afghan women and girls as refugees.

In a letter to Ms Johansson, it said that any failed asylum seekers from Afghanistan should have their cases reviewed.

“The EU and its member states must refrain from extremely damaging responses that put emphasis on keeping the EU’s border ‘protected’,” Amnesty said.

“The risk of a catastrophic rollback of the rights of women and girls under the Taliban rule cannot be ignored.”

It cannot be in the interests of Austria’s safety and social situation that we resettle more people
Karl Nehammer, Austrian Interior Minister

The International Rescue Committee, a charity, said the EU should set up a scheme for 30,000 Afghans to settle in Europe in the next 12 months.

Ms Johansson said talks were under way on how to distribute resettled Afghans around Europe, but Austria was against making this compulsory.

"It cannot be in the interests of Austria’s safety and social situation that we resettle more people," said Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer.

Mr Nehammer accused the EU of sending contradictory signals.

"Let’s be clear: don’t set off, we are helping on the ground, there are safe conditions there and we are helping governments with that, but coming here to Europe is a mistake," he said.

"As long as illegal migration takes place … I cannot resettle people on top of that. It’s totally the wrong signal. If we can manage to secure our borders, then we can think about other programmes.”

Luxembourg's Foreign and Immigration Minister Jean Asselborn criticised Austria's insular approach and pushed publicly for stronger resettlement commitments.

In the end, the bloc said "support could be provided in the form of resettlement on a voluntary basis, prioritising vulnerable persons, such as women and children".

The EU also said it would work with Afghanistan's neighbouring countries to "reinforce their capacities to provide protection, [and] dignified and safe reception conditions" for refugees, and that efforts to move people in immediate danger also would continue.

Agreement hard to reach

After the meeting its chair, Slovenian Interior Minister Ales Hojs, said settling on the joint statement had been "a difficult job".

Mr Asselborn told the other EU interior ministers that if Canada, Britain or the US made firm commitments, Europe could not remain divided, his government said.

After the talks, Ms Johansson announced she had convened a resettlement forum next month to drum up pledges.

But it was too soon to say how many people would need to leave Afghanistan, she said, adding that so far a mass movement of people had not been observed.

But millions are already displaced in Afghanistan.

Keeping Kabul airport open is of 'existential importance'

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas wasn't at the meeting but on Tuesday emphasised the need to distinguish between illegal migrants and invited Afghans who were left behind by the airlift.

Some people are already taking a land route out of Afghanistan rather than waiting for a flight out of Kabul, Mr Maas said in Pakistan on Tuesday.

He was on the fourth leg of a trip to Afghanistan’s neighbours and other countries affected by the crisis

That so many are willing to take the perilous and arduous route shows scepticism that the Taliban will keep Kabul's airport open.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said keeping Kabul's airport open for civilian flights was of "existential importance", but it was too early to say whether the Taliban will keep their promises to let this happen.

Mrs Merkel said the airport was critical for allowing foreign aid to enter Afghanistan, and that Germany was ready to provide technical assistance to keep it operational.

It also plans provide €500 million ($590.5m) in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and its neighbours.

Updated: August 31, 2021, 11:22 PM