Between Belarus and Afghanistan, an EU dispute is looming over migration

This picture of a screen shows an extraordinary General Affairs Council meeting via a video conference at the EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 18 August 2021. [EPA-EFE/JOHN THYS / POOL]

EU member states, nervous about a replay of Europe’s 2015-16 migration crisis and a surge of Afghan migrants, agreed on Wednesday (18 August) they need to strengthen their external borders.

After an extraordinary EU home affairs ministers meeting on Wednesday meant to condemn Belarus “a direct attack” by pushing asylum seekers across its border with the EU, ministers in a joint statement said Belarus has been seeking to “instrumentalise human beings for political purposes”.

“This aggressive behaviour … is unacceptable and amounts to a direct attack aimed at destabilizing and pressurizing the EU,” they said in the communiqué.

The ministers’ statement said countries bordering Belarus and other EU agencies have already been provided with financial and technical assistance to manage the migrant crisis, and more could be sent as required.

Without direct reference to Afghanistan but uneasy about the prospect of a surge of Afghan migrants, ministers also said they agreed there was “a need to strengthen the entire external border” of the EU to prevent illegal crossings in the future.

EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell had briefed ministers about the conclusions of Tuesday’s foreign ministers’ meeting on Afghanistan.

Realpolitik: EU will have to talk to the Taliban, Borrell says

The EU will have to engage in talks with the Taliban to provide support to the Afghan people even if it does not recognise them as legitimate rulers of the country, EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell said on Tuesday (17 …

Slovenia’s Interior Minister Aleš Hojs, told reporters the Slovenian EU presidency hoped a similar crisis meeting to the one on Belarus’ facilitated migrant crisis on Lithuania’s border could be convened to discuss the situation after the takeover of the Afghan capital Kabul by the Taliban.

Such a meeting could take place in a matter of days, Hojs said, though it was not immediately clear whether it would be again the interior or foreign ministers that would come together.

A dispute is looming (again)

Many EU member states are nervous that developments in Afghanistan could trigger a repeat of Europe’s 2015-16 migration crisis.

A dispute is looming over dealing with Afghan refugees, as Austria has already spoken out against the admission of further refugees, with Greece positioning itself similarly. Both countries are likely to be joined by Eastern European migration sceptics, notably Hungary and Poland.

At the same time, migration from Afghanistan is likely to increase under Taliban rule, high-ranking EU officials said on Wednesday (19 August), calling on member states to ramp up admission quotas for Afghans in need of protection.

“The instability in Afghanistan is likely to lead to increased migratory pressure,” Commissioner Ylva Johansson, responsible for migration and asylum in the EU’s executive European Commission, said in a statement.

“I have called on member states to step up their engagement on resettlement, to increase resettlement quotas to help those in need of international protection,” Johansson said.

Johansson said discussions had begun between EU countries about possible developments and the bloc’s preparedness, adding that the EU should support countries bordering Afghanistan to which a significant number of Afghans have already fled.

If necessary, it also should increase this help as the situation evolves, while at the same time letting in more people in need, she added, but ruled out deportations to Afghanistan, a ban that several EU countries had still fought for two weeks ago.

Austria in particular had previously refused to accept further refugees from Afghanistan, insisting that rejected Afghan asylum seekers continue to be deported, earlier this week suggested setting up “deportation centres” in nearby countries as an alternative.

“As things stand, the situation in Afghanistan is clearly not safe and it will not be safe for some time,” Johansson said. “Therefore, we cannot force people to return to Afghanistan.”

EU, US and NGOs 'deeply worried' about Afghan women and girls

The EU and United States, together with 18 other countries, issued a joint statement on Wednesday (18 August) saying they were “deeply worried about Afghan women and girls”, and urging the Taliban to ensure their safety.

Sassoli: Share ‘equally’

At the same time, European Parliament President David Sassoli adopted a more welcoming tone to arrivals from Afghanistan than other EU leaders.

The EU has a responsibility to accept Afghan refugees and cannot leave people who worked for the bloc in Afghanistan to “face revenge”, Sassoli said speaking to reporters during a visit to Lithuania.

He said refugees arriving from Afghanistan, which is now in the hands of the Taliban, should be distributed ‘equally’ among EU member states.

“I believe that the European Commission could be tasked with an equal redistribution among all European countries,” he said.

“We must protect those who worked and cooperated with us, we cannot allow them to be left to face revenge”, Sassoli told reporters in Vilnius.

“We have a responsibility. I think that European Commission can authorise even distribution of them among the member states to keep a parity, and this can be done quickly.”

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