Escape from Afghanistan: The EU needs a new strategy

14 September 2021

Europe must learn the lessons of the 2015 refugee crisis. Aid on the ground, a crisis response capacity and migration partnerships should form a new policy.

By Isilda Mara and Michael Landesmann

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This text is a translation of the op-ed first published in the Austrian daily “Die Presse” on 14 September 2021.

The trauma runs deep. The disturbing images from Kabul, so strikingly reminiscent of the evacuation of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, have spurred many politicians in Austria and Europe to once again invoke the mantra that they have been carrying like a shrine for years: 2015 must not be repeated under any circumstances. This refers to the large-scale flight of refugees to Western Europe that summer. Above all, however, it refers to the loss of control by politicians at the time - cue Angela Merkel and her opening of the borders to all refugees, born out of necessity.

The images of masses of people streaming into the country at border crossings and train stations were burned deeply into the collective memory. The initial "Refugees Welcome" was soon followed by disillusionment. An enormous willingness to help at the beginning turned into insecurity and excessive demands. Faced with the seemingly never-ending influx, people in the host countries increasingly felt they had lost control of the situation. In addition, there were concerns about how to integrate such large numbers of people from a completely different culture. The political pied pipers profited from this. At the European level, a debate among member states about the fair distribution of migrants flared up and to this day remains unresolved.

Ongoing migration to Europe

Six years on the EU may be facing a new refugee crisis as a result of the Afghanistan fiasco. Despite the experiences of 2015, it seems surprisingly unprepared and helpless, even if it is not yet clear when and how many people will actually arrive. The regime change to the Taliban and a possible new civil war certainly suggest a major movement of refugees. The collapse of Afghanistan will by no means be the last crisis Europe will have to face. Just think of the numerous armed conflicts and zones of socio-economic misery in the Middle East and Africa. Even seemingly more stable states like Lebanon are currently crumbling before our eyes. In the event of increased political instability and worsening climate change, almost four million people are likely to stream into Europe within the next ten years - regardless of how restrictive we make our immigration policies. This was the conclusion reached by the authors of a study presented this spring. Simply continuing to build Fortress Europe, as some politicians currently like to do for populist motives, would therefore be a grave mistake.

Necessary cooperation with Afghanistan’s neighbours

Instead, the EU needs a comprehensive, forward-looking strategy to be able to act even in acute crisis situations. The first priority is to provide assistance on the ground to prevent hundreds of thousands of people from seeking refuge in Europe. Afghanistan's neighbours such as Iran and Pakistan, which according to estimates have been hosting around six million Afghan refugees for decades, must be helped quickly, comprehensively and unbureaucratically. They are economically devastated and will be hopelessly overburdened in the event of a new wave of refugees. The preparations for this should start today rather than tomorrow, especially since we have seen what is possible with the EU refugee deal with Turkey.

This will require huge investments, specialists on the ground and close technical and political cooperation with Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours. Otherwise these countries will also abdicate their responsibilities and 2015 may indeed be repeated. In the years before and since 2015 European governments have been far too slow and insufficiently coordinated, and have also mobilised too few resources. We should not repeat this mistake.

Capacity-building for refugee assistance on the ground

In addition to urgently needed acute aid on the ground, the EU would also be well advised to build up financial and technical capacities for dealing with refugee crises, capacities that are available upon request. Only in this way can poorer countries be helped quickly and flexibly when they suddenly experience a rapid increase in new refugee arrivals. In addition to money, this would involve tents, transport planes, drinking water supplies, field hospitals and qualified medical personnel. Of course, it would also require a robust and well-managed operational organisation. So why not set up a separate EU agency for refugee aid in crisis areas? After all, when it comes to border protection, the EU bankrolls the expensive and not uncontroversial agency Frontex.

In the case of Afghanistan, however, the coordinated admission of particularly endangered people such as women's rights activists, journalists and local forces in accordance with the Geneva Refugee Convention is an imperative. The EU has the capacity, and many members also have the political will to do so - not to mention their obligation under international law.

Partnerships on an equal footing

In the longer term Europeans should - as far as possible - forge close partnerships with the countries and regions of origin in order to manage migration in a targeted manner. In Afghanistan, we will see whether or not this is feasible; at the moment, we cannot accurately assess how the situation there will develop. However, close cooperation with neighbouring countries is essential. Europe will be much more affected by the developments in this region than the USA. Therefore, it is important to spur their economic development, for example by opening up the EU market for certain products – just think about EU agricultural subsidies - or by intensified and intelligent development cooperation.

If the EU member states want to prevent a repeat of the events of 2015 as a result of the Afghanistan crisis, a regional strategy with neighbouring and transit countries should be implemented quickly and in a coordinated manner. Otherwise, there is a risk of a humanitarian tragedy with far-reaching political and social consequences - first in the region, but subsequently also in Europe.