The EU is determined to prevent uncontrolled large-scale illegal migration movements from Afghanistan by boosting aid to its neighbours in the region, a more than five-hour-long emergency meeting of EU home affairs ministers on Tuesday (31 August) concluded. However, they did not discuss sums or resettlement numbers.
“Based on lessons learned, the EU and its member states stand determined to act jointly to prevent the recurrence of uncontrolled large-scale illegal migration movements faced in the past,” the ministers said in a joint statement.
They also said they intend to step up financial support to “relevant international organisations” in Afghanistan as well as “neighbouring or transit countries” to “reinforce their capacities to provide protection, dignified and safe reception conditions and sustainable livelihood for refugees.” No country was named in the statement.
Efforts would also include a reinforced border management capacity and prevent migrant smuggling and human trafficking, they said and called for boosting the mandates of relevant EU agencies, particularly the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), Frontex and Europol.
However, the ministers’ statement gave no details on the scale or source of funding.
Following the 2015 migration crisis, the EU set aside financing for Turkey to the tune of 6 billion euro in exchange of the commitment by Ankara to take back migrants crossing to the Greek islands. Most of the money came from the EU budget.
European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said the EU was ready to quadruple humanitarian aid to Afghans, but that the development assistance was on hold until the Taliban show enough commitment to the rights of women and minorities.
“We have committed to increasing support to third countries hosting large numbers of migrants and refugees. These countries need assistance in providing adequate reception capacities while EU member states will also decide, on a voluntary basis, to assist them by providing permanent resettlements,” Slovenia’s Interior Minister Aleš Hojs told reporters after the meeting.
The evacuation of EU citizens and Afghan nationals who had cooperated with the EU and its member states and their families remains a priority and will continue, the joint statement said. The US is no longer in control of the Kabul airport and evacuations are now in the hands of the Taliban.
Speaking after the emergency meeting, Johansson said the EU should take in Afghan women, children, judges, journalists and human rights activists, perceived as vulnerable to the Taliban after 20 years of greater rights and freedoms.
“The best way to avoid a migration crisis is to avoid a humanitarian crisis” in Afghanistan, she said after the meeting.
Johansson said that according to her knowledge there had not been a “big movement of Afghans out of Afghanistan” so far, but added that “if the Taliban turns out to be the same Taliban that we have seen in the past, then there is a huge risk of a humanitarian crisis”.
“Everybody would like to avoid a situation like we had in 2015,” Johansson said.
Touching on the potential refugee wave from Afghanistan, she said a global agreement was necessary, as this was not a challenge that merely involved the EU.
The EU and its member states are determined to prevent a repeat of uncontrolled large-scale illegal migration movements seen in the past through a coordinated and orderly response, they said in the statement, highlighting that incentives to illegal migration should be avoided.
Member states reluctant on resettlement
However, irregular arrivals in the wake of the 2015 migration crisis had stretched the bloc’s national social and security systems, fed anti-migrant sentiment and caused clashes between member countries on how to attempt an equal burden-sharing.
The joint statement was nearly derailed when Luxembourg threatened to block it over complaints that the text did not convey enough solidarity with Afghan refugees.
Luxembourgish Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn criticised some member states, including Austria and Slovenia, for “doing everything they can just to prevent refugees from coming to Europe.”
Austria calls for ‘deportation centres’ to host Afghans near Afghanistan
Austria, which has insisted that it plans to keep deporting illegal immigrants back to Afghanistan even as the Taliban seized Kabul, on Monday (16 August) suggested setting up “deportation centres” in nearby countries as an alternative.
“We cannot accept them all, it is true, but at least a certain number,” he added.
Asselborn withdrew his veto after Johansson had pledged to convene an extraordinary meeting of the High-Level Resettlement Forum next month to discuss potential refugee resettlement.
As part of the follow up to the #JHA @EUCouncil today, I will convene, in September, a High Level Resettlement Forum to discuss concrete priorities with Member States and provide sustainable solutions to those Afghans who are most vulnerable, particularly women…
— Ylva Johansson (@YlvaJohansson) August 31, 2021
Seeking common ground to adopt the statement was quite hard and the debate “very heated” occasionally, Hojs told reporters after the meeting
“But in the end, we were able to endorse a joint statement, which is crucial at the moment,” he added.
Earlier on Tuesday, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, whose country has taken in the bulk of the new arrivals since 2015, said all member states should play their part. Germany considers that its economy needs migration.
However, EU interior ministers yet again failed to make progress on burden-sharing and on the modalities under which the bloc could in the future accept asylum seekers.
But Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary and Poland opposed hosting Afghans, with Warsaw and Budapest rejecting the hosting of refugees, saying they pose a security threat and challenge to the traditional makeup of their societies.
In addition, the spectre of the terrorist attacks by Islamist radicals in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Berlin and other cities have since fuelled hostility in parts of Europe to the mostly-Muslim immigration from the Middle East and Africa.
“We are afraid this situation could again result in terrorist attacks on EU soil,” Slovenia’s interior minister Hojs said.
Criticism also came from human rights organisations, with Oxfam accusing EU countries of “washing their hands of their international obligation to offer refuge to those seeking safety and pushing it on to other countries.”
While millions are reportedly internally displaced in Afghanistan and in need of humanitarian assistance, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said it was hard to estimate how many would leave the country and the region for Europe.