By Peter Apps
As G7 leaders discussed ways to get as many people as possible out of Afghanistan this week, the EU and NATO nations most likely to receive Afghans – Greece and Turkey – were building border walls to keep them out.
Heartrending scenes at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport have grabbed headlines, but in some ways they mask a bigger picture. Those thronging to the airport in the hope of evacuation having worked with Western forces may be the most at risk, but those with a credible chance of getting foreign residency are in some respects the lucky ones.
The G7 virtual meeting of leaders on Tuesday faced a fundamental reality – that Western operations at the airport remain dependent on the Taliban, effectively allowing them to dictate who gets out. But it largely ignored another – that more of Afghanistan’s 39 million population may want to leave, and few countries will want them.
This week has seen reports of Taliban fighters conducting searches for opponents, intimidating journalists, carrying out extrajudicial killings and ordering women to remain at home. Even without that, however, an Afghanistan run by them is likely to be distinctly unappealing to its urbanised young people above all – particularly with the country also suffering drought, food shortages and a brutal new wave of COVID-19.
The United States, Britain, Canada, Germany and others have all expressed willingness to take tens of thousands of those they deem most in danger – although the imminent withdrawal of foreign forces from the airport and a Taliban pronouncement that they would no longer allow Afghans to leave the country means many may be trapped.
Others with less documentation, however, are already voting with their feet, crossing borders primarily to Iran in the hope of making their way to Europe. It's a journey the new border walls in Greece and Turkey are intended to make it as difficult as possible. Pakistan, already home to an estimated 1.7 million registered Afghan refugees, some there since the 1980s, has said it can take no more, and hopes to encourage those already there to return.
For all the attention on repatriating the tens of thousands of Afghans identified by the United States, Britain and others, it is these potentially larger population flows that may bring the greatest challenge. After about a million Syrians arrived in Europe in 2015, the European Union pledged to reform its structures to ensure it could better cope with any future migration crisis. It has not done so, and now seems deeply divided on Afghanistan.
On Aug. 21, Michalis Chrisochoidis, Greece's Minister for citizen protection, said the country could not wait "passively" for the arrival of Afghan migrants – and that without support from the EU, it was taking its own action first.
Since 2016, European states have been discussing ways in which to pass allowed migrants between them, mitigating pressure on countries like Greece and Italy that have often been first to receive them. But no such agreement has been reached, nor does there appear immediate prospect of the situation in Afghanistan prompting one to be reached.
Following the 2015 migrant surge, European Union officials were highly critical of nations such as Hungary that followed U.S. President Donald Trump in building high-profile border walls. That rhetoric has significantly changed since – on Wednesday, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson defended the right of both Greece and Lithuania to build new border fences.
Lithuania has recently announced plans to build a fence along its entire border with Belarus after more than 4,000 mainly Middle East and migrants crossed over. European officials accuse Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko of pushing migrants towards Lithuania in an "act of aggression".
Most of those migrants are believed to have come from Iraq. European states and the United States have successfully pressured Baghdad to cut back flights reported to have been laid on by Belarus. Lukashenko accuses Lithuania and other neighbours of backing the Belarus opposition following a disputed election widespread protests last year.
European leaders are now distinctly concerned about Afghan migrants entering the mix. Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron said Europe needed to “protect itself” against potential mass arrivals of Afghan refugees, comments seen as a response to a growing anti-migrant sentiment in France ahead of next year’s presidential vote.
Simultaneously, however, France has committed itself to continuing to evacuate those who worked with its forces as long as possible from Kabul.
Speaking last weekend at a Spanish facility temporarily housing Afghans who had previously worked for EU institutions, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen talked up the prospects for persuading more European nations to take at-risk Afghan migrants, offering “the necessary budget” to incentivise member states to do so.
So far, there has been little in the way of enthusiasm.
While countries like the United States and Britain focus on resettling what could be tens of thousands of Afghans that they have given papers to, it is Turkey that may find itself in the true eye of the storm. Turkey is already home to 4 million Syrian refugees, and has rarely been shy of using migrants as an issue with which to win leverage with Western states.
As well as controlling what is likely to be the main path to Europe for Afghan migrants, Turkey also remains under considerable international pressure to secure a deal allowing it to keep Kabul airport open once Western forces withdraw. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has held multiple calls on Afghanistan with foreign leaders including Britain’s Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
European officials are reportedly wary of giving Turkey too much opportunity to use the Afghan situation to further build its diplomatic clout. But there may be no choice – particularly as long as Afghanistan’s neighbour Iran seems unwilling to do anything to stop migrants crossing its territory towards Turkey.
For now, the West’s priority may be getting Afghans out. But that could shift jarringly to keeping the remainder trapped in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan – or some other grim hinterland between the life they wish to flee and the places they wish to go to.
Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party.