By: Alberto Tagliapietra
Last week, US president Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of his country’s. soldiers from Afghanistan by September 2021, after an intervention lasting for over two decades.
The US withdrawal from the country started last year after former president Donald Trump reached a deal with the Taliban.
Since then, the Taliban have recaptured large swaths of territory, which is an incentive for them to keep on fighting instead of reaching a compromise with the local government.
These developments will have significant consequences for people in the country, as further and protracted violence will likely cause an increase in the number of people that will flee Afghanistan.
This aspect will be important for the European Union, as Afghans in 2020 constituted the second-largest group of asylum seekers arriving in Europe, outlining the necessity to accelerate the reform of the EU migration regime to avoid another crisis.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, there are currently more than 2.9 million internally displaced persons in Afghanistan, making it the country with one of the world’s most acute internal displacement crises. There are also more than 2.7 million Afghans abroad, making them the second-largest refugee population in the world.
Most are hosted in neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey, but the number of Afghans asking for asylum in Europe has increased over the last few years.
Analysing the asylum requests received in the EU in 2020, Afghans are topping asylum requests in Austria (21.3 percent of total requests), Belgium (17.9 percent of total requests), France (13 percent of total requests), Germany (10 percent of total requests), and Greece (30 percent of total requests).
Afghans constitute 50 percent of the refugee camps’ population on the Aegean islands in Greece and, for three years in a row, Afghanistan has been the second-most important country of origin for asylum requests, after Syria.
Acknowledging the increasing share of Afghan asylum seekers, as early as 2016, the EU had signed an informal agreement on migration and returns with Afghanistan, the Joint Way on Migration Issues (JWF).
The agreement aimed to prevent irregular migration and to increase returns, both voluntary and involuntary. In 2020 the agreement was prolonged, sparking protests from many observers who underline that Afghanistan, a country marked by violence, insecurity, and economic distress, cannot be considered a safe place to return migrants.
According to the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA), the first quarter of 2021 counts a total of 1783 civilian causalities in Afghanistan, and that in 2020, for six years in a row, the country has counted for more than ten thousand civilian causalities annually.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan will likely motivate the Taliban to continue their war until they reach their final goal of establishing a government.
This will be a long and painful path that will increase instability in the country, pushing even more people to flee to neighbouring countries, and to Europe. U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, recently outlined his concerns about a worsening of the situation in Afghanistan, which he said “will have an effect on Europe, too. Displaced people will soon arrive here”.
These developments will increase the number of arrivals to Europe, with all the consequences that this will imply.
Many Afghans who will decide to move toward Europe will come through Turkey, a historical transit hub for Afghans traveling to Europe, thus increasing the tensions at the border between Turkey and Greece.
The European Union is far from being an innocent bystander in these developments.
They are a direct consequence of the EU decision to outsource migration management to third countries (such as Turkey), giving them the power to blackmail the EU and endanger European stability.
Furthermore, reaching agreements like the JWF stresses the myopic European focus on curbing migration and increase returns without considering that these agreements could easily lead to a deadlock.
In fact, while these agreements offer an easy way to address migration fluxes, they fail to acknowledge the impact of ongoing insecurity and the burden that origin and neighbouring countries experience.
Cooperation with countries like Afghanistan on migration management should not undermine the EU’s overall approach to these countries, which should also pay attention to the dynamics of migration movements, particularly where mobility is deeply embedded and has historical significance, as in the case of Afghanistan.
This new potential humanitarian crisis once again should press the EU to finally move ahead with the reform of the EU migration regime, implementing policies that will be more resilient and sustainable and that will not be canceled out overnight by increasing insecurity.