European Union justice and home affairs ministers were meeting Tuesday to discuss the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and how Europe will deal with the flow of refugees and migrants it is expected to produce.
The meeting comes the day after the last U.S. forces flew out of Kabul’s international airport, ending America’s longest war.
The 27-nation bloc is looking for ways to prevent a repeat of a 2015 refugee crisis fueled by Syria’s civil war. The arrival in Europe of well over a million migrants that year led to infighting among EU member nations over how best to manage the influx. A new wave of migrants from Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate tensions.
The EU is likely to provide funding to house refugees in countries bordering Afghanistan to prevent them heading for Europe.
“It’s important that we are in a position where we can avoid a humanitarian crisis, migratory crisis and a security threat from Afghanistan,” European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said before the ministers’ meeting.
“But then we need to act now and not wait until we have big flows of people at our external borders or until we have terrorist organizations being stronger,” she added. “So that’s why we need to act now to support people in Afghanistan, in the neighboring countries, and work together with international organizations.”
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz made clear that his country won’t back a system for distributing refugees from Afghanistan across the EU.
Asked about proposals for all EU countries to share the burden of taking in refugees, Kurz told reporters in Berlin that Austria had already taken in a “bigger than proportionate share” of migrants since 2015.
Austria already has the fourth-largest Afghan community worldwide, he said before a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Merkel said that, for her government, the focus now is on how to help between 10,000 and 40,000 Afghans who are entitled to come to Germany with their close family members because they had worked for the German military or aid organizations.
“We need to see how many actually want to leave the country and how many don’t,” she said. “That will depend very much on the circumstances the Taliban create in the country.”
Accommodating Afghans in countries close to their homeland will also be difficult.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi met his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, in Islamabad on Tuesday and said Pakistan has hosted more than 3 million Afghan refugees in previous decades and lacks the capacity to absorb more.
The EU’s focus on accommodating migrants close to Afghanistan will not please rights groups.
Amnesty International said in a letter to Johansson that the EU and its member nations “must refrain from extremely damaging responses that put emphasis on keeping the EU’s border ‘protected’ and proposing or adopting measures that shift the responsibility for the protection of refugees to third countries.”
The human rights group said the EU should give Afghans who reach Europe “access to the territory and to fair and effective asylum procedures and adequate reception conditions” and also consider all Afghan women and girls as “prima facie refugees” due to the risks they would face in Afghanistan.
American forces helped evacuate over 120,000 U.S. citizens, foreigners and Afghans after the Taliban regained control of the country, according to the White House. Coalition forces also evacuated their citizens and Afghans. But foreign nations and the U.S. government acknowledged they didn’t evacuate all who wanted to go.
According to some EU estimates, around 570,000 Afghans have applied for asylum in Europe since 2015.
Asylum applications by Afghan nationals have climbed by a third since February as it became clear that the United States would pull troops out of Afghanistan. More than 4,648 applications were recorded in May, according to the EU’s asylum office. About half of the applications tend to be successful.