The Taliban conquest of Afghanistan is poised to trigger an unprecedented wave of Afghan migration to Europe, which is bracing for the arrival of potentially hundreds of thousands — possibly even millions — of refugees and migrants from the war-torn country.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, expressing an ominous sense of foreboding, has estimated that up to five million people will try to leave Afghanistan for Europe. Such migration numbers, if they materialize, would make the previous migration crisis of 2015 — when more than a million people from Africa, Asia and the Middle East made their way to Europe — pale by comparison.
Since 2015, around 570,000 Afghans — almost exclusively young men — have requested asylum in the European Union, according to EU estimates. In 2020, Afghanistan was the EU's second-biggest source of asylum applicants after those from Syria.
Afghan males, many of whom have been especially difficult to assimilate or integrate into European society, have been responsible for hundreds — possibly thousands — of sexual assaults against local European women and girls in recent years. The arrival in Europe of millions more Afghans portends considerable future societal upheaval.
The 27 member states of the European Union are, as usual, divided on how to prepare for the coming migratory deluge. The leaders of some countries say they have a humanitarian obligation to accept large numbers of Afghan migrants. Others argue that it is time for Islamic countries to shoulder the burden.
Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission, the administrative arm of the European Union, said that the EU has a "moral responsibility" to take in those who are fleeing the Taliban. The leaders of many EU member states disagree.
In Austria, which in recent years has taken in over 40,000 Afghans (the second highest number in Europe after Germany, which has taken in 148,000 Afghans), Chancellor Sebastian Kurz vowed that his country will not be accepting any more. In an interview with Austrian broadcaster Puls 24, he said that Austria had already made a "disproportionately large contribution" to Afghanistan:
"I am clearly opposed to us now taking in more people. That will not happen under my chancellorship. Taking in people who then cannot be integrated is a huge problem for us as a country."
Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer, in a joint statement with Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg, called for Afghans illegally in Austria to be deported to Islamic countries, now that they cannot, according to EU law, be deported back to Afghanistan:
"If deportations are no longer possible because of the restrictions imposed on us by the European Convention on Human Rights, alternatives must be considered. Deportation centers in the region around Afghanistan would be one possibility. That requires the strength and support of the European Commission."
Nehammer, in an interview with the APA news agency, insisted that deportations should be viewed as a security issue rather than as a humanitarian matter:
"It is easy to call for a general ban on deportations to Afghanistan, while on the other hand ignoring the expected migration movements. Those who need protection must receive it as close as possible to their country of origin.
"A general ban on deportation is a pull factor for illegal migration and only fuels the inconsiderate and cynical business of smugglers and thus organized crime.
"As minister of the interior, I am primarily responsible for the people living in Austria. Above all, this means protecting social peace and the welfare state over the long term."
"The crisis in Afghanistan is not unfolding in a vacuum. Conflict and instability in the region will sooner or later spill over to Europe and thus to Austria."
An opinion poll published by Österreich 24 showed that nearly three-fourths of respondents back the Austrian government's hard line Afghan migration. The poll linked the support to a high-profile criminal case in which four Afghans in Vienna drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl who was strangled, lost consciousness and died.
In Germany, migration from Afghanistan has emerged as a major issue ahead of federal elections scheduled for September 26. Paul Ziemiak, general secretary of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, said that Germany should not adopt the open-door migration policy it pursued in 2015, when Merkel allowed into the country more than a million migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. In an interview with German broadcaster n-tv, he said:
"It is clear to us that 2015 must not be repeated. We will not be able to solve the Afghanistan issue by migration to Germany."
CDU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet has remained silent on the Afghan issue, as has the chancellor candidate for the Social Democrats (SPD) Olaf Scholz. By contrast, the chancellor candidate for the Greens party, Annalena Baerbock, called for Germany to take in well over 50,000 Afghans. "We have to come to terms with this," she said in an interview with ARD television.
Meanwhile, Afghan criminals, including rapists and drug traffickers, who previously had been deported to Afghanistan, have now returned to Germany on evacuation flights. Upon arrival in Germany, they immediately submitted new asylum applications. "It is not a completely new scenario that people come to Germany who previously had been deported," said an interior ministry spokesman.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron has called for a coordinated European response to prevent mass migration from Afghanistan:
"The destabilization of Afghanistan will likely increase the flow of irregular migration to Europe.... Europe alone will not be able to assume the consequences of the current situation. We must plan and protect ourselves against large irregular migratory flows that endanger those who are part of them and fuel trafficking of all kinds."
Marine Le Pen, who is running neck and neck in the polls with Macron ahead of French presidential elections set for April 2022, said that France should say "no" to massive migration of Afghan refugees. A petition on her party's website — "Afghanistan: NO to a new migratory highway!" — stated:
"We are fully aware of the human tragedies and the obvious distress of some of the legitimate refugees. But the right of asylum must not continue to be, as it is now, the Trojan horse of massive, uncontrolled and imposed immigration, of Islamism, and in some cases of terrorism, as was the case with certain jihadists involved in the attacks of November 13, 2015 [date on which a series of coordinated jihadist attacks took place in Paris in which more than 130 people were killed and more than 400 were injured.]
"The mayors of certain large cities have already announced their intention to welcome refugees. It is in our opinion an obvious risk to their fellow citizens.
"What matters to us first and foremost is the protection of our compatriots."
Meanwhile, five Afghans who were airlifted to France have been placed under counter-terrorism surveillance for suspected ties to the Taliban, according to the French Interior Ministry. One of the men, who worked for the French embassy in Kabul, admitted, under questioning, to have previously managed a Taliban checkpoint. Another 20 Afghans taken to France are being investigated for asylum fraud.
In Greece, the government, fearing a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis, has erected a 40-km (25-mile) fence and installed a new surveillance system on its border with Turkey to deter Afghan migrants from trying to reach Europe. In recent years, Greece has been a key gateway to Europe for migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Public Order Minister Michalis Chrisochoidis said:
"We cannot wait, passively, for the possible impact. Our borders will remain safe and inviolable."
Greek Minister for Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachi, added that the EU needs to send "the right messages" in order to avoid a new migration crisis "which Europe is unable to shoulder." He stressed: "Our country will not be a gateway to Europe for illegal Afghan migrants."
In Italy, Prime Minister Mario Draghi called for the Group of 20 major economies to hold a summit on the situation in Afghanistan. The Italian newspaper La Repubblica noted:
"The G20, for Draghi, has a strategic value: it is in that forum that one can and must reach a commitment that binds not only the forces of a West that has come out battered from its twenty-year mission in Afghanistan, but also and above all those countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey which have interests and influence on the self-proclaimed Islamic state."
In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in a statement to Parliament, announced a plan to take in 20,000 Afghan migrants:
"We must deal with the world as it is, accepting what we have achieved and what we have not achieved....
"We will not be sending people back to Afghanistan and nor by the way will we be allowing people to come from Afghanistan to this country in an indiscriminate way.
"We want to be generous, but we must make sure we look after our own security."
In Turkey, the government is building a 295-km (180-mile) wall along its border with Iran to prevent a new influx of migrants from Afghanistan. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that a new wave of migration is "inevitable" if Afghanistan and Iran fail to secure their borders. He added that Turkey will not become a "refugee warehouse" for fleeing Afghans:
"We need to remind our European friends of this fact: Europe — which has become the center of attraction for millions of people — cannot stay out of the Afghan refugee problem by harshly sealing its borders to protect the safety and wellbeing of its citizens. Turkey has no duty, responsibility or obligation to be Europe's refugee warehouse."
Meanwhile, thousands of Afghan migrants are arriving in countries across Europe, including Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Serbia and Sweden, among others.
Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo (here, here and here) agreed to temporarily shelter hundreds of Afghans who worked with Western peacekeeping military forces and are now threatened by the Taliban.
Spain said that it would temporarily host up to 4,000 Afghan migrants at two military bases used by the United States.
Slovenia, which currently holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency, said that the European Union will not allow a surge in Afghan migration. Prime Minister Janez Janša tweeted:
"The #EU will not open any European 'humanitarian' or migration corridors for #Afghanistan. We will not allow the strategic mistake from 2015 to be repeated. We will only help individuals who helped us during the #NATO Operation. And to the EU members who protect our external border."
Meanwhile, dozens of Afghan migrants are trapped along the border between Poland and Belarus. Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania said that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's practice of sending migrants across their borders is an act of "hybrid warfare." Lukashenko is accused of seeking revenge for sanctions the EU imposed over his disputed reelection and a crackdown on dissent.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that although he sympathized with the Afghan migrants, he said that they were "a tool in the hands of Mr. Lukashenko" and that Poland would not succumb to "this type of blackmail."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute.