Exploiting unfounded fears of a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis

Mujtaba Rahman

As the fallout from Afghanistan continues, EU leaders are working themselves into a frenzy over the risk of a replay of the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis. At a news conference in Berlin on Monday, Armin Laschet, Angela Merkel’s likely successor, argued: “We should not send the signal that Germany can take in everyone in need. The focus must be on humanitarian aid on site, unlike in 2015.” Though the French president, Emmanuel Macron, recognised Europe’s duty to take in some of the “rights defenders, artists, journalists and campaigners who are now threatened”, it came with a major caveat. “Europe cannot face the consequences of the current situation on its own. We must anticipate and protect ourselves against sizeable flows of irregular migration,” he said in a press briefing.

Their concerns obscure the reality that the EU and its member states have spent years taking hardline measures to reduce irregular migration. This will prevent a rerun of 2015, when more than 1.2 million refugees sought asylum within the EU (0.16% of Europe’s total population), sparking political opposition based on the supposed threat that these people posed to the EU.

The situation now is very different. The EU-Turkey migration deal, which came into effect in 2016, has significantly curbed arrivals with the number of first-time asylum applicants in the EU falling to 631,300 in 2019 – nearly half what it was four years earlier. The EU’s border and coast guard agency has also been strengthened. It previously relied on voluntary contributions from EU capitals and had neither its own operational staff nor the ability to conduct search and rescue operations. It now has a standing corps equipped with ships and vehicles, and negotiates with third-party nations.

Several of the “frontline” states most exposed to refugees have also adopted extremely hardline migration policies. Greece, for example, has since early 2020 been aggressively pushing back migrants to prevent their arrival on its Aegean islands and avoid processing asylum applications. Unlike during the previous refugee crisis, the EU will not be divided between hardliners and “open-door” advocates. Most EU members will only welcome a limited number of Afghan staff that worked in the bloc’s or individual countries’ diplomatic missions, as well as segments of the population at high risk of persecution by the Taliban, such as women, girls, artists, journalists and rights activists. There will be no return to Merkel and Sweden’s approach in 2015, which critics attacked as an “open door”.

Moreover, Afghan refugees’ key transit route to Europe, via Iran and then Turkey, will now be more difficult to complete. In late 2020, Iran proposed new legislation targeting Afghans that would make undocumented migrants liable to prison terms of up to 25 years. The next several weeks could see hundreds of thousands of Afghans cross into Iran.

In Turkey, rising anti-refugee sentiment will also pressure the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to take a tougher stance. In 2019, Turkish authorities detained 455,000 irregular migrants, according to the interior ministry’s directorate general of migration management, and the possibility of more refugees comes at a bad time for Erdogan. His government is already under pressure for mishandling wildfires, floods and a tanking economy. A Metropoll survey from July showed 67% opposition to opening borders to Afghan refugees, including more than half of voters from Erdogan’s Justice and Development party (AKP).

It’s for these reasons that Ankara is aiming to build a wall along almost half of Turkey’s 500km border with Iran – digging trenches, setting up barbed wire and bolstering patrols to prevent crossings. Turkish security forces have also increased their presence on the Iranian border.

So, unlike 2015, when Ankara deployed an “open-arms” policy towards fleeing Syrians, Turkey and the EU are now both aligned in their determination to prevent further migration. This will enable diplomatic, security and financial cooperation that was absent back then.

Early signals from Brussels and EU capitals suggest the bloc will closely cooperate to halt irregular migration, with its partners, led by Turkey, attempting to keep Afghan refugees in the region – primarily around Pakistan, Iran or any Central Asian country willing to host or provide cross-border assistance to refugees. Brussels will also look to spur an international response, spearheaded by the UNHCR and joined by the US and other western allies.

The situation in Afghanistan is unprecedented and the possibility of the displacement of many people across borders, which EU leaders clearly find so problematic, will remain. A lot will depend on the nature of the Taliban regime. But pressure from Afghan refugees is unlikely to systemically challenge the EU or its member states. EU leaders are failing to recognise the defences they have in place, driven instead by political considerations at home: either elections in Germany and France, or an attempt to prevent populists, who have largely failed to capitalise on the pandemic, gaining ground.