In the century-long history of migration crises that have affected the European continent, 2015 marked the latest turning-point: in that year alone, as reported by the European Parliament and the UNHCR, over a million refugees attempted to reach Europe in search of better lives, more opportunities, or simply for a chance at survival.
With the war in Syria sowing ever more destruction; with the situation in Afghanistan deteriorating under the Taliban resurgence; and with the security in Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa threatened by brutal jihadist terrorism and bitter civil wars, an increasing number of people found themselves with no better – and no other - option than risking everything they had to flee the desperateness of their countries and reach the security of the European Union.
Among those flows of refugees that flooded Europe’s borders, according to the UNHCR Afghans were (and remained throughout 2016 and in early 2017) the second largest group after the Syrians. In 2015, about 200,000 Afghans – who according to the interviews conducted by the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) were mainly young men travelling alone along the land gateway known as Balkan route that goes from Turkey to Europe via the Aegean Sea and Greece - were amongst those seeking a new beginning in the “old continent”.
However, faced with a sudden and ever increasing number of asylum seekers, the “old continent” that had sparked so many hopes in so many people did not prove able to stand up to the salvific mission that history was entrusting upon it.
At the transnational level, the EU failed to pursue coordination among its member states that should be at the basis of its decision-making and policy-making level: EU member states – each driven by its own internal concerns and political considerations - failed to reach an agreement for an equal and fair distribution among them of migration quotas that could give a new home to the refugees while preserving the internal equilibriums of hosting countries and the stability of hosting societies.
As a consequence of this failure at the EU level, European countries and governments had to address the problem at a national level, where they found themselves exposed to a two-pronged challenge: on the one hand, the requirement for all signatories of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees not to return refugees to a country where their life and freedom are threatened; on the other hand, the anti-immigration protests coming from European populist, nationalist, and right-wing parties and from ever wider fringes of the public opinion.
In most countries, in fact, a climate of suspicion towards migrants took root and sparked fears about migrants depriving the locals of jobs. These fears at the national level compelled EU governments to take restrictive measures towards migration, such as tighter border controls and the setting of daily quotas.
In September 2015, Germany increased its controls along the border with Austria and soon afterwards Hungary started sealing and fencing its border with Serbia and Croatia. Similar measures were also taken by Slovenia and restrictive policies on border controls were enforced by France, Switzerland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Norway.
On the background of the incapacity of coordinated action at the EU level and of the growing opposition to immigration at the national level, the situation worsened further with the agreement ratified in March 2016 between Brussels and Istanbul.
According to the deal, all new irregular migrants crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece would be returned to Turkey, that in turn would receive financial support from the EU. In this way, the agreement brought about the closure of the Balkan route and thousands of migrants saw their situation becoming ever more desperate and uncertain.
In particular, Afghan migrants who had been largely reliant on the Balkan corridor were amongst the worst hit: as reported by the AAN, thousands of them got stuck in the makeshift refugee camps of the Balkan states and Turkey and entered a stalemate made unbearable by the coming of winter.
Moreover, their prospects of a future improvement were crashed by the voices of several European leaders claiming that Afghanistan has “safe areas” and that therefore Afghan migrants cannot be equated with Syrians, Iraqis, and Libyans.
The truth is that Afghanistan is in a situation as complex and tough as that of Syria, Iraq, and Libya, but being it geographically further from Europe’s borders it is less of a concern to Europe’s politicians and less of an object of sympathy to Europe’s media and Europe’s public opinion.
As a consequence of this general disregard for the plight of Afghans who are perceived as being too far from us for their situation to shake our humanity, the EU signed a re-admission agreement with Kabul (known as Joint Way Forward) whose aim is to return to Afghanistan those Afghans asylum seekers who are not recognized the refugee status.
As reported by the AAN, after the agreement was reached last October, 580 Afghans were sent back to their country of origin and many more forced deportations are likely to be observed this year.
The measures implemented towards Afghan asylum seekers by the European Union result from a general disregard and disinformation over the current situation in Afghanistan and over the intricate and painful history of the Afghan diaspora. Promoting a better knowledge of the country and its people is therefore essential to encourage the EU to frame more appropriate policies towards Afghan refugees.
With respect to Afghan asylum seekers, the EU should adopt an approach that is more reflective of the values on which it claims to be founded and frame policies that stem from a sound knowledge of the recent history of Afghanistan’s refugees and of Afghanistan itself.
As reported by SIGAR’s latest quarterly report, Afghanistan continues to be one of the most unstable countries worldwide, where war and terrorism are daily reality, and this is something of which the EU must be aware and cognizant. In front of Afghanistan’s tough reality, in fact, denying to Afghans the status of refugees and claiming the existence of safe areas within the country to where they can return means denying the truth.
On the contrary, the EU should recognize the tough plight in which the Afghan people verse and use its channels of intra-EU cooperation not to create mechanisms that send back Afghans asylum seekers but mechanisms capable of hosting them and giving them the safe haven that they are entitled to and that they came to us to find.
- Marta Furlan is from Milan, Italy and is about to complete her Masters in International Relations. Her interests primarily lie in the fields of security, terrorism studies and international politics.