03 September 2021

Protecting Afghan Refugees Is a Collective Responsibility and Europe Must Take Its Share

Professor Vincent Chetail examines Europe's legal and moral duties towards protecting Afghan refugees migrating to the continent in search of safety and stability.  

Once again, mass hysteria is taking over migration. Politicians and mass media tell us: the hordes of Afghans are coming and the only questions are when and how many. Haunted by the so-called migration crisis of 2015, European leaders are determined to ‘protect the EU external bordersand to ‘prevent uncontrolled large-scale illegal migration movements’. They are already preparing to stop Afghan refugees, even before the latter have actually left their country and reached Europe.

This self-fulfilling prophecy lacks rationality and calls for a more nuanced narrative. The most alarmist prediction was advanced by the German Interior Minister, with up to five million people fleeing Afghanistan. Let’s imagine, as pure fiction, that all of them could reach Europe; they would represent 1.1 percent of the EU’s population. Yet, as they did so during the last four decades of war, occupation and turmoil, the vast majority of the 39 million Afghans will remain in their own country.

Protecting those who are forced to flee persecution by the Taliban regime is a legal obligation for any state and European ones are not an exception, as reminded by the UN Refugee Agency and the EU Commission. Preventing illegal migration has nothing to do with refugee protection. Whether they are coming regularly or not, Afghan refugees have the right to seek asylum and to be protected against any form of refoulement. This is law, not charity. Asylum processing also requires security checks, for terrorists are excluded from the refugee definition under the Geneva Convention.

Protecting Afghan refugees is not only a legal duty; it is also a moral imperative, not least because many European countries joined the US invasion and military occupation. They are thus partially responsible for the current chaos and blatant failure in supporting the establishment of a truly democratic and inclusive state in Afghanistan.

The moral duty of Europe is further triggered by the longstanding imbalance between neighbouring countries and European ones in giving asylum to victims of persecution. In December 2020, 90 percent of Afghan refugees in the world were hosted in only two neighbouring countries: Pakistan with 1.4 million and Iran with 800,000 registered refugees and around 2.6 million undocumented Afghans. By comparison, their number in Europe remains small and unequally distributed, with 129,000 in Germany, 45,000 in France, 31,000 in Sweden, and 15,000 in Switzerland. Providing assistance to neighbouring countries hosting Afghan refugees is crucial and urgent but not sustainable in the long term.

It is time for Europe to take its share. The panic spread by politicians and mass media is both counterproductive and dangerous. The rhetoric of crisis not only distracts attention from the real issues at stake. It also paves the way for populism, xenophobia and electioneering. With elections looming in Germany and France, politicians are repeating the same mistake of 2015 in preparing the ground for a populist backlash.

Photo credit: © HCR/Edris Lutfi