HANGEDIGI, Turkey (AP) – From above, the new border wall separating Turkey from Iran looks like a white snake winding through the barren hills. So far, it covers only a third of the 540-kilometer (335-kilometer) limit, leaving plenty of holes for migrants to slip into the darkness of night.
Traffic on this central migration route from Central Asia to Europe has remained relatively stable compared to previous years. But European countries as well as Turkey fear the sudden return of the Taliban rule in Afghanistan could change that.
Haunted by a migration crisis in 2015 driven by the Syrian war, European leaders desperately want to avoid another large influx of refugees and migrants from Afghanistan. Aside from those who helped Western forces in the country’s two-decade war, the message to Afghans considering fleeing to Europe is: If you are going to travel, go to neighboring countries, but do not come here.
“It must be our goal to retain the majority of the population in the region,” Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said this week, reiterating what many European leaders are saying.
EU officials told a meeting of interior ministers this week that the most important lesson of 2015 was not to leave the Afghans at their own expense and that they would start relocating without urgent humanitarian aid, according to a confidential German diplomatic note obtained by The Associated Press
Austria, among EU migration hardliners, proposed setting up “deportation centers” in countries next to Afghanistan so that EU countries can deport Afghans who have been denied asylum even if they cannot be sent back to their home country.
The desperate scenes of people clinging to planes taking off from Kabul airport have only intensified Europe’s fears of a potential refugee crisis. The United States and its NATO allies are fighting to evacuate thousands of Afghans who fear they will be punished by the Taliban for working with Western forces. But other Afghans are unlikely to receive the same welcome.
Even Germany, which since 2015 has absorbed more Syrians than any other Western nation, is sending a different signal today.
Several German politicians, including Armin Laschet, the center-right union’s bloc candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, warned last week that the migration crisis of 2015 must not be repeated.
French President Emmanuel Macron stressed that “Europe alone can not bear the consequences” of the situation in Afghanistan and “must anticipate and protect us from significant irregular migratory flows.”
Britain, which left the EU in 2020, said it would take in 5,000 Afghan refugees this year and resettle 20,000 Afghans in the coming years.
In addition, there have been few concrete offers from European countries, which in addition to evacuating their own citizens and Afghan partners say they focus on helping Afghans in their country and in neighboring countries such as Iran and Pakistan.
Europe “should not wait until people stand at our external border,” said EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johanson.
EU Council President Charles Michel acknowledged the challenges facing Europe when he visited Madrid on Saturday to visit Spain’s emergency preparedness hub for Afghan refugees.
“Partnerships with third-party countries will be at the heart of our discussion in the EU. We need to adopt strategies that ensure that migration is possible in an orderly and consistent manner, ”he said. “We need to find that balance between the dignity of the European Union and the ability to defend the interests of the European Union.”
Greece, whose scenic islands off the Turkish coast were the European entry point for hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others six years ago, has made it clear that they do not want to relive the crisis.
Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said Greece does not accept being “the gateway to irregular flows into the EU” and that it considers Turkey a safe place for Afghans.
Such talk makes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan look red. His country already hosts 3.6 million Syrians and hundreds of thousands of Afghans, and he has used the threat of sending them to Europe for political leverage.
“Turkey has no duty, responsibility or obligation to be Europe’s refugee camp,” Erdogan warned in a speech on Thursday.
The Turkish president spoke about migration from Afghanistan in a rare phone call with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Friday and is also discussing the issue with Iran.
Attitudes towards migrants have become tougher in Europe since the crisis in 2015, prompting the emergence of right-wing extremist parties such as the Alternative for Germany, the main opposition party in parliament ahead of Germany’s parliamentary elections next month.
Even in Turkey, migrants from Syria and Afghanistan, who were once treated as Muslim brothers, are increasingly viewed with suspicion as the country struggles with rising inflation and unemployment.
Erdogan acknowledged the “unrest” of the public about migration and noted how his government has strengthened the eastern border with Iran with military, gendarmerie, police and the new wall, which has been under construction since 2017.
AP journalists near the Turkish border with Iran encountered dozens of Afghans this week, mostly young men, but also some women and children. They smuggled across the border at night in small groups and said they were leaving their country to escape the Taliban, violence and poverty.
“The situation in Afghanistan was intense,” said a young man, Hassan Khan. “The Taliban conquered all of Afghanistan. But there is no work in Afghanistan, we were forced to come here. ”
Observers say there is still no sign of any mass movement across the border. Turkish authorities say they have intercepted 35,000 Afghans entering the country illegally so far this year, compared to over 50,000 in the whole of 2020 and more than 200,000 in 2019.
UNCHR estimates that 90% of the 2.6 million Afghan refugees outside the country live in neighboring Iran and Pakistan. Both countries also host a large number of Afghans who left in search of better economic opportunities.
By comparison, around 630,000 Afghans have applied for asylum in EU countries in the last 10 years, with the highest numbers in Germany, Hungary, Greece and Sweden, according to the EU Statistics Bureau.
Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said that it is not an unresolved conclusion that the takeover of the Taliban will result in a new refugee crisis.
“I want to warn against a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he told the AP. Afghans are “scared, confused, but also hopeful that a long, long war will be over, and perhaps now they can avoid crossfire.”
He said much depends on the Taliban allowing development and humanitarian work to continue.
“If you were to have a collapse in public services, and if there were to be a major food crisis, there would definitely be a mass movement of people,” Egeland said.
Ritter reported from Rome. AP journalists Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey; Renata Brito in Barcelona, Spain; Lorne Cook in Brussels; Frank Jordans in Berlin; Elena Becatoros in Athens, Greece and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.
Follow the AP’s coverage of Afghanistan at https://apnews.com/hub/afghanistan and about migration at https://apnews.com/hub/migration
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