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Afghan refugees are surrounded by security forces at the Poland-Belarus border on August 26, 2021. The group of migrants from Afghanistan has been stuck at the E.U.'s eastern border for several weeks as Belarus and Poland both refuse to let them in. (Photo: Maciej Moskwa/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Afghan refugees are surrounded by security forces at the Poland-Belarus border on August 26, 2021. The group of migrants from Afghanistan has been stuck at the E.U.'s eastern border for several weeks as Belarus and Poland both refuse to let them in. (Photo: Maciej Moskwa/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

'Refugee Movements Are Not Illegal': EU Rebuked for Plan to Curb Flow of Vulnerable Afghans

Policymakers, said one human rights advocate, should devise "concrete plans for helping Afghans reach safety in the E.U."

Kenny Stancil

Human rights advocates are demanding that policymakers across Europe do more to safely accomodate Afghan refugees within their countries after it was revealed Monday that the European Union is reportedly planning to thwart the arrival of people fleeing the war-torn nation.

"Based on lessons learned, the E.U. and its member states stand determined to act jointly to prevent the recurrence of uncontrolled large-scale illegal migration movements faced in the past, by preparing a coordinated and orderly response," E.U. ministers are expected to say during a Tuesday meeting about Afghanistan, according to a draft statement obtained by Reuters.

"The E.U. should also strengthen the support to the countries in Afghanistan's immediate neighborhood to ensure that those in need receive adequate protection primarily in the region," officials are expected to add.

In response, Judith Sunderland, associate director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch, said, "Let's hope someone tells them that refugee movements are not illegal."

Instead of throwing up more barriers or delegating responsibility to surrounding countries, Sunderland argued, European officials should develop "concrete plans for helping Afghans reach safety in the E.U."

Pointing to a recent Human Rights Watch statement encouraging European countries to "lead global efforts to urgently facilitate safe passage from Afghanistan of civilians at risk from the Taliban," Sunderland called for "meaningful resettlement pledges, expanded and facilitated family reunification, and humanitarian visas and visa waivers."

Referring to recent reporting about Poland's "grotesque" refusal to admit Afghan asylum seekers, Sunderland added that she "look[s] forward to a pledge that any Afghans who arrive at E.U. borders seeking asylum will not be turned away."

Nearly a month after leaving Afghanistan, a group of Afghan refugees is still "marooned on the border between Poland and Belarus in a 'Kafkaesque' political standoff," The Guardian reported Sunday. "The 32 refugees—women, men, and a child of 15 years old—have been stuck in a small, muddy patch of land between the two countries for almost three weeks with no access to clean water, insufficient shelter, and intermittent food supplies."

"Despite seeking international protection in Poland, they are not being allowed in, with border guards preventing them from entering," the British newspaper noted. "Neither are they being allowed back into Belarus, where they came from in the hope of being able to cross into the European Union."

Thousands of Afghans have been evacuated from Kabul since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan just over two weeks ago, but many vulnerable Afghans remain stranded throughout the country as NATO airlifts come to an end.

The United Nations' Refugee Agency (UNHCR) warned Monday that "a far greater humanitarian crisis is just beginning" for Afghanistan's 39 million residents. 

"In the midst of a clear emergency, with millions in dire need of help, the humanitarian response inside Afghanistan is still desperately underfunded," said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, who called for a rapid increase in aid to sustain the country's internally displaced population.

As for the Afghans who "need to seek safety across the country's borders," Grandi said they "must be able to exercise their right to seek international protection, and borders must be kept open for them for this purpose." He urged wealthy countries to shoulder a greater share of responsibility.

"For four decades," said Grandi, "Pakistan and Iran have hosted millions of Afghan refugees. These two countries still host some 2.2 million registered Afghan refugees—almost 90% of the total."

"As we continue advocating for open borders," he added, "more countries must share this humanitarian responsibility," especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic's impact on Iran, which continues to suffer under the weight of U.S. sanctions.

Grandi stressed that "more resettlement options are sorely needed. They are critically important, not only to save lives but also as a demonstration of good will towards, and support for, those countries who have taken on most responsibility for the displaced."

The E.U. ministers' draft statement about migration from Afghanistan mentions learning from past "lessons," a reference to an influx of Syrian refugees in 2015 that, according to Reuters, "caught the bloc unprepared and sowed divisions among them, fueling support for far-right parties as camps in Greece, Italy, and elsewhere swelled."

Tobias Heidland, professor of economics at Kiel University, and Jasper Tjaden, professor of applied social research and public policy at the University of Potsdam, however, argued late last week in Politico that European politicians' fears of "causing 'another 2015' by signaling openness" are misplaced.

The pair of social scientists found in a recently published study that more lenient immigration policies in 2015 did not "create a significant and lasting pull effect." Current calls for more restrictive approaches, Heidland and Tjaden said, are based on concerns that have been greatly exaggerated.

"The present situation unfolding in Afghanistan reminds many of 2015," they wrote. "But looking back, it is clear that welcoming refugees does not necessarily mean attracting more in the long run, and fears of creating a pull effect by appearing welcoming under exceptional circumstances are overblown."

Grandi, meanwhile, emphasized the need to provide long-term support to Afghanistan's beleaguered population.

"The airlifts out of Kabul will end in a matter of days, and the tragedy that has unfolded will no longer be as visible," he said. "But it will still be a daily reality for millions of Afghans. We must not turn away."

"Standing by the people of Afghanistan means standing by all of them, whether they have sought safety abroad or are picking up the pieces of their lives at home," Grandi said. "Those who scrambled for a place on the evacuation flights out of Kabul airport are the same as those who may approach our borders in the next few weeks and months."

"We have shown sympathy and solidarity for Afghans over the past few days," he added. "Let us keep on doing so. This is the time for us to truly live up to the call for international cooperation as expressed in the 1951 Refugee Convention, as reaffirmed in the Global Compact on Refugees."


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