EU backs helping Afghanistan’s neighbors cope with refugees

US & World

A woman from Afghanistan smiles after being given a bottle of water after disembarking from a U.S. airforce plane at the Naval Station in Rota, southern Spain, Tuesday Aug. 31, 2021. The United States completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan late Monday, ending America’s longest war. (AP Photo/ Marcos Moreno)

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union justice and home affairs ministers pledged Tuesday to support Afghanistan’s neighbors to help them host people fleeing the new Taliban regime and prevent a new wave of migrants heading to Europe.

In a closing statement following a meeting in Brussels, the ministers said the EU and its 27 nations “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.”

European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said there has not been a big exodus of Afghans out of the war-torn country so far but insisted there is a huge risk of a humanitarian crisis “if the Taliban turns out to be the same Taliban that we have seen in the past.”

Johansson added that the EU is “quite far from recognizing the Taliban regime.”

The EU said it will cooperate with the Afghan government following the Taliban’s return to power only if they respect fundamental rights and oppose the use of Afghan soil by terror groups.

“We have not seen any answers to the important conditions that need to be fulfilled,” Johansson said, adding that the EU has already frozen development aid to Afghanistan to apply pressure on the Taliban.

The meeting came the day after the last U.S. forces flew out of Kabul’s international airport, ending America’s longest war. Johansson said all the EU staff and Afghans who worked for European institutions have now been evacuated.

The ministers said the EU should boost its support to countries around Afghanistan “to ensure that those in need receive adequate protection, primarily in the region.”

The plan is reminiscent of the deal the EU sealed with Turkey after over 1 million migrants entered the EU in 2015, many of them fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq. To persuade Turkey to stop people from leaving its territory, the 27-nation bloc offered the country 6 billion euros to help Syrian refugees.

Johansson, however, said a “copy and paste” of the Turkish refugee deal would not be a good idea and that support to Afghanistan’s neighbors should be tailor-made. She insisted the EU should work quickly and not “wait until people are here.”

“We need to work comprehensively in the region with Afghans in Afghanistan and in the neighboring countries,” she said. “The best way to prevent a migratory crisis is to prevent a humanitarian crisis.”

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz made clear that his country wouldn’t back a system for distributing refugees from Afghanistan across the EU. He told reporters in Berlin that Austria had already taken in a “bigger than proportionate share” of migrants since 2015.

Austria already has the fourth-largest Afghan community worldwide, he said before a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Merkel said, for Germany, the focus now is on how to help between 10,000 and 40,000 Afghans who are entitled to come to Germany with their close family members because they had worked for the German military or aid organizations.

“We need to see how many actually want to leave the country and how many don’t,” she said. “That will depend very much on the circumstances the Taliban create.”

Johansson plans to convene a meeting next month to discuss resettlement efforts.

The EU ministers also stressed the need to ensure that Afghanistan does not once again become a haven for terrorists.

“The EU will use all its available tools to closely monitor and respond to developments on the ground that might impact its security, in particular in the area of organized crime and terrorism,” their statement said.

Still, accommodating Afghans in countries close to their homeland will be difficult.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi met his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, in Islamabad on Tuesday and said Pakistan has hosted more than 3 million Afghan refugees in previous decades and lacks the capacity to absorb more.

Rights groups were critical of the EU’s focus on keeping migrants close to Afghanistan.

Amnesty International said in a letter to Johansson that the EU and its nations “must refrain from extremely damaging responses that put emphasis on keeping the EU’s border ‘protected’ and proposing or adopting measures that shift the responsibility for the protection of refugees to third countries.”

The human rights group said the EU should give Afghans who reach Europe “access to the territory and to fair and effective asylum procedures” and also consider all Afghan women and girls as “prima facie refugees” due to the risks they face in Afghanistan.

American forces helped evacuate over 120,000 U.S. citizens, foreigners and Afghans after the Taliban regained control of the country, according to the White House. Coalition forces also evacuated their citizens and Afghans. But both foreign nations and the U.S. government acknowledged they didn’t evacuate all who wanted to go.

According to some EU estimates, around 570,000 Afghans have applied for asylum in Europe since 2015.

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Corder reported from The Hague, Netherlands. Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.

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Follow AP’s coverage of Afghanistan at https://apnews.com/hub/afghanistan and of migration at https://apnews.com/hub/migration

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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