Countries where people leaving Afghanistan are likely to wind up are bracing for a full-scale migration crisis in the wake of the Taliban’s rapid return to power and the hurried withdrawal of the United States and its allies. Warnings from aid groups have given credence to those fears.
Neighboring countries are bracing to bear the brunt of any surge — and warning that they are not prepared. Asylum seekers who continue on the long and arduous path to Europe will encounter anti-refugee sentiment and roadblocks in countries wary of a repeat of the Syrian migration crisis of 2015.
The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, said it has not seen evidence of “large-scale displacement” across Afghanistan’s borders this year, and noted last week that some internally displaced Afghans had begun to return to their places of origin. But the agency warned Friday that up to half a million Afghans could flee the country by the end of the year.
Some countries — including Canada and Britain — have pledged to take in more Afghan refugees. Others have thrown up new barriers.
Here’s a look at some of the obstacles Afghan asylum seekers face around the world.
Pakistan and Iran
Neighboring Pakistan and Iran host the largest numbers of Afghan refugees, with nearly 1.5 million and 780,000, respectively, as of late last year, according to UNHCR.
Pakistan shut border crossings before the Taliban took over, but they were later partially reopened.
Crowds of Afghans seeking to leave massed at two main border crossings with Pakistan on Thursday. Witnesses told The Washington Post that Taliban militants were letting those with legal travel documents through.
Recent messages from the Pakistani government have been contradictory. One minister said refugees could stay in isolated, temporary camps near the border, while Pakistan’s interior minister said in mid-August: “No Afghan refugees are coming to Pakistan.”
Iran’s border with Afghanistan, meanwhile, extends nearly 600 miles — mostly through desert — and Afghans have long crossed freely to work there. Up to 3 million registered and unregistered Afghans are estimated to live in Iran. Afghans seeking to head further west often cross through Iran into Turkey.
Amid expectations of a new influx, the Iranian government said it has asked border guards not to admit Afghans.
At the same time, it has reportedly set up temporary camps in border provinces for those who do cross over, though the government has said it will repatriate them when conditions improve.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said in a briefing last week that Iran and Pakistan cannot handle another refugee surge, according to the Tehran Times.
UNHCR has been working with Afghanistan’s neighbors to bolster their preparedness, while calling on more countries to share the responsibility.
Turkey and Greece
On the subject of potential asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Turkey and Greece have found a common cause: keeping them out.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis after Kabul fell to the Taliban to discuss their concerns over a potential refugee wave. Turkey has been both a destination country for refugees — it hosts nearly 4 million Syrian refugees — and a stop on the way to Europe.
“Turkey has no duty, responsibility or obligation to be Europe’s refugee warehouse,” Erdogan said. He told Mitsotakis that the European Union should assist Afghans to prevent a migration surge.
Afghans who have fled to Turkey in the past have traveled over the mountains from Iran. In recent months, Turkey has scaled up border patrols and fortifications. Afghans seeking to cross into the country face a recently extended 10-foot-high wall, ditches or barbed wire, Reuters reported.
Turkish border guards have pushed back Afghans attempting to enter in recent weeks, leaving thousands of Afghans massed in an Iranian border region, according to the New York Times.
Greek officials, meanwhile, have said Greece will not allow a repetition of 2015, when hundreds of thousands of migrants reached Greek islands by boat from Turkey. Greece has extended a wall on its border with Turkey, and the government has pledged to turn Afghans back.
Human Rights Watch has called on European countries to lead efforts to facilitate safe passage of at-risk civilians from Afghanistan. The International Rescue Committee has urged the E.U. to resettle at least 30,000 Afghans in the next 12 months.
E.U. member states have yet to agree to a common approach, and divisions are coming into view.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the resettlement of vulnerable Afghans “our moral duty” and said the commission will provide funds to E.U. countries that resettle refugees. But she emphasized that neighboring countries should be the destination of first resort.
E.U. chief diplomat Josep Borrell has suggested applying the temporary protection directive, a never-used mechanism from 2001 that grants immediate, temporary protection to displaced people and distributes them among E.U. member states. A group of some 80 members of the European Parliament support using the measure.
.@EuroMedRights joins the call on the EU & its Member States to trigger the Temporary Protection Directive to ensure immediate protection to #Afghan #refugees & provide long-term access to #asylum, reception, #resettlement & other #legalpathways. https://t.co/fnNnxaHiHU— EuroMed Rights (@EuroMedRights) August 27, 2021
But the idea of welcoming Afghan refugees to Europe has already been met with opposition from right-wing movements that gained support on the heels of the Syrian refugee crisis.
And some E.U. member states, such as Slovenia and Austria, have categorically rejected the idea of taking in Afghan refugees.
“#E.U. will not open any European ‘humanitarian’ or migration corridors for #Afghanistan,” Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa tweeted last week.
Austria has suggested setting up “deportation centers” in countries that neighbor Afghanistan where European countries can send Afghans who have been denied asylum.
E.U. home affairs ministers held an emergency meeting on the situation in Afghanistan on Tuesday, and afterward put out a statement making clear that the E.U.’s approach would revolve around helping Afghanistan’s neighbors to take in refugees and keep them there.
The ministers emphasized that the E.U. remains determined to prevent unauthorized migrants from crossing the bloc’s external borders.
E.U. Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said after the meeting that she would convene a forum in September to discuss resettlement priorities with member states “and provide sustainable solutions to those Afghans who are most vulnerable."
1/2— Ylva Johansson (@YlvaJohansson) August 31, 2021
As part of the follow up to the #JHA @EUCouncil today, I will convene, in September, a High Level Resettlement Forum to discuss concrete priorities with Member States and provide sustainable solutions to those Afghans who are most vulnerable, particularly women…
After Pakistan and Iran, Germany hosts the largest number of Afghan refugees.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany’s doors in 2015 to nearly a million refugees, mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. That move drew plaudits from humanitarian groups and ire from the right, in Germany and across Europe.
Merkel, who is set to leave office this fall, said in July: “We cannot solve all of these problems by taking everyone in.”
Armin Laschet, the center-right Union bloc candidate to succeed Merkel, said in August that there should be “no repeat” of 2015. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has railed against the prospect of a “new refugee wave.”
Germany was among six E.U. nations that wrote to the European Commission in Brussels on Aug. 5, calling on it to urge Afghanistan to cooperate on returns of Afghan migrants.
Germany has shown greater humanitarian inclinations than Austria, another signatory, however. It has since paused deportations, and a number of cities have expressed their willingness to host refugees.
French President Emmanuel Macron has proposed creating a U.N.-led “safe zone” in Kabul to facilitate the departure of Afghans attempting to leave.
He said several thousand remain on France’s list of people in need of protection, including judges and female leaders, and pledged to try to work with partners and the Taliban to secure their departures.
“We will help them as it is the honor of France to be side by side with those who share our values as much as we can,” he said of efforts to evacuate Afghan human rights defenders, artists, journalists and activists.
But Macron has also said “Europe cannot alone assume the consequences” of Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban.
Pascaline Curtet of La Cimade, a French organization that works with migrants and refugees, said that in the past, the vast majority of Afghan asylum seekers who were able to reach France have been granted refugee status.
Dozens of French mayors have offered to welcome more refugees.
Others have struck a more hostile tone. Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice, told radio station RTL: “I am not ready to receive refugees here, that’s clear.”
Rachel Pannett in Sydney and John Hudson and Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.