EU’s Achilles heel exposed by Afghan crisis – top chief Michel forced to intervene

Afghanistan: EU cannot ‘just follow America’ says Greek MP

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Austria’s conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is opposing taking in any more people fleeing Afghanistan now that the Taliban have seized power, he said in remarks published on Sunday. Austria took in more than one percent of its population in asylum seekers during Europe’s migration crisis in 2015 and 2016, and Mr Kurz has built his career on taking a hard line on immigration, winning every parliamentary election since 2017.

While the European Union grapples with what to do with Afghans who assisted it over the past 20 years, Mr Kurz said coming to Austria was not an option.

“I am clearly opposed to us now voluntarily taking in more people and that will not happen during my chancellorship,” Mr Kurz said in an interview with TV channel Puls 24. Excerpts of the interview were released before it was broadcast later on Sunday.

Austria has more than 40,000 Afghan refugees, the second-biggest number in Europe after Germany, which has 148,000, according to data from the UN refugee agency UNHCR for 2020. Austria’s population is nine times smaller than Germany’s.

Austria is also a neutral country and not a member of NATO.

It sent only a very small number of troops to Afghanistan.

“I am not of the opinion that we should take in more people. Quite the opposite,” the Austrian Chancellor said of Afghans fleeing their country.

“Austria has made a disproportionately large contribution,” he added, referring to the large number of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers already in the country.

He said people fleeing Afghanistan should stay in the region, adding that neighbouring Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan had only taken in 14 and 13 Afghan refugees respectively, which matches the UNHCR data.

Last week, Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said that his country could not become the entry point into the European Union for Afghans fleeing the escalating conflict in their homeland.

Greece was on the frontline of Europe’s migration crisis in 2015, when nearly one million people fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan landed on its islands, and like other EU member states, it is nervous that developments in Afghanistan could trigger a replay of that crisis.

“We are clearly saying that we will not and cannot be the gateway of Europe for the refugees and migrants who could try to come to the European Union,” Mitarachi told state television ERT.

“We cannot have millions of people leaving Afghanistan and coming to the European Union … and certainly not through Greece,” he said.

Echoing his concerns, French President Emmanuel Macron said France should have a robust plan to “anticipate and protect itself from a wave of migrants” from Afghanistan.

“Dealing with those fleeing the Taliban would need an organised and fair international effort,” the French President said in a televised address last Tuesday.

He added: “Europe alone cannot assume the consequences of the current situation.”

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Concern in Brussels forced EU Council President Charles Michel to reach out to Turkey in a bid to reach an agreement on the matter.

Mr Michel said on Sunday: “Discussed recent developments in Afghanistan with President Erdogan.

“A common challenge for both Turkey and the EU.

“Full understanding on need to ensure safe exit of nationals, local staff and families and to ensure support for vulnerable Afghans and host communities in the region.”

But Afghans who manage to make the weeks-long journey through Iran on foot to the Turkish border face a three-metre high wall, ditches or barbed wire.

Turkey already hosts nearly four million Syrian refugees and is a staging post for many migrants trying to reach Europe.

Authorities plan to add another 64km by the end of the year to a border wall started in 2017. Ditches, wire and security patrols around the clock will cover the rest of the 560 km frontier.

“We want to show the whole world that our borders are unpassable,” Mehmet Emin Bilmez, governor of the eastern border province of Van, told Reuters at the weekend. “Our biggest hope is that there is no migrant wave from Afghanistan.”

Turkey is not the only country putting up barriers: Its neighbour Greece has just completed a 40km fence and surveillance system to keep out migrants who still manage to enter Turkey and try to reach the European Union.

Authorities say there are 182,000 registered Afghan migrants in Turkey and up to an estimated 120,000 unregistered ones.

President Tayyip Erdogan urged European countries to take responsibility for any new influx, warning that Turkey had no intention of becoming “Europe’s migrant storage unit”.

The number of irregular Afghan migrants detained in Turkey so far this year is less than a fifth of the number detained in 2019, and officials say they have not yet seen signs of a major surge since last week’s Taliban victory, though the long distances mean refugees could take weeks to arrive.

The Turkish side of the mountainous border with Iran is lined by bases and watchtowers. Patrol cars monitor around the clock for movement on the Iranian side, from where migrants, smugglers and Kurdish militants frequently try to cross into Turkey.

Migrants who are spotted getting through at the border are returned to the Iranian side, though most return and try again, according to security forces.

“No matter how many high-level measures you take, there may be those who evade them from time to time,” Bilmez said.

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