Europe is facing a human tragedy of monumental proportions
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OPINION: Given the fact that 300 000 Afghans fled their homes last week alone, and three million were uprooted before the current crisis, the numbers being accommodated by foreign countries are not going far enough to stem the crisis, writes Shannon Ebrahim.
A great tragedy is unfolding as thousands of desperate Afghans fleeing hunger and the Taliban are crossing the borders into neighbouring countries, despite the Taliban having closed the country’s major border posts.
This is not a new phenomenon. At the end of last month, before the Taliban takeover, there were 1 000 Afghans entering Turkey daily – a country that already has somewhere between 300 000 to 600 000 Afghan refugees.
But amid the human catastrophe, Europe is pulling up the drawbridges and doing everything to keep Afghans out. Austria and Switzerland have outright refused to take large numbers of Afghans, and Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz incurred outrage in Turkey when he said Turkey was “a more suitable place for Afghans than Austria”.
Even Germany, which had taken in an impressive one million asylum seekers in 2015/2016, saying it was an ethical issue, has committed to taking in only 10 000 Afghans.
The amount is on a par with what other developed countries are saying – Australia is prepared to take in only 3 000, the US 10 000, Canada 20 000 and the UK 20 000 over five years. France has been non-committal about how many Afghans it would be prepared to take.
A country with far fewer resources like Tajikistan has offered to take as many as 100 000 Afghans. Other emerging economies like Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Albania, and even an emirate like Qatar, are prepared to take in small numbers.
Uganda has agreed to an American request to allow 2 000 Afghan refugees temporary haven in Uganda, with the first plane loads arriving this past week.
Given the fact that 300 000 Afghans fled their homes last week alone, and three million were uprooted before the current crisis, the numbers being accommodated by foreign countries are not going far enough to stem the crisis.
It is no wonder that some European leaders are angry that US President Joe Biden failed to consult his European allies before taking the unilateral decision to pull out of Afghanistan, without allowing the US’s European partners to strategise on how they might fill the vacuum. Now Europe is going to be deluged by a major refugee crisis and, this time, Turkey may not agree to keep the refugees on its side of the Aegean Sea, which it had done previously in return for $6 billion. Needless to say, none of the payoff was designated to help the Afghan refugees who were stuck in Turkey.
When one evaluates the wisdom of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to allow such a huge number of asylum seekers into Germany five years ago, she certainly has been vindicated by the evidence. Within five years, half of those granted asylum have found jobs, are in paid training or are in an internship. The integration into German society has been impressive, given that only 1% had initially had German language skills and, within five years, that had gone up to 44%.
This has been of great benefit to the German labour market, which had a serious skills shortage and an ageing population. Of the asylum seekers, 75% were younger than 40, many with high levels of education. The downside was the rise of the far right and anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany, which won 94 of the 709 seats in the Bundestag in the 2017 elections. But despite the rise of right-wing extremists movements, the support for immigration in Germany has remained high.
It is not easy for Afghans to leave the country, given the societal controls and monitoring of the border being carried out by the Taliban. But with one in three Afghans going hungry, and two million Afghan children malnourished, compounded by the implications of Taliban control, it is understandable that people are desperate to leave by any means necessary. Food prices are soaring, with the staple wheat being 24% higher than the five-year average, and 40% of crops having been lost to drought last year. The health system is also collapsing at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic is surging.
Given that backdrop, families are risking everything to make the arduous journey across Iran over many days in order to make it to the Turkish border in the hope to go from there to Europe to start a better life. But many are caught by Turkish border guards and deported. Iran is overwhelmed by Afghan refugees as it is, hosting an estimated 3.5 million Afghans.
The outflow of refugees from Afghanistan is set to surge over the next few months as Afghans attempt to make this dangerous exit before the winter months set in.
Biden may have washed his hands of the Afghanistan problem, but he has transferred a human catastrophe onto the entire western European region, and there are no easy solutions in sight as to how to resolve the endless human suffering.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Group Foreign Editor.