Marc Champion et al., Bloomberg, September 3, 2021
In 2015, Turkey became a kind of human superhighway for refugees fleeing to Europe from Syria and elsewhere, a migration of at least 1.3 million people that had a seismic impact on the politics of the European Union. Many of the bloc’s leaders now fear a repeat, yet it is far more difficult for desperate Afghans to reach Europe than six years ago.
New concrete, metal and razor wire walls, together with drone surveillance, beefed up border patrols and catch-and-return policies have made the route to Europe more difficult, dangerous and costly.
An EU plan to fund Afghanistan’s neighbors to host those who leave – the UNHCR has estimated the number could reach 500,000 by the year’s end – could also make it more inviting to stay put.
“Europe is right to be concerned, but I don’t think it is likely and don’t think it is imminent,’’ Michael O’Hanlon, director of foreign policy research at the Brookings Institution, said of the risk of another 2015 crisis.
For a start, at about 4,800 km (3,000 miles) it’s three times as far from Kabul to the nearest European border as from Aleppo, in Syria. Even six years ago, when Afghans made up the second-largest contingent of new arrivals in Europe — 193,000, compared to 378,000 Syrians, according to data collected from EU states by Pew Research — many were already outside Afghanistan and saw an opportunity to improve their lot.
For now, despite an airlift of more than 100,000 Afghans and their families who had worked with allied forces, the number of Afghans attempting to exit by land since the fall of the former government has been modest, according to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.
On Aug. 18, Iran said it would bar further Afghans, reversing a pledge to temporarily house people fleeing the Taliban. With many ethnic and family ties across a porous 900 km border that ban will be hard to enforce. And because the country’s resources are spread thin because of sanctions and the region’s worst coronavirus outbreak, authorities are likely to take a tougher stance against the latest influx of refugees. More troops have been deployed to major border crossings on the frontier.
The next country for Afghan refugees to cross is Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s approach has undergone a sea change under pressure from a domestic backlash against the approximately 5 million mainly Syrian refugees that Turkey already hosts. From highlighting an open door policy to protect fellow Muslims, and occasionally threatening to bus them to the EU’s borders in times of diplomatic strain, Erdogan is now building walls to halt the flow from the east.
Greece last month completed a taller, electronically monitored metal fence covering 40 km of the most sensitive points of its border with Turkey. Citizen Protection Minister Michalis Chrisochoides, since removed in a cabinet reshuffle, said at an Aug. 20 unveiling ceremony that Greece would allow no “erratic movement’’ over its borders.
At the same time, the narrow straits between the Turkish mainland and the easternmost Greek islands that so many Syrian, Afghan and other refugees risked their lives to cross in 2015 are now subject to patrols by Turkey, Greece and the EU’s Frontex border mission.