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13th Aug 2022

EU 'stands by Afghans' but wants most kept away

  • The vast majority of those recently displaced internally in Afghanistan are women and children (Photo: Michael Foley Photography)
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European Commission president Von der Leyen has reiterated that the EU is supportive of the citizens of Afghanistan.

"We stand by the Afghan people," she said on Wednesday (15 September), in her state of the union address to the European Parliament.

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But an internal document says the EU is seeking to return rejected Afghans elsewhere at a time when the country is mired in chaos. Leaked by civil liberties charity Statewatch, the commission document suggests member states can return Afghans to countries outside the EU.

The document is dated 10 September and speaks of return deals, noting that a so-called "third-country national readmission clause" should be used "with certain transit countries".

The basic idea is to ensure rejected Afghans end up somewhere else aside from Europe and Afghanistan, possibly in countries they transited through. Such clauses are among the primary reasons the EU has failed to conclude negotiations on similar agreements over the past few years.

The point was driven in a report on EU readmission agreements, out earlier this week, by the Luxembourg-based European Court of Auditors.

"I would say primarily the 'third country national clause' has remained the major sticking points in the negotiations," Leo Brincat, the lead author of the auditor report, told reporters.

"Third countries tend to oppose this clause. Why? Because they consider it to be politically very sensitive and some claim that it is not rooted in international law," he said.

Von der Leyen in her speech also highlighted the need to help Afghan women and children, prosecutors, journalists and human rights defenders.

The EU has also already helped evacuate some Afghans to Europe. It recently announced €200m in humanitarian aid for Afghanistan. On Wednesday, Von der Leyen added another €100m on top.

But her statement follows an EU Council agreement late August, setting a political tone to keep Afghans from arriving to Europe.

It wants to prevent "uncontrolled large-scale illegal migration" and funnel fleeing Afghans towards nearby countries, while cracking down on traffickers. No mass movement has so far been detected, amid fears from some EU states that stopping deportations would lure others to come.

Those fears were relayed just before the Taliban takeover, in a joint-letter from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, and the Netherlands.

The European Commission is seeking pledges from member states to resettle some 30,000 Afghans, financed by €300m from the EU budget.

But the overall objective is to keep Afghans from claiming asylum in the EU in the first place, according to Green group co-leader Philippe Lamberts.

"The only concern of the 27 member states seems to be avoiding that any Afghan asylum seeker come to our European territory," he told von der Leyen on Wednesday, in the plenary debate in Strasbourg.

Too weak and poor for Europe

Some 3.5 million people are displaced in Afghanistan. Another five million are currently at risk of starvation.

The EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said those at risk of starving needed to be helped for humanitarian reasons. He then attempted to dispel fears that many would try to get to Europe.

"They are not the ones who are going to migrate. They are far away, they live in the mountains, they don't have the strength to migrate," he told MEPs, earlier this week.

"The migrants who would want to emigrate are the middle classes of the cities that have developed over the last 20 years and who will probably want to go to the United States, Canada or Australia rather than to Europe," he said.

EU seeks Afghan safe passage to Pakistan

The EU wants to create safe passage routes out of Afghanistan towards Pakistan and other central Asian states in order to evacuate Afghan women's rights activists and others with similar profiles.

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