24th Oct 2021


Time to deliver: Afghanistan is test of Europe's promises

  • In Afghanistan today at least 18 million people - nearly half the country's population - are in urgent need of assistance (Photo: DVIDSHUB)
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Today, the European Commission has called together world leaders to discuss, and support, protection for the most at-risk Afghans.

The goal of the meeting is clear: to rally support and secure commitments from countries around the world to expand safe, legal routes to protection from Afghanistan and the region. The hashtag is "timetodeliver" - and that is the right test, because the needs are real and urgent.

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The first such "High Level Resettlement Forum" was in July. It was designed to address the chronic lack of places for people whose lives are at risk and need resettlement.

EU leaders seized the occasion to make bold statements about the EU's wish to become a global leader on refugee resettlement, and about the value of this vital lifeline for vulnerable refugees.

As home-affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson announced: "Today we show the world that Canada, the US and the EU are joining forces ... If we show leadership and ambition, many more will follow our lead."

Now we have a test case. Last Friday, I visited one of the US government facilities in the state of Virginia where Afghan refugees are being temporarily housed, pending their transfer to towns and cities across the country, where they will be entitled to work, access health care and get their children into school. Over 70,000 Afghans will be involved in the US scheme. But the US cannot be the sole actor.

In Afghanistan today at least 18 million people - nearly half the country's population - are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. So far this year, more than 660,000 people have been internally displaced due to violence and drought.

Those able to escape the country have largely remained in the region. And before the latest emergency, Iran and Pakistan hosted nearly 90 percent of Afghan refugees - more than 2.2 million people.

There are a much smaller number of individuals - tens of thousands, not millions - who the EU has highlighted as the focus of this meeting. These are people whose work or activism made them "partners in democracy", and the many at imminent risk of violence or persecution.

This should be the moment for European policymakers to put their words into action - including ramping up refugee resettlement from the region, and opening new humanitarian admission schemes.

So far, this hasn't happened. EU leaders have been far more cautious, and in some cases fears of the arrival of Afghan refugees to Europe have dominated over responsibility and welcome.

Most EU member states are yet to announce their resettlement commitments for 2022. And they're not just lagging behind on resettlement, but also on expanding alternative safe, legal routes to protection.

Some European countries have outright refused to welcome Afghans in need, and many others - with Ireland being a very welcome exception - have so far failed to set up significant humanitarian admission or emergency visa pathways from Afghanistan or the region.

Three steps to end the inertia

The calls from citizens and MEPs for an end to inertia are well made. Now it's time for national leaders to follow their lead. There are three concrete steps they can take to make this a reality.

First, today's Forum on protecting Afghans at risk is a chance for EU member states to step up and support those Afghans in need. I spoke to the EU commissioner for crisis management, Janez Lenarčič, last week about the EU's humanitarian support to those who remain inside the country.

They have suffered more than enough. In addition, the swift creation of a bespoke EU-wide scheme to resettle Afghans from neighbouring states, as the International Rescue Committee and 24 other NGOs called for last month is needed.

Crucially, this must be in addition to pledges to resettle at least 36,000 refugees from across different regions in 2022 in line with UNHCR priorities - earlier humanitarian emergencies and protracted conflicts must not be forgotten or overlooked.

Second, while expanded refugee resettlement is critical, the EU can and must do more to protect people who are already at imminent risk.

Member states, with EU support and coordination, should use all available pathways to secure urgent access to protection for people at risk in Afghanistan. Diplomatic efforts must focus on ensuring that people are able to safely leave the country, through evacuations or safe passage by land to neighbouring states.

As an immediate step, states must set up, expand and scale up processing capacity for humanitarian admissions and expanded family reunification. They should also encourage the development of other complementary pathways, such as scholarship schemes, work visas, and community sponsorships, to bring people to safety in Europe.

This week's Forum can give states a platform to share best practices, coordinate and pool efforts, and inspire new commitments. Those evacuated to Europe must be given adequate reception and a clear and secure status, not left in limbo.

Lastly, this Forum must be the beginning - not the end - of the EU's support for the people of Afghanistan.

This is a question of strategic interest as well as basic duty and morality. Looking to the future, the sustainable growth of resettlement programmes will require multi-year pledges, the expansion of pathways to safety, and strong commitments to protecting the right to asylum. Inclusion and integration in European societies must follow suit if Europe is to show true solidarity with Afghans at risk.

Now is the time to take steps that focus on the people in need. Europe needs to live up to its promises. The initiative of the EU Commission is welcome. Now it needs backing.

Author bio

David Miliband is president of the International Rescue Committee and a former British foreign secretary.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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