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27th Sep 2021

EU warns of winter famine in Afghanistan

  • EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)
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Millions in northern Afghanistan are at risk of hunger, but shadows of the 2015 migration crisis hang over EU sympathy for those trying to flee.

"Some 5 million people in north Afghanistan are in direct threat of dire famine ... the situation is not so bad for now, but when the snow comes food will be hard to distribute," EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell told MEPs in Strasbourg on Tuesday (14 September).

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They were unlikely to try to come to Europe because of the mountainous terrain they would have to cross, he added.

But the threat of Taliban brutality, spiralling food prices, and a financial system in "free-fall" meant those in Afghanistan who had worked with Western powers and those from its new middle class more broadly speaking were likely to try to go to America, Australia, or the EU, Borrell noted.

"They will be on the move, if the Taliban allows them ... Population flows will happen. No one knows how big they'll be. Not as big as in the Syria war, but it depends what happens," he said.

"I don't think there's going to be huge migration to Europe, unless there's a civil war," Borrell said.

The EU's top diplomat said Europe must try to deliver aid to Afghans who risked starvation for moral rather than tactical reasons.

And he urged EU states to be welcoming to refugees.

But he also nodded to the right-wing sentiment that was on show when EU interior ministers discussed the Afghan crisis two weeks ago.

"No one wants that our offer to [resettle] Afghans at risk can be considered as a call-effect ... ministers understand what happened in 2015 and 2016 during the Syrian crisis. No. We don't want to create a call-effect," Borrell said on Tuesday.

More than 1 million refugees entered the EU in 2015, many of whom headed to Germany after German chancellor Angela Merkel said her country could manage to take care of them.

For their part, the main political groups in the European Parliament were less concerned than Borrell about a pull-factor.

"We have to ensure that those at risk can come to us," Michael Gahler, a German former diplomat and an MEP from Merkel's centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party said, despite the fact the CDU is facing national elections in two weeks' time.

Pedro Marques, a Spanish centre-left MEP, said: "Europe cannot become more and more the land of closed borders ... We owe that to the Afghans".

"We must build solidarity among member states to welcome Afghan asylum seekers," Petras Austrevicius, a Lithuanian liberal also said.

"The justice and home affairs council [EU interior ministers] gave a wrong and selfish message. Let the [European] parliament give the right direction," Tineke Strik, a Dutch Green MEP, added.

But for all that, Loucas Fourlas, a Cypriot centre-right MEP, noted that EU states had failed to show solidarity on refugee burden-sharing in recent years.

"We cannot leave this to European countries facing the problem on the front line," he said.

And anti-refugee hostility also reared its head in Strasbourg when Jérôme Rivière, an MEP from France's far-right National Rally party, which is vying for power in French elections next year, spoke out.

EU citizens were being "suffocated" by high numbers of Syrian migrants, he said, whom he also blamed for terrorist attacks.

"I refuse another wave of migration from Afghanistan ... France first and foremost refuses it," Rivière said.

EU voice

Politics aside, Borrell also revealed how little control the EU had on events on the ground in Afghanistan.

It had quadrupled its humanitarian aid budget to some €200m for 2021, but this was "a drop in the ocean" of what was needed, he said.

The EU embassy in Kabul was still technically open, but all EU member states' embassies were closed, he noted.

And even though Europe had "no choice" but to talk to the Taliban, the closest EU diplomats trying to do it, via video-link, were currently based in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Borrell said.

Some EU staff were prepared to return to Kabul to help coordinate European diplomacy, he noted.

But security conditions were not right "for the moment", he said.

Olive branch?

The Taliban's newly minted foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, also on Tuesday, held out an olive branch to the West and urged world donors to resume development aid.

"The USA is a great country so it should have great patience. We should help each other," he said in Kabul, Reuters reported.

And the Taliban has pledged safe passage for international aid workers.

But it has also faced accusations of recent atrocities, such as the slaughter of at least 20 civilians in the Panjshir valley uncovered by a BBC investigation.

MEPs in Strasbourg highlighted its "barbarous" treatment of women.

And Borrell admitted that trying to talk to the Taliban about human rights sounded like a contradiction in terms. "Maybe it's a pure oxymoron, but that is what we have to ask them for," he said.

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