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EU prepares to keep out Afghan refugees

EU countries are preparing to stop Afghan refugees from potentially entering en masse, amid fears of a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis, when 1 million people came to Europe.

“The EU and its member states stand determined to act jointly to prevent the recurrence of uncontrolled, large-scale, illegal migration movements faced in the past,” EU home-affairs ministers will agree to say after an emergency meeting in Brussels on Tuesday (31 August), according to a draft statement, dated 28 August, and seen by EUobserver.

Some of the measures will try to “protect the EU external borders and prevent unauthorised entries”, including by deploying border-control officers from the EU’s Frontex agency.

They will cover “new tools to deter attempts to instrumentalise illegal migration for political purposes”, in a hint of potential sanctions against countries such as Belarus, Russia, and Turkey which have, in the past, encouraged migrants to cross EU borders to exact concessions.

And they will include “targeted information campaigns” to “combat the narratives used by smugglers, including in the online environment, which encourage people to embark on dangerous and illegal journeys towards Europe”.

“Incentives to illegal migration should be avoided,” the draft statement added, alluding to concerns that if some EU states were too welcoming, it might encourage people to come.

Meanwhile, other measures will focus on paying Afghanistan’s neighbours to host refugees instead.

“The EU should also strengthen support to the countries in Afghanistan’s immediate neighbourhood to ensure that those in need receive adequate protection primarily in the region,” the draft statement noted.

The money could come from the EU’s so-called Neighbourhood, Development, and International-Cooperation Instrument, a part of the EU budget worth €79.5bn between 2021 and 2027, the text said.

“The EU will also cooperate with those countries to … reinforce border management capacity and prevent smuggling of migrants,” it added.

The EU ministers addressed worries terrorist groups might infiltrate refugees to get operatives into Europe.

“Exchange of information and intelligence … are of utmost importance. The timely performance of security checks of persons being evacuated from Afghanistan remains crucial,” they planned to say.

And they looked to the bigger concern that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan could become a save haven for terrorists, the way it did before 9/11.

“All efforts must be pursued to ensure that … Afghanistan does not become once again a sanctuary for terrorists and organised crime groups,” the draft statement said.

The ministers did voice willingness to “provide adequate protection to those in need”.

They spoke of “targeted solutions” for further evacuations of “persons at risk” who had helped Western powers.

They encouraged “resettlement [to the EU] on a voluntary basis” of refugees from Afghanistan’s neighbours, “prioritising … women and children”.

And they spoke of harmonising “member states’ practices in the reception and processing of Afghan asylum seekers”, even though the EU has, in recent times, failed to agree any reforms of its asylum laws, which place the burden on front-line countries, such as Greece.

But for its part, the Taliban indicated that failed asylum seekers deported back home could face reprisals.

“They would be taken to court. The court would then have to decide how to proceed with them,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman told Austria’s Kronen Zeitung newspaper on Monday.

The EU ministers were meeting the same day the last US forces left Afghanistan after 20 years there.

Taliban embassies?

Diplomats from the ‘G7’ club of Western countries – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the US – as well as the EU, Nato, Turkey, and Qatar also held talks on Afghanistan in Doha on Monday.

British prime minister Boris Johnson has suggested countries should recognise the Taliban government in return for help in keeping down terrorism.

The move would entail opening Taliban-controlled embassies in cities such as London, Paris, and Washington, which might be hard for the public to swallow, given the Taliban’s history of violence and its hardline Islamic values.

It would also entail unfreezing Afghanistan’s gold and foreign currency reserves in the World Bank.

But the US state department was lukewarm about Johnson’s idea.

“We’ve said recognition of the Taliban remains a matter for individual countries,” a US diplomat told EUobserver on Monday.

The EU foreign service was also tepid.

“While we have to deal with the Taliban for a number of reasons (evacuation, humanitarian issues, delivering our messages) we will not rush into recognition,” a spokesman for the EU foreign service told EUobserver.

“We will be watching first of all how they respect … democracy, rule of law, and fundamental rights and freedoms of the population, especially women and minorities,” he added.

“The Taliban will be judged by their actions,” he said.

Asked if there were prospects of opening a Taliban-controlled embassy to the EU in Brussels, he said that would be a decision for Belgium to make.

“The question of eventual diplomatic representation by the new Afghan government is, firstly, premature at this stage, and, secondly, something for the EU member states, since they are physically hosting the foreign diplomatic mission and allowing them to operate and accredit their staff,” he told EUobserver.

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