Two defining images of 2021 depict people fleeing. One is the sight of people desperately chasing after a US air force jet along the runway at Kabul airport, as the west’s 20-year occupation of Afghanistan came to an end. The other is of passengers, evacuated from a forest fire on the Greek island of Evia, watching from the deck of a ferry as the skyline is etched in apocalyptic red.
In both cases they tell us about the speed at which people have to abandon everything when disaster strikes – there is rarely time for an orderly queue, for correct papers and possessions, when you are forced to flee – and about the power held by those who control the routes to safety.
All too often, our response to disaster is dominated by dire predictions – that there will simply be too many people to help, that they risk pulling us under too. The shadow of the 2015 refugee crisis – a sudden rush of people across Europe’s borders that “should not be repeated”, in the words of Armin Laschet, Germany’s likely next chancellor – is shaping the west’s response to Afghanistan. The doomiest observers see a dry run for the coming wave of climate refugees: as the analyst Anatol Lieven recently put it, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report “are harbingers of a storm that may test western democracy to destruction”.
Yet it’s crucial we resist these fears. Migration is far more complex than the dominant narrative of the “refugee crisis” would suggest, and rather than indulging in speculation about what the future might hold, what matters most is how people’s needs are addressed in the here and now.
The blame game that has enveloped the UK government in recent days, as criticism of its sluggish efforts to evacuate Afghans at risk of Taliban reprisals has grown louder, is an example of what awaits us if we fail. The Home Office, accused by “senior military sources” in the Sunday Times this weekend of obstructing efforts to expand resettlement, strongly rejected the allegations. The defence secretary, Ben Wallace, has condemned the Foreign Office for spiriting its diplomats out of Kabul and leaving “18-year-old squaddies” to process visa applications.
Similar arguments are taking place elsewhere in Europe – and further afield – as governments scramble to respond to the Taliban’s rapid takeover. Much of the surface-level rhetoric is high-minded: “asylum must be granted to those in danger of persecution”, declared David Sassoli, the president of the European parliament. But the responses of European governments, including the UK, are being shaped just as much by the exaggerated fear of migration.
Emmanuel Macron said this week that France would stand by “those who share our values”, but also called for a “robust” EU plan to stem “irregular migratory flows towards Europe”. Some countries are insisting that deportations of rejected Afghan asylum seekers continue: Austria is demanding “deportation centres” in third countries, if people cannot be safely returned to Afghanistan itself. The British government, even as it belatedly mulls an expanded resettlement for Afghans at risk of Taliban reprisals, is pushing ahead with a borders bill that will punish those people who seek asylum in the UK the “wrong” way, by travelling here under their own initiative.
Europe’s border policy is increasingly shaped by the desire to avoid a repeat of 2015, a fact that has encouraged governments on its periphery to manipulate the issue: in the past 18 months, Turkey, Morocco and Belarus have all tried to exert political pressure on a variety of issues by allowing groups of migrants to cross into EU territory. But displaced people do not, in general, all head for rich parts of the world: developing countries host the vast majority of refugees. When people do try to reach the west, it is because they have not found security elsewhere, and it is usually only those with the money, the contacts or the willpower to brave already harsh defences who try to do so.
In truth, people have been fleeing Afghanistan in greater numbers for several years due to a war, as Human Rights Watch remarked in July, whose “primary and defining characteristic … has been harm to civilians caused by massive human rights abuses and war crimes by all sides”. It has suited governments engaged in the pursuit of that war to obscure this. Asylum seekers, said the then-home secretary David Blunkett in a premature moment of triumph in 2002, “should get back home and recreate their countries that we freed from tyranny, whether it be Kosovo or now Afghanistan”. By 2015, a British court had ordered that deportations to Afghanistan be suspended, on the grounds that the country was unsafe. The government had the decision overturned on appeal the following year.
The spectre of a new wave of refugees can serve many political ends. It can be used to justify tougher border policies; it can be held up as either an indictment or an endorsement of western military intervention depending on one’s political preference. Yet rather than moralising, our conversation should be based on the realities of migration as it is, not as our political leaders might like it to be.
While the UK and other governments need to step up their evacuation and resettlement efforts, this will not be sufficient. According to the latest figures given to me by the UN refugee agency UNHCR, there have already been 550,000 people, about 80% of whom are women and children, internally displaced in Afghanistan since the start of the year; many are now sleeping rough in Kabul without access to basic goods or medical assistance. They join a further 2.9 million who had been internally displaced by the end of 2020. Countries including the UK have slashed aid to Afghanistan in recent years; the UNHCR is asking for increased funds to cover people’s needs until December.
There must also be a concerted international effort to help Afghanistan’s neighbours keep their borders open and offer shelter to those who need it. This is where the majority of the Afghan refugee diaspora – one of the world’s largest, the product of 40 years of invasion and civil war – is based, and where most people are likely to remain. But countries like Iran and Pakistan cannot be expected to do this alone: Canada’s offer to resettle 20,000 vulnerable people should be matched by the UK and other countries with the capacity to do so. The UK should also introduce an amnesty for Afghan asylum seekers already here, and make it easier for families to reunite.
As the west’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is now picked over, the national debate is likely to turn inward, with commentators mourning Britain’s loss of international influence. The people affected by the war – and by what might come next – do not have this luxury.