French President Emmanuel Macron’s calls for Europe to “protect” itself from a wave of irregular migrants from Afghanistan have fuelled concerns that European leaders are looking to pull up the drawbridge to refugees fleeing the Taliban.
During a primetime televised address Monday night, Macron said that his government, along with Germany and other EU countries, were working on a coordinated response to expected “irregular migratory flows” from Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban victory, which he described as an “important challenge for our own security”.
“We must anticipate and protect ourselves against major irregular migratory flows that would endanger those who use them and feed trafficking of all kinds,” he said in a pre-recorded speech.
“Europe alone cannot bear the consequences of the current situation.”
He said that around 800 Afghans, including translators and cooks who worked for France, had already been evacuated – and that France was ready to help those “most at risk”, including activists, journalists, artists and human rights defenders who could be targeted by the fundamentalist group for their work.
“We will help them because it is France’s honour to stand by those who share our values as much as we can,” he said.
But France’s focus would be to work with partners to prevent Afghanistan becoming a haven for terrorists and people smugglers, and would involve establishing “cooperation with host countries such as Pakistan, Turkey or Iran,” he said.
Macron’s comments on tackling irregular migration as a crisis unfolded in Afghanistan – on a day dominated by shocking footage of crowds of desperate Afghans seeking to flee Taliban rule – prompted widespread criticism.
Critics accused the French leader of heartlessness, and of seeking to head off the challenge from far-right leader Marine Le Pen ahead of upcoming elections. The comments also fuelled concerns that the response by European leaders to Afghanistan would be driven above all by a determination not to return to the migration crisis of 2015, when more than a million asylum seekers entered the bloc.
National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden reacted with disbelief to Macron’s messaging amid the unfurling crisis in Afghanistan.
“This can't possibly be right, can it? Is it a mistranslation?” he tweeted. “This sounds an awful lot like Macron's priority when the Taliban are in the midst of door-to-door reprisals is covering his flank for some election, not saving lives.”
Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a former government minister and spokesperson, lamented Macron’s “icy” remarks, while Agnes Callamard, secretary general of human rights group Amnesty International, said Macron’s “shameful statement on the prevention of migration flows from #Afghanistan in the midst of a terrible human rights and humanitarian crisis is unfortunately reflecting the position of many other leaders.”
Along with the expressions of solidarity from European politicians for imperilled Afghans, and calls for them to be urgently granted asylum, there has been rising anxiety about refugee flows into Europe, and a determination not to return to the scenes of 2015, when more than a million refugees crossed into Europe driven largely by the Syrian civil war.
“Let me be clear that our country will not be a gateway for a new wave of refugees,” Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi told local television on Monday. “We’re fully prepared to protect our borders… We never again want to see the scenes we lived through in 2015.”
In Germany, Armin Laschet, the Christian Democrat leader and candidate to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel, said that while the West’s allies in Afghanistan, and at-risk women such as activists and teachers needed to be brought to safety, a return to the mass migration waves of 2015 had to be avoided.
“The mistakes in dealing with the Syrian civil war must not be made again,” he tweeted on Sunday. “2015 should not be repeated.”
And in Turkey, which hosts 4 million refugees, more than any other country, a 295-kilometer-long wall on the Iranian border is being built to prevent a potential refugee influx from Afghanistan, Turkish media reported on Sunday.
“We’re horrified by these comments,” Amnesty International senior researcher Maria Serrano told VICE World News. “They’re made in a context in which people are desperately trying to flee Afghanistan.”
She said while the remarks were “not the response we expect from leaders,” European politicians had a “kind of trauma” around the events of 2015, when a political agreement couldn’t be found to distribute refugees throughout the bloc. They also reflect the fact that there are impending elections in France and Germany, in which the issue of irregular immigration would be instrumentalised.
“Looking at the numbers [out of Afghanistan] we can see that the panic around massive arrivals isn’t warranted, but we will keep monitoring,” she said.