This image distributed courtesy of the US Air Force shows the inside of Reach 871, a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III flown from Kabul to Qatar on August 15. The plane safely evacuated some 640 Afghans from Kabul. Where these people would go was the big question. Photo: AFP / Captain Chris Herbert / US Air Force

The unsettling images of thousands of Afghans storming Kabul airport to force their way on planes out of the country put European officials on notice that a refugee crisis was looming. 

That suggests that, like US President Joe Biden, they had no notion that a quick and complete Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was likely – and what that might mean.

First, those involved in NATO’s two-decade intervention there, along with other European Union countries, are focused on getting their own citizens and Afghan collaborators out of the country. That exodus is underway.

But in European capitals, officials also quickly turned to another paramount concern: how to avert a flow of tens of thousands of desperate refugees to their borders and avoid the political fallout that might arise from uncontrolled immigration. EU ministers are scheduled to meet on the subject on Wednesday.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, after calling the scenes in Kabul “bitter, dramatic and terrifying,” announced she would look for ways to “secure possibilities for refugees in the neighborhood” of Afghanistan – that is, somewhere that is not inside Europe.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron warned that Europeans must “protect ourselves against major irregular migratory flows.” 

Afghan people sit as they wait to leave the Kabul airport in Kabul on August 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan’s 20-year war, as thousands of people mobbed the city’s airport trying to flee the group’s feared hardline brand of Islamist rule. Photo: AFP / Wakil Kohsar

The cold attitude reflects an anti-migration turn in Europe spanning six years. Gone is the grand gesture of Merkel’s 2015 invitation for refugees, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, to come to Europe.

One million crossed Greece and the Balkans and into Germany. But Germany’s difficulties in absorbing the newcomers, plus Merkel’s demand that other European nations also take them in, created a surge of opposition to immigration. 

The upswell led to several anti-establishment electoral victories. Notably, Brexit referendum campaigners exploited Germany’s open-door policy to whip up immigration fears.

So the welcome mat is being pulled in. A week ago, as the Taliban closed in on Kabul, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium and Greece asked the European Commission they be allowed to continue deportations of Afghans already in Europe but whose asylum requests have been denied.

With the Afghan government out and the Taliban insurgents in, the question is moot – for now.

Merkel is not repeating her blanket invitation. France is demanding the EU decide together. The United Kingdom said only it will design a selective “bespoke” approach to accepting asylum-seekers. The leaders of Italy’s two most popular parties – both nationalist – said the country should let in none.

Hungary and Bulgaria announced they will not accept refugees. Levente Magyar, Hungary’s deputy foreign ministry, said Budapest would not pay for the “flawed geopolitical decision” of the US and NATO in Afghanistan.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has paid a political price for her liberal refugee policies. Credit: AFP.

The election calendars of the EU’s two leading countries, Germany and France, explain their reticence. German national elections, in which Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party is trying to maintain its dominant position in parliament, are set for next month. Merkel is not running.

Macron faces a stiff challenge from nationalist rival Marine Le Pen in next year’s French presidential vote.

Scenes on Sunday of hundreds of Afghans cramming into a US military cargo plane – and the sight of a pair of men falling from the sky after losing their grip on landing gear – added urgency to European worries. 

But crisis possibilities were building long before. 

Since January, about 400,000 Afghan civilians had been displaced by combat, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. There were about 250,000 of them since May, when fighting picked up and two weeks after Biden announced American plans to pull out.

Austria is already deploying its army to its eastern border to block migrants. Greece started to build a fence along its land border and install noise-making technology to deter refugees. When Hungary’s President Victor Orban built a similar barrier in 2015, he was vilified as a racist. No one’s raising a ruckus now.

Meanwhile, Turkey, a non-EU country but a major way stop on the land route to Europe, is making it clear it does not want to host Afghan migrants seeking asylum elsewhere. It has played that role during Syria’s long civil war and hosts more than three million refugees, mostly from Syria. 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rejected American and German proposals that asylum seekers wait there while their petitions are being processed. Turkey is building a concrete wall along its border with Iran through which Afghans are passing from the east. 

Afghan refugees show their identification cards at a border crossing with Pakistan. Photo: AFP / Getty Images

In recent weeks, 27,000 Afghans crossed Turkey’s border on their way to Europe. “Turkey does not, and will not, serve as any country’s waiting room. We will continue to do everything in our power to preserve the safety of our borders,” declared presidential spokesman Fahrettin Altun.

Since 2015, more than 550,000 Afghan refugees have sought asylum in the EU. They are the second-biggest group of asylum seekers after Syrians. In the past five years, the EU quietly moved to seal its eastern frontiers with fences, while drones routinely scan the borders. 

The chances of getting asylum vary from country to country. Positive recognition of Afghan asylum claims range from a high of 94% in Italy to only 4% in Bulgaria, according to the Washington Post. Germany accepted 44% of requests, while Belgium accepted 32%. 

Outside the EU, besides Turkey, Iran and Pakistan host more than one million refugees each. Pakistan says it will permit Afghans access to refugee camps near the border, but only temporarily. Iran is setting up refugee camps on the border, but newcomers must return home when Afghanistan calms down.

Besides the chaos at Kabul airport, television news and the internet have been full of Afghan worries of coming repression under the Taliban. The warnings come mostly from people who benefitted from the long nation-building efforts of the US and Europeans in Afghanistan: teachers, professionals, government workers and especially women.

An Afghan child walks near military uniforms as he with elders wait to leave the Kabul airport in Kabul on August 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan’s 20-year war. Photo: AFP / Wakil Kohsar

But they are not on the lists of those who worked for NATO forces or non-governmental organizations.

They will not gain easy access abroad as the airlift from Kabul ramps up. Will those left behind face the repression under Taliban rule that characterized their previous 1996-2001 reign in the country? 

That period included oppression of women, prohibitions on educating girls as well as punishment of men who resisted strict Islamic practices imposed by the Taliban. Sports and music were banned, beards and religious chanting were required.

But the possibility of those days returning is not much on the minds of Europeans now. Controlling migration is.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.