By EMILY SMITH, with BROOKS TIGNER
BRUSSELS – Just over 100 countries and international organisations met here on 4-5 October to pledge more support for Afghanistan during their donors’ conference. Hosted by the EU, the parties pledged EUR 13.6 billion in development aid to Kabul for the next four years.
Despite the new money for development, Western leaders continue to insist on the primordial role that security must play.
“We must not ignore security: it remains the most important component for all the other initiatives. If we are not vigilant the country will slide back into violent extremism,” Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said as the meeting began. “Security and stability are essential,” said Tusk.
Security in Afghanistan may be uppermost on Tusk’s mind, but the more pressing matter for Europe is how to stem the flow of irregular migrants from the country.
To wit: the conference was preceded by the signing on 4 October of an “EU-Afghanistan Joint Way Forward on migration issues” agreement between Brussels and Kabul. It calls for both sides to tackle the issue by ensuring that asylum seekers “whose applications do not meet the EU rules […] will be properly reintegrated back to Afghanistan.”
This will be one of the more ambitious efforts to ease the EU’s refugee crisis. The deal calls for:
- Afghanistan to re-admit citizens returned from the EU and to take “proper measures” to issue valid travel documents to all returnees. This could include the possibility of building a dedicated terminal for returns at Kabul airport.
- Kabul will inform its population about the dangers of “irregular migration” via information and awareness-raising campaigns funded by the EU.
- The EU to treat all refugees in a fair humanitarian way, paying special attention to unaccompanied minors, single women and female family heads, family unity, the elderly, and the seriously sick.
- The EU to help finance the return campaigns, while funding travel and other programs, such as reintegration programs.
Despite the timing of the agreement’s signing, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign and security policy chief, insisted it was “strictly unrelated” to the latter’s financial pledges.
“This was the result of a parallel process, separate from this [conference]. There is never, never a conditionality link between our development aid and whatever we do on migration” she said on 5 October, adding that it was a matter of asylum and not security.
Perhaps but NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who also attended the conference, pointed to the link between migration and security.
“Without security there can be no lasting development. The more successful we are in providing security, the easier it will be to stabilise Afghanistan and to address the root causes of refugees and the migration crisis [in Europe]. There is a close link between the two,” he said at the conference.
More pointedly, Imogen Sudbery, head of the Brussels office of the International Rescue Committee, expressed doubts about the joint deal’s premise.
Declaring that it was done in secrecy and made public “only by a leak to the press,” Sudbery said “deals made behind closed doors, thrashed out with no civil society engagement and without apparent consideration for people’s safety nor the realities on the ground, set an alarming precedent for the EU”.
Elsewhere, among the growing tasks for Frontex, newly beefed up as the EU’s new “border and coast guard agency”, will be more dedicated “European Return Intervention Teams” to escort refugees back to their home country from Europe. See related story on Frontex in this issue.
With this deal the EU will be returning thousands of people back to a country of war and violence – and one that is a breeding ground for radicalisation. Human rights activists, NGOs, and civilians are predictably up in arms about the arrangement, arguing it is at odds with international conventions on refugees. For example, Dimitris Christopoulos, president of the International Federation for Human Rights, said attempts by the EU to “leverage its humanitarian and development aid” in order to send Afghan nationals back home “represents a new low”.
At least some member states are frank about the money-migration link.
Germany’s foreign minister stated outright during the donors’ conference that his country’s support will, indeed, be linked to such conditionality: no repatriation of illegal Afghans in Europe back to Afghanistan, no money from Berlin. With more than a million war-driven refugees having flooded across its borders in the last year, Germany’s migration worries are particularly pressing.
However, more than a few member states cast a jaded eye toward Europe’s Afghan refugees, claiming that they are merely “economic” refugees and not politically persecuted or war-driven ones – and thus not eligible for asylum status in the EU. This is partly behind the EU’s cat-and-mouse rhetoric and the rationale for its joint agreement with Kabul. To admit that Afghanistan’s 14-year old war is still raging would leave the EU no choice but to extend asylum status to the 175,000 who currently seek it.
It’s a two-faced policy which, if not modulated, could incite resentment-driven refugees toward the kind of violence the EU so desperately wants to avoid.