Europe Fears a Repeat of 2015 Refugee Crisis as Afghanistan Collapses

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  • With military conflict in some areas of the country, and now regime change, the EU's two biggest economies, France and Germany, have already spoken about a potential influx of refugees into the bloc.
  • Alberto-Horst Neidhardt, a migration policy analyst, said there is "no doubt" that the rhetoric seen in Berlin and Paris "suggests the issue will feature front and centre in the German election and maybe in the French one too."

LONDON — European leaders have already spoken of a need to formulate a plan in response to refugees from war-torn Afghanistan, with experts saying Turkey could once again feature heavily in negotiations.

The situation has deteriorated rapidly in Afghanistan alongside the withdrawal of American and allied troops. Chaotic scenes on Monday culminated with some Afghans attempting to cling on to foreign airplanes as they took off, in a desperate attempt to flee the Taliban. 

With military conflict in some areas of the country, and now regime change, the EU's two biggest economies, France and Germany, have spoken of a potential influx of refugees into the bloc.

"We must anticipate and protect ourselves against major irregular migratory flows," French President Emmanuel Macron said Monday evening, while vowing to work toward a "robust, coordinated and united response" with other European nations.

In neighboring Germany, the rhetoric has been similar. Armin Laschet, the head of the Christian Democratic Union and seen as the most likely to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel, said "2015 should not be repeated."

The EU encountered a large-scale refugee crisis back in 2015 and 2016, given the conflict in Syria. Over 1.2 million people applied for asylum in 2015 in the EU, according to the region's statistics office.

Alberto-Horst Neidhardt, a migration policy analyst at the Brussels-based think tank EPC, told CNBC Tuesday that there is "no doubt" that the rhetoric seen in Berlin and Paris "suggests the issue will feature front and centre in the German election and maybe in the French one too."

Germany heads to the polls on Sep. 26. One legacy of the departing Merkel is her decision in 2015 to keep the borders open to Syrian refugees — a decision that has since been linked to a subsequent rise in anti-immigration politicians in the country and which provoked a rift within her own CDU party.

France will hold a presidential vote in April. Projections show that Macron is likely to face the leader of an anti-immigration party, Marine Le Pen, in the second round.

A repeat of 2015?

The EU will be wary of a repeat of the refugee crisis of 2015, when Syrian refugees and other migrants arrived at European borders. Many lost their lives attempting dangerous sea crossings, but the developments also provoked divisions within the bloc.

There was a group of EU nations that were more willing to accept and integrate refugees who were trying to escape war. Other countries, such as Hungary, were more skeptical about providing aid and shelter.

Carsten Nickel, deputy director of research at Teneo, a consultancy firm, thinks a similar division is likely to happen again.

"It is a common reflex among West European politicians to call for EU-wide answers to the migration challenge. But regardless of the events in Afghanistan, a truly European solution will likely remain elusive. The gaps between Eastern and Western member states on these questions are simply too big," he told CNBC via email.

However, he believes there could be a solution among a smaller group of EU nations, rather than the whole 27.

The southern European nations of Greece, Italy, Spain, Malta and Cyprus have reportedly asked to discuss the potential impacts of migration after the developments in Afghanistan at an EU-level meeting due on Wednesday.

Notis Mitarachi, Greece's minister for migration, said Tuesday that his country "will not and cannot" become a gateway for migrants and refugees trying to reach the EU, according to Reuters.

Greece was one of the main entry points into the EU for many of the refugees back in 2015. Mitarachi called for a European-wide solution.

Leverage for Turkey?

One of most important parts of the EU's solution to the 2015 refugee crisis was the signing of a deal that funneled 6 billion euros ($7.03 billion) to Turkey, which would then provide shelter, education and health care for refugees, thus stemming the flow to the rest of Europe.

Shamaila Khan, director of emerging market debt at Alliance Bernstein, told CNBC's "Street Signs Asia" on Tuesday that Turkey is likely to play a role once again.

"Turkey is not a stranger to refugee crisis," she said, while agreeing that Turkish President Recep Erdogan could start to hold a significant amount of influence over EU leaders.

"Erdogan will be in the driver's seat in terms of what to demand, not only because of refugees coming in, but if Erdogan can play a key role in negotiating with the Taliban, he can also build bridges with the international community."

When speaking with CNBC, Alberto-Horst Neidhardt from EPC, said that the agreement between the EU and Turkey could be extended to also include Afghan refugees. But, at the same time, he warned this would be challenging as Ankara doesn't seem fully prepared to do that.

Turkey, host to the world's largest refugee population at 4 million people, is also seeing internal division over the issue. The country is building a concrete modular wall at its border with Iran to control any new inflows.

"The issue of hosting refugees has become a major polarizing factor in Turkish society, largely fueled by the economic turmoil and rising unemployment," Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of consultancy firm Teneo, said in a note Tuesday.

"Turkish public opinion is openly against any further arrivals, particularly from Afghanistan, whose culture and customs differ markedly from Turkey's."

Turkey's Erdogan said over the weekend that his country is ready to work with Pakistan to prevent a new influx of refugees.

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