Since the Taliban takeover of Kabul, a spectre has haunted Europe: is the refugee crisis that engulfed the region in 2015 and poisoned its politics for years about to repeat itself?
European leaders of all stripes worry the continent may face a massive new influx of asylum-seekers from Afghanistan, boosting rightwing populists ahead of elections in Germany and France.
That fear prompted politicians from Stockholm to Athens this week to insist there could be “no repeat of 2015”. Emmanuel Macron, who is set to run for a second term as French president next year, was among them.
“We must anticipate and protect ourselves against significant irregular flows of migration that would endanger those who use them and fuel trafficking of all kinds,” he told the nation in a TV address.
Most EU countries have agreed to take in small numbers of Afghans, particularly those who worked with their armies, in their embassies or for international aid organisations.
But all are reluctant to consider a larger influx — especially Germany, whose decision to allow in more than 1m asylum-seekers in 2015-16 rocked the country’s political system to its foundations.
German fears of a new refugee crisis rose when Horst Seehofer, interior minister, told MPs the Taliban’s takeover could prompt anywhere between 300,000 and 5m Afghans to take flight.
But despite the shock of the Taliban’s lightning victory and the chaotic scenes at Kabul airport afterwards, experts find comparisons with 2015 ill-placed.
“It’s just the rhetoric of fear,” said Luise Amtsberg, the German Greens’ spokeswoman on migration. “Afghanistan is sealed off, the neighbouring countries have all beefed up their borders and the people just can’t get out. Any attempt to draw a parallel with 2015 is a complete mistake.”
Still, there is no denying the persistent resonance of 2015. It pitched the EU into an existential crisis, opening up deep divisions between countries such as Hungary, which refused to accept migrants and built border fences to keep them out, and others such as Germany that wanted to distribute the newcomers equally across the bloc.
The crisis left chancellor Angela Merkel isolated at home and abroad, and turned the rightwing, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party into a serious parliamentary force.
“2015 triggered a huge political conflict and the discussion about refugee flows from Afghanistan shows it isn’t over,” said Steffen Angenendt, a migration expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
The question of how to deal with refugees — and the EU’s lack of progress in reforming its immigration and asylum system — continues to be a thorn in Europe’s side, as recent events in Poland have shown.
This week a group of immigrants, some of them Afghans, were left stuck in no man’s land near the village of Usnarz Gorny after Poland refused to let them enter and Belarus refused to take them back.
Warsaw dispatched several hundred soldiers to the border and ordered a barbed-wire fence erected. “Poland defended itself against the wave of refugees in 2015, and it will defend itself again now,” deputy prime minister Piotr Glinski said on Tuesday.
So far, the hope among European leaders is that most Afghans will stay in their own country, while those who have taken flight will remain in the region rather than chance a long, arduous odyssey to Europe.
Merkel said this week the EU’s priority should be to provide as much support as possible to Afghanistan’s neighbours, many of which are already grappling with huge numbers of Afghan refugees: Pakistan currently hosts about 1.4m and Iran 780,000, according to the UNHCR.
She stressed that donor nations must not “repeat the mistake” of 2015, when they cut contributions to aid agencies such as the UNHCR and World Food Programme, leading to smaller food rations for the thousands of Syrian refugees stuck in camps in Jordan and Lebanon. Increasingly desperate, many saw no alternative but to flee to Europe.
“We have to be quicker this time, and offer help more quickly to the neighbouring states,” Merkel said.
In his address, Macron conveyed a similar message. He said France, Germany and other European states had agreed to draft a “robust, co-ordinated and united” response to help transit and host countries such as Pakistan, Turkey and Iran, and would harmonise criteria for accepting asylum-seekers and “fight against irregular migrant flows”.
Despite this tough talk, rightwing parties have seized on the events in Afghanistan to refocus voters’ minds on immigration, confident that this will lift their electoral prospects.
“There is no doubt that this [Afghan] situation will present our country with an increased risk of attacks and the prospect of new waves of immigration,” said Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s anti-immigration Rassemblement National.
That view was echoed by Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s anti-migration League party. “Humanitarian corridors for women and children in danger — certainly yes,” he tweeted on Wednesday. “Open doors for thousands of men, including potential terrorists — absolutely not.”
Despite fears of a mass influx, some European politicians insist that the EU has a moral obligation to open its doors to Afghan refugees.
“For 20 years we were involved in a military mission that failed,” said the Greens’ Amtsberg. “We have a responsibility — not only to our local support staff, but also to all those people who can’t live in Afghanistan any more.”
But even if Europe agrees to take in more Afghans, a repeat of the 2015 asylum crisis seems unlikely. “No one can really believe that we’re going to see 1m refugees coming to Europe,” Angenendt said.
Additional reporting by Victor Mallet, Miles Johnson, Richard Milne, Marton Dunai, James Shotter, Eleni Varvitsioti