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Biden Sparked a Refugee Crisis. He Must Help Europe Bear the Cost.

The chaotic U.S. withdrawal has already led thousands of Afghans to flee.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Afghan migrants rest while they wait for transport by smugglers after crossing the Iran-Turkish border on Aug. 15.
Afghan migrants rest while they wait for transport by smugglers after crossing the Iran-Turkish border on Aug. 15. OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Canada has announced it will resettle 20,000 Afghans, including female leaders, journalists, and members of the LGBTQ community. The United States is flying out Afghan interpreters and others who worked with the U.S. government—part of a plan to evacuate 22,000 Afghans who were involved with the international effort to bring democracy to Afghanistan. That’s good.

But as the world has now seen at Kabul’s airport, countless Afghans with no credentials to their names are trying to leave the country. The ones not invited to North America will instead try to make their way to European countries, which have already suspended deportation flights of Afghans. While the United States gets to choose its Afghan refugees, its European allies will be left to handle the rest. As the Europeans have been discovering earlier this year, the road to the EU may well lead through Belarus, which has been arranging for thousands of Iraqis and others to cross into Lithuania.

Every human being has value, but when it comes to refugees from Afghanistan, Western countries feel more sympathy toward some than toward others. It would, for example, be difficult to find people who argue that their troops’ Afghan interpreters don’t deserve to be evacuated, although the interpreters’ evacuation is tragically slow. Both the U.S. government and private initiatives are working to bring such people to the United States. The United Kingdom, in turn, is devising a scheme where it will select 20,000 Afghan refugees and bring them to the U.K. alongside 1,600 military interpreters and other local staff who are already being evacuated.

Canada has announced it will resettle 20,000 Afghans, including female leaders, journalists, and members of the LGBTQ community. The United States is flying out Afghan interpreters and others who worked with the U.S. government—part of a plan to evacuate 22,000 Afghans who were involved with the international effort to bring democracy to Afghanistan. That’s good.

But as the world has now seen at Kabul’s airport, countless Afghans with no credentials to their names are trying to leave the country. The ones not invited to North America will instead try to make their way to European countries, which have already suspended deportation flights of Afghans. While the United States gets to choose its Afghan refugees, its European allies will be left to handle the rest. As the Europeans have been discovering earlier this year, the road to the EU may well lead through Belarus, which has been arranging for thousands of Iraqis and others to cross into Lithuania.

Every human being has value, but when it comes to refugees from Afghanistan, Western countries feel more sympathy toward some than toward others. It would, for example, be difficult to find people who argue that their troops’ Afghan interpreters don’t deserve to be evacuated, although the interpreters’ evacuation is tragically slow. Both the U.S. government and private initiatives are working to bring such people to the United States. The United Kingdom, in turn, is devising a scheme where it will select 20,000 Afghan refugees and bring them to the U.K. alongside 1,600 military interpreters and other local staff who are already being evacuated.

While the United States gets to choose its Afghan refugees, its European allies will be left to handle the rest.

But there are lots of other Afghans who now deserve protection; indeed, almost a whole country’s worth. Virtually as soon as the U.S. government announced its withdrawal from Afghanistan, the implications for its allies became clear.

On July 16, the Swedish government—citing the increasing instability in Afghanistan—suspended deportations of some 7,000 Afghans whose asylum bids had been rejected. The move caused concern in other EU member states, which were still deporting unsuccessful asylum-seekers and felt the Swedish reversal undermined European unity. The member states’ main concern may have been what ending deportations would mean for criminal justice, as typically asylum-seekers convicted of violent crime face certain deportation.

But by August, they too had to suspend deportations. On Aug. 11, for example, Germany and the Netherlands announced they’d no longer deport Afghans. At that point, some 30,000 Afghans in Germany were scheduled for deportation, but they will now be permitted to stay in the country. “A constitutional state also bears responsibility for ensuring that deportations do not become a danger for those involved,” Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said in a statement. The week before, the German government had canceled the deportation of six Afghans serving prison sentences in Germany. This Seehofer is a softer one than during the 2015-16 refugee crisis, when he appeared to endorse Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s hard-line position.


The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan thus has immediate and concrete consequences not just for Afghans themselves but for Washington’s European allies, who will now have to arrange housing and care for thousands of people they had been planning to fly back to Afghanistan.

What’s more, the suspension of deportations to Afghanistan means that Afghans who make it to Europe in reality have the right to remain there until the situation in Afghanistan improves—which may be in two years’ time, 10 years’ time, or never. That, indeed, was the point made by Seehofer and his colleagues from the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, and Greece in their letter to EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson on Aug. 5, before they were overrun by events. While the United States and Canada select Afghans for future lives in North America, America’s European allies have no such option, because Afghans will arrive in Europe on their own.

Across the EU, illegal border crossings are increasing dramatically. A small share is due to Belarus’s gray-zone campaign against Lithuania, which has seen more than 4,000 people enter Lithuania. But the vast majority of migrants arrive via the Mediterranean and the Western Balkans. While the 82,000 people arriving between January and July this year are a far cry from the 2015 migration crisis, the figure is a 59 percent increase from the same period last year.

Indeed, even though the statistics don’t include very many days after U.S. President Joe Biden’s July 8 announcement on accelerating the U.S. withdrawal, they show 3,600 people arriving via the Western Balkan route during the month of July, the majority of them Syrians and Afghans. That’s 67 percent more than in July 2020. It takes no flight of imagination to predict that with Afghanistan now under Taliban control, that number will soar.

America’s closest allies, are facing a refugee wave not as a result of their own actions but as a result of U.S. actions taken without listening to European input.

Nobody would deny refuge to a person fleeing the Taliban; indeed, considering the Taliban’s methods, the world may face a refugee exodus as large or larger than those caused by the Islamic State and the Syrian war. But here’s the uncomfortable reality facing the Biden administration: European countries, America’s closest allies, are facing a refugee wave not as a result of their own actions but as a result of U.S. actions taken without listening to European input.

Indeed, Washington’s European allies in NATO wanted to keep the Afghanistan mission in place—but only under U.S. leadership. After Biden’s withdrawal announcement, the U.K. canvassed fellow NATO member states regarding a potential U.K.-led mission but came away empty-handed. The U.K.’s NATO allies seem not to have considered it powerful enough to anchor an Afghan mission.

Some European countries receive more asylum-seekers than others: Germany, France, Spain, Greece, Italy, Belgium, Sweden, and the Netherlands have far higher applicant numbers than other EU member states. These countries and many others resolutely stood with the United States after the 9/11 attacks and sent troops to Afghanistan when the United States decided to invade. With the exception of France, virtually all have stayed the course; indeed, Germany and Italy have kept large numbers there mostly as a favor to Washington.

Now, these friends of the United States face an immediate crisis in cities and towns around their countries as a result of U.S. actions. “More countries within and outside the EU have to take responsibility [and receive Afghans],” Maria Malmer Stenergard, the migration spokesperson for Sweden’s largest opposition party, the Moderates, told me. “We can’t have a situation again where a small number of countries such as Sweden are left with a disproportionate share of the responsibility.” Prime Minister Stefan Löfven is taking a similar position: “We’ll never return to 2015,” he told the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter this week.

The U.S. government, which had a say in creating the current humanitarian crisis, should assist European taxpayers, who had no say.

Between the fourth quarter of 2014 and the fourth quarter of 2015—a period that included the beginning of the refugee crisis—Sweden received 156,100 asylum-seekers, the third largest number after Germany and Hungary. Sweden has a population of slightly more than 10 million, while the United States is a country of over 330 million—meaning America would have had to receive more than 5 million people to reach Sweden’s levels in that period.

Indeed, the much-repeated Pottery Barn rule—you break it, you own it—ought to mean that Washington should now allow hundreds of thousands of Afghans to find refuge in the United States. That, alas, is unlikely to happen. Even under the Obama administration, in fiscal year 2016, a mere 12,587 Syrian refugees were allowed into the United States. That same year, Germany received 344,820 Syrian asylum-seekers (and nearly 300,000 from other countries).

A more realistic prospect might be for Washington to help the very allies who came to its aid after 9/11 and have remained by its side in Afghanistan ever since. To be sure, money can’t buy integration just as it can’t buy willpower, as U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin noted this week, referring to Afghan troops. But because European countries will be the ones providing refuge to countless Afghans until the situation in Afghanistan is safe enough for them to return, it seems fair that the U.S. government, which had a say in creating the current humanitarian catastrophe, should assist European taxpayers, who had no say.

People are already on the move; they include 640 Afghans who crammed into a U.S. Air Force transport plane designed to carry some 100 paratroopers and their gear and whom the crew heroically saved. The United States is morally bound to receive these people and many others like them—but it won’t take all of them. The least Biden can do his help America’s best friends shoulder the burden he has created for them.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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