Externalization in Process : What the fall of Kabul reveals about the EU’s immigration policy
FILE PHOTO: Taliban forces patrol at a runway a day after U.S troops withdrawal from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 31, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

Externalization in Process : What the fall of Kabul reveals about the EU’s immigration policy

First Reactions to the Fall of Kabul

The fall of Kabul to Taliban forces, as a result of the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, has marked one of the most significant historical events of the past decade. As a reaction, a multitude of questions was raised by news agencies, governments and political scholars. These questions range from the upholding of human rights under the new Taliban regime, to the questioning of the entire foreign policy of the United States. None of the major political commentators have failed to publish long articles on women’s rights under the new regime, or comparisons to the fall of Saigon in 1975. Among the multitude of questions, one of the issues that has been raised by international actors and governments is that of asylum and migration. After 20 years under a U.S. supported government, it is only logical to expect major waves of refugees fleeing the country to avoid life under the reinstated Taliban regime. In light of these events, both representatives of the European Union and European governments were quick to state their opinions and take action in response to a possible refugee influx. What do these reactions reveal about Europe’s political culture on immigration? What do they reveal about the current state of its immigration policy? Are any of the lessons learned by the 2015 migrant crisis present within this reaction?

According to reports by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 2.6 million registered Afghan refugees in the world, of whom 2.2 million are registered in Iran and Pakistan. Furthermore, 3.5 million Afghans are internally displaced, and due to the deteriorating security situation, the number of people fleeing is expected to rise significantly.[1] In light of these events, various European governments have made statements for the need to protect their country and the Union from large migrant waves. In his national address on August 16th, President Emmanuel Macron claimed that “We must plan and protect ourselves against large irregular migratory flows”.[2] On August 22nd, Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz ruled out taking in people fleeing Afghanistan, pointing to the fact that Austria has already received 40,000 Afghans in the past few years.[3] In the same way, Andrej Babiš, the Czech Republic’s Prime Minister, claims that there is “no place for Afghan refugees in Europe”[4]. In the meantime, countries like Greece and Poland have been investing in the completion of walls to keep their borders “safe and inviolable”.[5]  

The 2015 experience

Statements like these must be interpreted in light of Europe’s most recent experiences concerning migration. The overwhelming numbers of refugees entering the continent in 2015, and the Union’s inefficient and uncoordinated response are part of the reason to blame. This response, based on the Dublin regulation, which stipulates that the country of entrance of an asylum seeker is the country responsible for its asylum claim[6], lead to an unbalanced and asymmetrical handling of the influx by the member states. According to Karolewski and Benedikter, the three main aspects of the uneven impact on member states in the refugee crisis were: 1) the asymmetric character of the crisis itself, 2) the uneven nature of the EU with its horizontal differentiation, opting out clauses and asymmetrical burden sharing, 3) and Germany’s key role within the European bloc[7]. This failed response revealed the Dublin regulation’s limitations in coping with large migration numbers and marked the beginning of Europe’s hesitation, or even fear, of opening up its doors to large migration flows. Some of the major consequences within Europe included dissatisfaction with national and European governance, divisions amongst European states, the rise of populist and right-wing parties, and an instant search for sustainable migration policies and solutions.

The EU-Turkey agreement

One of these solutions is the well-known “EU-Turkey agreement”. The deal that was reached in March 2016, stipulated that Turkey significantly increase its border security and take back all future illegal entrants into Greece in exchange for €6 billion and the easing of visa restrictions for Turkish citizens[8]. At a first glance, the agreement can be considered as a highly effective one in accomplishing its objectives. The number of irregular arrivals to the shores of Greece was reduced by 90% within the first month of the agreement.


The human cost however has also been significant, with a variety of NGO’s and the UNHCR condemning the agreement as an upright violation of Human Rights law[10]. What can be said with certainty however, is that the agreement reveals a significant shift within the EU’s migration and asylum policy. This can be described as the first step in distancing the task of processing asylum claims from European territory and externalizing it by allocating it to third countries. While it may take many forms, Susanne Schultz defines externalization as the “the extension of border and migration controls beyond the so-called ‘migrant receiving nations’ in the Global North and into neighbouring countries or sending states in the Global South”. [11]

The New Pact on Migration and Asylum

Following the agreement, the main issue on the migration agenda has been finding a more effective and coherent policy in dealing with future influxes. The Council and the European Parliament have been working on drafting a more comprehensive strategy that could be agreed upon by all member states. The so called “New Pact on Migration and Asylum” focuses on the concept of solidarity among member states, changing the Dublin regulation status quo, new partnerships with third countries, and places a rather strong emphasis on the security dimension of migration.[12] The solidarity mechanism that is being developed defines contribution by member states as the relocation of migrants, the sponsorship of returns and operational support.

While the pact has not yet been adopted and a variety of articles are still under discussion, there seems to be a general consensus among member states on processing asylum claims in third countries, before their entrance within European borders, in improving returns mechanisms, and strengthening border security.[13] This is demonstrated by the emphasis placed on a short but thorough screening procedure, the registration of fingerprints in the EURODAC system, and the  strengthening of Frontex by increasing its funding and broadening its mandate.[14] Concerning legal migration, an issue that is closely connected to that of irregular migration, Vice-President of the European Commission, Margaritis Schinas stated that it “is and always will be the voluntary prerogative of Member States but it is one that can be supported by an EU framework and financing”.[15]

In the meantime, the European Union has already been setting up partnership agreements with third countries in order to stem the flow of immigration within its territory. Through the Malta declaration in 2017, the EU was able to significantly limit the flow of migrants arriving from Libya.[16] By adopting a cooperation program with Morocco worth €389 million in 2019, the EU was able to “support reforms, inclusive development and border management”.[17]


While these policies seem to lay the ground towards a more efficient and coherent policy for the whole Union, the primary focus on border security and returns have raised considerable questions. This is the reason a variety of NGOs and agencies, including UNHCR, while recognizing some of the improvements within the EU’s policies, openly criticize the new pact, for not emphasizing sufficiently the human rights aspect of immigration. Concerning the new returns mechanisms, Judith Sunderland, associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, stated that: “It’s like asking the school bully to walk a kid home”. [19]


With the fall of Kabul and the rise to power of the Taliban over the entire Afghan territory, talks about European immigration policy have been on the rise again. As previously mentioned, the immediate response of national governments has been one of limiting future refugee influxes as much as possible. Apart from their statements, this includes the fact that 12 interior ministers from member states have demanded for the EU to finance border-wall projects to stop migrants from entering through Belarus.[20]  

At the supranational level however, Europe’s leadership, still without a new immigration policy in force, seems to be rather fearful of a possible repetition of the 2015 experience.[21] In response to the events taking place in Afghanistan, Margaritis Schinas stated that he sees this as “the moment to agree on a common European migration and asylum policy”, something that has been stalling due to difficulties in getting EU countries to agree on the harmonization of asylum rules and sharing the intake of refugees fairly.[22]

In contrast, the plan for the time being, has been one of financial assistance and regional cooperation with Afghanistan’s direct neighbors. The European Union has pledged €1 billion in humanitarian aid for Afghanistan and is ready to mobilize cash for neighboring countries, like Pakistan and Iran, in order to help them host displaced Afghans. [23]

According to the latest reports from UNHCR however, 86% of Afghan registered refugees already resided in neighboring countries, before the fall of Kabul, with Pakistan already hosting up to 1.44 million Afghan migrants. [24] European leaders have been eager to point to the fact that a migrant’s journey from Afghanistan to Europe would be long and rather perilous, and therefore it would be better to invest in hosting refugees at countries directly bordering Afghanistan. While there is some truth within this statement, critics have argued that instead of stepping up in relation to migration, Europe has simply decided to pay up, thus exposing the “selfish motivations that often underly the use of soft-power tools like humanitarian assistance and development aid.”[25]


All of this is happening while the European Union is in the midst of negotiating a third financial aid package of about €3 billion to Turkey for hosting Syrian refugees. While the Turkey-EU agreement is strictly limited in providing assistance to Syrian refugees, German chancellor Angela Merkel and EU high representative Josep Borrell have highlighted the importance of talking to Turkey about Afghan migrants. [27]


Up to this point, one could speak of a narrative that has been forming in the past few years concerning the EU’s migration policy. Ever since the unprepared and inefficient response that the Union implemented in 2015, the tendency has been towards distancing the processing of asylum claims from European ground, and allocating it to third countries. Apart from the leverage that the EU-Turkey agreement gave to Turkey in its involvement with the Syrian conflict, this proved a rather “convenient” strategy for European governments. This convenience was later translated into the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which is still trying to formalize the externalization of the management of migrants. This is done through strengthening border security and the so called “deepening of international partnerships”, in order to facilitate deportations.

While the new pact hasn’t still been put into effect, the first reactions of European leaders in response to the crisis in Afghanistan, has been one along the same lines. Instead of providing some kind of solution to a possible migrant influx, the absence of a workable asylum policy has led to a panicked rush to offer financial incentives to countries closer to Afghanistan, including historically unfriendly governments like Pakistan.[28] In the words of Sebastian Kurz, it is a matter of “finding a regional solution and not triggering a new exodus to Europe”, and while “We will try to alleviate their suffering […] we agreed that 2015 should not happen again”.[29]

In public debates, externalization is usually framed in cost-efficiency-terms, which leads to a strictly economic understanding of the issue. Migrants are thus portrayed primarily as a burden for receiving countries, instead of a positive social factor, for both sending and receiving societies. The adherence of such processes to the 1951 UN refugee convention is rather questionable, as pointed out by critics. According to Inka Stock, this kind of framing of the issue “provides a political justification for the transfer of moral responsibility for migrants’ well-being from states in destination countries to actors on the national or local levels in origin countries or transit spaces.” Apart from the outsourcing of border control to third countries, as was the case with Turkey, externalization may also take the form of policy initiatives which are geared to support migration management in third countries, as seems to be the case in Afghanistan.[30]

In conclusion, the first reactions towards the crisis in Afghanistan reveal some of the distinctive weaknesses of the European Union. Firstly, as is often the case, the difficulty in agreeing in one common policy that balances all of the member states’ interests. Secondly, the evolution of European immigration policy, with its focus on European solidarity, security, and international partnerships still lacks a sustainable and coherent mechanism for hosting migrants and does not provide sufficient pathways to legal migration.

In the absence of a fully resolved and comprehensive migration policy, externalization seems to be the only answer. Its advantages for European countries are numerous. They include significant decreases in migration flows, stronger border control, better deportation mechanisms, and the transferring of moral responsibility for the wellbeing of refugees unto third states. It is definitely the most convenient choice, both for European leaders, but also for national governments hoping to get reelected. Regrettably, convenience for European states does not entail respect for the rights of refugees and migrants.   

[1] “Afghanistan UNHCR”, UNHCR, accessed October 24,2021, https://www.unhcr.org/afghanistan.html.  

[2] “Speech by President Emmanuel Macron on the situation in Afghanistan” Elysée, https://www.elysee.fr/en/emmanuel-macron/2021/08/16/speech-by-president-emmanuel-macron-on-the-situation-in-afghanistan.

[3] Ashleigh Furlong, “Kurz: Austria won’t take in any more Afghan refugees: The chancellor said Austria had already made a ‘disproportionately large contribution.’”, Politico,  August 22, 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/sebastian-kurz-austria-pm-wont-take-in-any-more-afghanistan-refugees-taliban/.

[4] “’No place for Afghan refugees in Europe,’ says Czech PM Babiš”, Euronews, September 8, 2021,   https://www.euronews.com/2021/09/08/no-place-for-afghan-refugees-in-europe-says-czech-pm-babis.

[5] Andrew Rettman, “Poland to build anti-refugee wall on Belarus border”, EUobserver, https://euobserver.com/world/152711.

[6] “Country responsible for asylum application (Dublin Regulation)”, European Commission, accessed October 24, 2021, https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/policies/migration-and-asylum/common-european-asylum-system/country-responsible-asylum-application_en.

[7] Ireneusz Pawel Karolewski and Roland Benedikter, “Europe’s refugee and migrant crisis:

Political responses to asymmetrical pressures”, Politique européenne 2, no. 60 (2018): 98-132, https://www.cairn.info/revue-politique-europeenne-2018-2-page-98.htm.

[8] “EU-Turkey statement, 18 March 2016”, European Council, accessed October 24, 2021, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2016/03/18/eu-turkey-statement/.

[9] “EUROPE REFUGEES & MIGRANTS EMERGENCY RESPONSE”, UNHCR, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/MonthlyTrendsofNationalities-ArrivalstoGreeceItalyandSpain-31December2015.pdf.

[10] Gloria Fernández Arribas,” The EU-Turkey Agreement: A Controversial Attempt at Patching up a Major Problem”,  European Papers 1, no.3 (2016):1097-1104, https://www.europeanpapers.eu/en/europeanforum/eu-turkey-agreement-controversial-attempt-patching-up-major-problem.

[11] Ayşen Üstübici, Inka Stock & Susanne Schultz, “Externalization at work: Responses to migration policies from the Global South”, Comparative Migration Studies 7, no. 48 (2019), https://comparativemigrationstudies.springeropen.com/migrationpoliciesglobalsouth.

[12] “New Pact on Migration and Asylum: Agreement reached on the new European Union Agency for Asylum”, European Commission, accessed October 24, 2021, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_21_3241.

[13] Alberto-Horst Neidhardt and Olivia Sundberg Diez, “The upcoming New Pact on Migration and Asylum: Will it be up to the challenge?” European Policy Centre, 29 April 2020, https://www.epc.eu/content/PDF/2020/The_upcoming_New_Pact_on_Migration_and_Asylum.pdf.

[14] “The external dimension of the new pact on migration and asylum: A focus on prevention and readmission”, European Parliament, accessed October 24, 2021, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2021/690535/EPRS_BRI(2021)690535_EN.pdf.

[15] “Speech by Vice-President Schinas on the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, September 23, 2020”, European Commission, accessed October 24, 2021, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/SPEECH_20_1736.

[16] Elin Palm, “Externalized Migration Governance and the Limits of Sovereignty: The Case of Partnership Agreements between EU and Libya”, Theoria 1, no. 86 (2020): 9-27, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/theo.12224.

[17] “The EU is boosting its support to Morocco with new programmes worth €389 million”, European Commission, accessed October 24, 2021, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_19_6810.

[18] “Understanding the New Pact on Migration and Asylum”, Fondation Robert Schuman, no. 577, (2020), https://www.robert-schuman.eu/en/european-issues/0577-understanding-the-new-pact-on-migration-and-asylum.

[19] Judith Sunderland. Twitter Post. September 23, 2020. https://twitter.com/sunderland_jude/status/1308748076635611137.

[20] Nikolaj Nielsen, “Dozen ministers want EU to finance border walls”, EUobserver, Ocotber 8, 2021, https://euobserver.com/migration/153169.

[21] Susanne Baumann, “The fall of the Afghan government and what it means for Europe”, European Council on Foreign Relations, August 25, 2021, https://ecfr.eu/publication/the-fall-of-the-afghan-government-and-what-it-means-for-europe/.

[22] Eddy Wax, “Schinas: Afghanistan should prompt common EU migration policy: Commissioner sees opportunity for progress after French elections”, Politico, September 4, 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/schinas-eu-afghanistan-common-migration-policy/.

[23] “EU announces €1 billion in humanitarian aid for Afghanistan”, Euronews, October 12, 2021, https://www.euronews.com/2021/10/12/eu-announces-1-billion-in-humanitarian-aid-for-afghanistan.

[24] “Afghanistan UNHCR”, UNHCR.  

[25] David M. Herszenhorn, “For EU, Afghanistan is now a four-letter word: Debacle has exposed severe European failings on multiple fronts — but no agreement on how to fix them.”, Politico, September 6, 2021,  https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-afghanistan-military-capability-defense-nato/.

[26] Mohib Iqbal and Marie McAuliffe, “After decades of instability, what does the future hold for Afghan migration?” World Economic Forum, September 28, 2021, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/09/what-does-the-future-hold-for-afghan-migration/.

[27] Baumann, “The fall of the Afghan government and what it means for Europe”.

[28] Herszenhorn, “For EU, Afghanistan is now a four-letter word”.

[29] “’No place for Afghan refugees in Europe,’ says Czech PM Babiš”, Euronews.

[30] Stock, Üstübici and Schultz, “Externalization at work”.

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