By Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) -European Union countries on Tuesday said they would step up aid to Afghanistan and its neighbours but could not agree a common policy on accepting asylum-seekers fleeing Taliban rule.
Western nations involved in the fight against the Taliban have airlifted 100,000 people who supported them, and would take them in, along with others who failed to get onto the last evacuation flights. Chancellor Angela Merkel said this group included up to 40,000 people with the right to German residency.
The issue dividing EU countries is whether asylum should be extended by the bloc as a whole to other groups considered likely to suffer under the Taliban’s application of strict sharia, or Islamic law.
For many, the crisis evokes 2015, when more than a million people from Syria and other countries reached the EU, to be met with indignation from some member states, who rejected appeals to take in some asylum-seekers in a gesture of EU solidarity.
European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said the bloc should take in Afghan women, children, judges, journalists and human rights activists who were vulnerable to the Taliban after 20 years of greater rights and freedoms.
“The best way to avoid a migration crisis is to avoid a humanitarian crisis” in Afghanistan, she said after a meeting of member states’ interior ministers. “Everybody would like to avoid a situation like we had in 2015.”
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, whose country has taken in the bulk of the new arrivals since 2015, said all member countries should play their part. But Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary and Poland opposed hosting Afghans.
“Stay there – and we will support the region to help the people there,” Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer told those hoping to reach Europe.
Eventually, the ministers decided only those willing EU countries would resettle people from Afghanistan, with a special focus on the most vulnerable groups of women and children.
The EU has half a billion people, and needs immigrants to sustain its ageing population. The bloc gave asylum to 300,000 people last year, Johansson said.
But the irregular arrivals of 2015-16 stretched social and security systems, fed anti-migrant sentiment and triggered feuds between member countries on how to provide for them.
Deadly attacks by Islamist radicals in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Berlin and other cities have since fuelled hostility in parts of Europe to the mostly-Muslim immigration from the Middle East and Africa.
“We are afraid this situation could again result in terrorist attacks on EU soil,” said Interior Minister Ales Hojs of Slovenia, the current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency.
Hawks, including Poland and Hungary, rejected the hosting of refugees, saying they pose a security threat and challenge to the traditional makeup of their societies, and the issue of immigration became highly political.
Since 2016, the bloc has fortified its external borders and increased assistance to countries including Turkey, Lebanon, Libya and Tunisia in a bid to keep migrants away.
“Based on lessons learned, the EU and its Member States stand determined to act jointly to prevent the recurrence of uncontrolled large-scale illegal migration movements faced in the past,” the ministers said in a joint statement.
Johansson said the bloc was ready to quadruple humanitarian aid to Afghans, but that development assistance was on hold until the Taliban shows enough commitment to the rights of women and minorities.
The ministers’ statement gave no details on the funding.
The EU hosts a 10th of the world’s refugees, equivalent to about 0.6% of the bloc’s total population.
Last year, 42,000 Afghans won legal protection in the EU. Afghans accounted for just over a 10th of first-time asylum applications in the bloc, the second group after Syrians, and made up 8% of irregular entries, Commission data shows.
While millions were internally displaced in Afghanistan and in need of humanitarian assistance, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said it was hard to estimate how many would leave the country and the region for Europe.
Johansson said, so far, there has not been an exodus of Afghans.
(Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop and Joseph Nasr, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Barbara Lewis)