On the picturesque Aegean island of Limnos, a new surveillance system is being field-tested this week. If effective, its thermal sensors, camera balloons, ship transponders, and satellite links will provide a 15,000-square-mile panopticon view of approaching boats. In another world, this could be an aid for rescuing people adrift at sea. But in this world, the European Union agency operating the system works to do exactly the opposite.
The agency in question, known as Frontex (European Border and Coast Guard Agency), is currently the subject of a complaint in the Rome prosecutor’s office that makes for grim reading. When NGOs desperately tried to draw authorities’ attention to an ailing refugee boat over a twenty-four-hour period on April 22, they were ignored. The result was that 130 people lost their lives.
The Aegean tests have been planned for some time. But now they have taken on a new context, with the Taliban capture of Kabul sparking a new and dire refugee emergency. More than 2 million Afghans have already had to flee. Neighboring countries will absorb most of them, but many will be pushed further afield. Already last year, 44,000 Afghans pleaded for asylum in Europe. Now, far more people need help — and a place to live.
Yet Europe’s response has been to raise up the drawbridge. Six EU member states have written to the European Commission demanding that deportations of Afghan refugees proceed, despite the Taliban advance. These are people who have suffered under decades of largely foreign-sponsored violence, from the internal conflict that spiraled into a US-Soviet proxy war in the 1980s to the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s, NATO’s long war, and now the prospect of renewed Taliban rule. And many of them will now face another armed force in Frontex itself — a European army by any other name, set to become the bloc’s largest agency in the next few years.
“No One Forced Them”
Frontex replied to this latest crisis with a dour statement. For the EU’s border guard, “Of course we are observing and following the developments specifically in Afghanistan and Tunisia which might have an effect on migratory flows towards the European Union.” What this means in practice is that they are preparing to repel people by any means necessary, using a complex and lethal system that has already claimed two thousand lives in the last year. Much like the Afghan and Iraq wars, these border wars are a profit bonanza for arms and tech companies that benefit from and lobby for harsh security measures — and spread misery for everyone else.
As desperate Afghans fall from the wheels of departing aircraft in heartbreaking scenes, the nations that occupied the country for supposedly humanitarian reasons remain cold-eyed and hard-nosed. The UK and the United States have consistently and stubbornly attempted to dodge their obligations, even to their own Afghan staff seeking help and safety. A spokesperson for the German military succinctly dropped all responsibility for the Afghan translators now at risk of reprisals: “No one forced them to work for us.”
France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, has pledged to “protect” Europe against Afghans, presumably hoping to outflank his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen in next spring’s elections.
Across the Channel, the UK’s Home Office is sitting on some three thousand outstanding asylum applications. Many of these will be long-standing; the system is intentionally labyrinthine and arduous, and it has gotten worse, logjammed not because of increasing numbers but because of the same combination of callousness and incompetence that produced Britain’s Windrush scandal. This week, the Home Office has removed its online guidance for Afghans seeking to submit an asylum application. This is apparently pursuant to the approval of a new resettlement scheme, but for now, British Afghans trying to aid their friends and families remain in confusion and limbo.
The UK has deported 15,000 Afghans in recent years, sitting at the top of a European total of 70,000. With nearly a quarter of a million war deaths, weak institutions, and rising extreme poverty, the country has never been safe — and most European powers have formally, if quietly, acknowledged this. But the deportation machine was still able to serve as part of the illusion of security reflected in political and military institutions that crumpled within days of their foreign scaffolding being removed.
Under first Donald Trump then Joe Biden, Washington chose to withdraw from Afghanistan for its own pragmatic reasons. It acknowledged what many military figures — and hardly just the antiwar left — have been telling it for a long time: namely that there are no viable military answers in this country. Yet, like guerrillas in the hills, holdouts of interventionists remain on both sides of the political mainstream. They are prepared to commit to wars of infinite lengths and costs — with Washington Post commentator Max Boot even making a comparison to the murderous, three-century-long “Indian Wars.”
That such viewpoints coexist with a complete lack of enthusiasm for even a much lower-cost operation to protect refugees is a horrifying display of the West’s political assumptions.
The War on Terror and its social, political, and economic wreckage is now twenty years old. It’s lasted twice as long as my adult life. It saw the world’s last remaining superpower usher in a new century by trying to measure problems in terms of the tonnage of ordnance it could drop on them. Now — in a world ravaged by an ongoing pandemic, in which just last week the international body of climate scientists declared a code red for humanity — it is surely time to pursue approaches to humanitarian emergencies based on something better than endless militarization.
Concerted effort to prevent a refugee emergency on the scale of the 2015–17 Mediterranean crisis is the most important demand we can make now. And this is the very least that countries largely responsible for the current situation can do. Every major country should accept its fair share of fleeing Afghans, starting with but not limited to those who it has direct responsibilities to protect. High-tech coastal infrastructure should be used to facilitate, not deny, safe passage to human beings. And a significant international relief package must be assembled to ensure Afghanistan’s neighbors can manage the influx of refugees and support people fleeing terror.
None of this can undo the damage done over the past two decades. But, at the very least, the coda to this dismal affair could be genuine action to help suffering human beings.