(Politique d’asile : de l’interception à l’abandon’).

Project: Gender and Forced Displacement


For more than 20 years, across the European Union, Afghans have featured among the largest group of asylum applicants, yet they are more than twice as likely only to receive subsidiary protection, as opposed to full refugee status. Why the fate of Afghans, should be so different from Syrians, who were received in their millions by Syria’s neighbours, and to a lesser but significant extent EU host states, is part of a long and tragic story for a people who have experienced forty years of conflict. This tale is further complicated by the inter-play of geo-politics, the instability of EU policy design, and the growing tendency of treating forced migrants as useful sources of labour, rather than as people in need of international protection. This article explores how European refugee policy shifted from one of reception to interception and ultimately abandonment.

Key Findings

  • Seven months after the Taliban’s retreat in 2001, European states began exploring the option of ‘voluntary’ return programmes used to justify the success of the NATO mission and to present Afghanistan as a ‘safe’ country.
  • The treatment of Afghans by European hosts and built on traditions of temporary protection.  What was novel, however, was the coming shift in migration policy, which was marked by a desire to create a more unified set of policies across the European Union. 
  • The wars in the former Yugoslavia had a major influence on the design of the EU’s migration ‘acquis’, starting with the 1990 Dublin Convention (later regulation).
  • One defining characteristic of the new proposal was the wish to link development and humanitarian policies which had previously been distinct.
  • Humanitarian concerns were subsumed under refugee and related migration policies, which were designed by the member states and varied remarkably in terms of asylum applications and outcomes.  Development, by contrast, was part of the EU’s multilateral programme, and was channelled through specific policy instruments that benefitted selected states and regional arrangements.
  • The attempt to link internal and external policies was reflected in the expansion of the Dublin regime and the expansion of readmission agreements with third countries, which in turn paved the way for the creation of a Global Approach to Migration (GAM), a programme based on aid in return for cooperation.
  • Throughout the 2000s, the logic of conditionality influenced the design of further EU policy arrangements, most notably, the 2015 EU Agenda on Migration and the 2016 EU-Turkey Statement and Action Plan.
  • While over one million displaced Syrians reached Europe before the borders were closed in 2016, the majority of Afghans were unable to benefit from the EU relocation scheme and offers of asylum, above all in Germany and Sweden, which continued to prioritise Syrians and Iraqis.
  • Other countries erected their own barriers, and subverted the aims of the Dublin system. In several notable cases, national police and border management forces, pushed migrants back over the border into neighbouring states which competed to curtail the presence of migrants in their own countries.
  • Afghans were doubly disadvantaged since few had the educational, professional, and occupational qualifications that had caught the interest of host governments, especially Germany which captured a sizeable number of highly qualified individuals and ‘re-stocked’ its aging workforce.
  • As new flows of irregular migrants reached European shores – and continued to journey north – the contest between EU states over their responsibilities only escalated.  From 2018, the phenomenon of thousands of Afghans in small inflatables departing from French beaches across the Channel, further revealed the breakdown in cooperation between French and British governments, their border management teams, and the limits of conditionality.
  • After the fall of the Afghanistan to the Taliban in August 2021, thousands of Afghans, who had put themselves in danger for international forces, and who might be eligible for relocation assistance were left behind. 
  • From 1 September 2021, there was almost no possibility of exit for all but a handful of high priority individuals. Longstanding refugee host countries such as Germany and Sweden, made individual offers of admission, but provided no means for relocation.
  • Countries like the United Kingdom, did not put staff in place to manage the task they had set for themselves and by October 2021, had yet to set up the Afghan Citizens Relocation Scheme.
  • reception of Syrians recalls the design of contemporary US refugee policy, and in particular the favouritism shown to Cubans, as opposed to Haitians and the ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot policy’.
  • The wet foot/dry foot policy, which places the responsibility on the individual to reach ‘dry land’ also informs the limits of hospitality. In the case of Afghanistan, it exposes the hollow promise of protection, as some European states, as well as Canada, have suggested that Afghans who can make their way to their respective countries would have the right to be admitted.
  • Just five years after the EU received more than 1 million Syrians, and worked to put in place a collective agenda on migration, and developed a new lexicon around mobility, European states have lost the appetite for receiving further waves of refugees, and quickly abandoned the rhetoric of humanitarian protection, once identified with the slogan ‘Refugees Welcome’. 
  • This episode lays bare the pretentions of EU foreign and security cooperation.


  • The UK and European partners need to uphold their responsibilities under international law. 
  • There is also an urgent need to the develop mechanisms to address the waves of irregular migrants, and curb further opportunities for smugglers and traffickers to exploit those who are unable to leave Afghanistan by other means.