Press play to listen to this article.
Florian Bieber holds the Jean Monnet Chair on Europeanisation in Southeastern Europe at the University of Graz, Austria, and is the coordinator of the Balkan Policy Advisory Group in Europe. He tweets at @fbieber.
Deport, deport, deport: When the Taliban entered Kabul, the Austrian Federal Minister of the Interior, Karl Nehammer, reiterated this mantra in an interview with the newspaper Kleine Zeitung.
“We have to deport as long as possible,” he said.
Nehammer’s insistence on deportation has less to do with the news from Afghanistan than it does with Austrian, and indeed European, politics. Under the leadership of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian Conservatives (ÖVP) to which Nehammer belongs have moved dramatically to the extreme right on migration issues in recent years.
And in doing so, they have become a benchmark for dominant parties, especially conservatives, across the continent, defending a defensive and isolationist ideology as opposed to seeing Europe as a global political actor.
As soon as the Taliban seized Kabul and the presidential palace on Sunday, and images emerged of Afghans desperately trying to get on flights out of the country, Nehammer announced his plan to create deportation centers in Afghanistan to receive asylum seekers. Rejected.
His intervention took place a few days after the (then) Afghan Ambassador to Austria, Manizha Bakhtari, was called to the Foreign Ministry because she had asked a ban on deportations to country. Today, Bakhtari no longer has a country to represent, and the new rulers of Afghanistan are unlikely to send a woman to represent them.
Considering Nehammer’s stubborn insistence on deportations, one might think that Austria is overwhelmed by Afghan asylum seekers. The numbers tell a different story. In total, only around 1,200 Afghans have been returned from Europe to their home country this year, including just 200 forced returns. Between 2017 and 2019, only 572 Afghans were returned from Austria and, since 2020, the number of returns has been even lower.
And while Afghan nationals make up the second largest group of asylum cases in the country, after Syrians, the number of rejected cases in 2020 was just 3,048, which is not a pressing burden.
Sadly, Nehammer is not alone in his position on migration. His push for deportations is just one highly visible example of a shift since 2015 to the extreme right when it comes to asylum and refugee issues.
In German, for example, the day after the fall of Kabul, the main statement by Armin Laschet, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) candidate for German Chancellor, was “2015 should not be repeated.” His statement, which refers to the so-called refugee crisis that began that year, suggests that the EU’s top priority after the fall of Kabul should be to prevent fleeing Afghan refugees from reaching Europe.
Similarly, in Emmanuel Macron’s first public speech after the fall of Kabul, the French president focused on how “to anticipate and protect ourselves from large irregular migratory flows.”
In their remarks, Laschet, Nehammer and Macron, who face an election campaign next year, have reduced the collapse of 20 years of international nation-building and a devastating tragedy for women’s rights and human rights to a single question. : how to get Afghan asylum. seekers back to their country and keep the new ones out.
As Ruth Wodak, a distinguished Austrian linguist, has shown, the narrative of dominant humanitarianism that existed in 2015 has today been replaced by the politics of fear and the depiction of refugees as a threat.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán may be increasingly (and belatedly) shunned by his former conservative allies, but his idea that Europe should isolate itself from the rest of the world, and especially from its Muslim neighbors, has become mainstream. principal.
The isolationism embodied by Nehammer not only ignores the EU’s legal and humanitarian obligations, enshrined in the UN refugee convention that celebrated its 70th anniversary just a few weeks ago, it is also astonishingly parochial. Austria might believe that it can afford to ignore world politics, but for Germany, France and the EU, such a lack of ambition in foreign policy is worrisome.
Western efforts to support a functional government in Afghanistan have clearly failed. The main question now is how to deal with the Taliban as de facto rulers. However, if the only lens through which to view the country is through the alleged threat of refugees, the only results will be the legitimation of the far right and the abdication of the EU to any pretense to shape the global politics.