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Erdogan: "Turkey will not be Europe's refugee warehouse"

The Turkish president warns Brussels and refuses to take responsibility for a new wave of migration amid Afghanistan turmoil
Faced with a possible new wave of migrants from Afghanistan, Erdogan on Thursday called on European nations to take responsibility for Afghans fleeing a Taliban onslaught and warned that his country would not become Europe's "refugee warehouse"

PHOTO/ Turkish Presidency via AP  -   Faced with a possible new wave of migrants from Afghanistan, Erdogan on Thursday called on European nations to take responsibility for Afghans fleeing a Taliban onslaught and warned that his country would not become Europe's "refugee warehouse"

In Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, not all Afghans seem to have a place. The siren songs of the insurgents, who claim to have evolved their practices, a general amnesty and a unity government, contrast with their previous experience in power between 1996 and 2001. They also contrast with the latest information coming out of the Asian country, which describes the "door-to-door" search and pursuit of all alleged opponents. Despite the increasing cost of escape routes, a flood of Afghans have left the country and many more are expected to do the same in the coming hours and days. In this context, the European Union fears a new migration crisis that could shake the foundations of the old continent once again.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds the key. As happened in 2015 with the massive influx of Syrian refugees, the Ottoman leader is in a position to regulate the entry of hundreds of thousands of people into Europe or take over the migratory flow, ultimately protected by European funds. The rapid and unexpected rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan promises to open a new chapter in relations between Ankara and Brussels, and the Turkish leader is aware of the situation. For this reason, Erdogan launched his first attack on the EU on Thursday.

: El presidente francés Emmanuel Macron hablando sobre la situación en Afganistán, desde la residencia presidencial de verano Fort de Bregancon en Bormes-les-Mimosas, sureste de Francia el 16 de agosto de 2021
AFP/CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT  -  French President Emmanuel Macron speaking on the situation in Afghanistan, from the summer presidential residence Fort de Bregancon in Bormes-les-Mimosas, southeastern France on August 16, 2021

"Turkey does not have the duty, responsibility or obligation to be Europe's refugee warehouse", Erdogan said in a televised appearance after convening the hard core of the executive branch. The Turkish leader singled out European states and urged them to assume their share of responsibility for the migratory wave, while at the same time showing his cards for future negotiations with Brussels. For their part, continental leaders are working to weave a common response to the migration challenge. The first to highlight the issue was French President Emmanuel Macron, who warned of a "major challenge to our own security" in a controversial speech.

Up to 400,000 Afghans have been displaced so far this year, according to data collected by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), only a fraction of whom have made it out of the country. In recent days, dozens of Afghan refugees have arrived in Turkey across the border with Iran, although Turkey "has no obligation to be a safe haven" for them, according to Erdogan's statements. Ankara approved the construction of a wall along the Iranian border. The project is nearing completion. Meanwhile, the Ottoman leader assured that the crossing had been reinforced by sending military, gendarmerie and police.

Sirios llevan sus pertenencias mientras cruzan de vuelta a Siria en el paso fronterizo sirio-turco de Bab al-Hawa en la provincia de Idlib, Siria
REUTERS/KHALIL ASHAWI  -  Syrians carry their belongings as they cross back into Syria at the Syrian-Turkish border crossing at Bab al-Hawa in Idlib province, Syria

According to the United Nations, Turkey is the country with the largest number of refugees in the world. The Turkish state is hosting a total of 5 million foreign nationals, including more than 3.5 million Syrians, another 450,000 who have already returned to their home country, and nearly 300,000 Afghans. Of the total number of displaced persons, more than one million have a residence permit in Turkey.

In March 2016, Turkey reached a historic agreement with the European Union following the wave of migration caused by the civil war in Syria. More than a million people came to the continent to apply for asylum, a reason that forced Merkel to respond a year earlier with her open-door policy. The decision generated friction between member states over the distribution of reception percentages, so Germany decided to push through negotiations with Erdogan through the European Union with one objective: to halt the massive influx of Syrians into Europe.

Fotografia de archivo, la canciller alemana Angela Merkel y el presidente turco Tayyip Erdogan en la cumbre de la OTAN en la sede de la Alianza, en Bruselas, el 14 de junio de 2021
AFP/ YVES HERMAN  -  File photo, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan at the NATO summit at NATO headquarters in Brussels, 14 June 2021

The terms of the pact established that Turkey would take charge of irregular migrants attempting to enter Greece and prevent the opening of new migratory routes. In return, the EU would extend €6 billion in aid, ease visa restrictions for Turkish citizens and bring Ankara closer to EU membership. However, Brussels' rhetoric has shifted. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's successor, Amin Laschet, has spoken out against welcoming a new wave of refugees. "2015 must not be repeated", he said. The rise of far-right movements across the continent, the threat of terrorism and a list of counterproductive consequences threaten leaders.

However, it is not Europe that bears the brunt of the Afghan refugee burden. Pakistan and Iran have borne the bulk of displaced people in the country for decades. Official figures reveal that around 1.5 million Afghans currently live in Pakistan. This is the third largest refugee population in the world, not taking into account that the UN estimates the number to be even higher, even more than three million. This factor hampers Islamabad's development and poses a serious security threat, as Taliban and terrorist groups pass through its porous border and have attacked civilians in the country despite Pakistani government backing.

Internal weakness
Decenas de miles de personas han intentado huir de Afganistán desde que los militantes islamistas de línea dura irrumpieron en la capital el 15 de agosto, completando una impresionante derrota de las fuerzas gubernamentales tras dos décadas de insurgencia
AFP PHOTO / HO / IRANIAN RED CRESCENT  -  Tens of thousands of people have tried to flee Afghanistan since hardline Islamist militants stormed the capital on 15 August, completing a stunning rout of government forces after two decades of insurgency

A new migration crisis similar to the one that occurred five years ago would be a shot in the arm for Erdogan. The situation in which the Ottoman leader finds himself is a priori favourable to Turkey's interests. Just as in 2016, Ankara can make its role in the region politically and economically profitable with a new list of concessions from the European Union. The migration deal worked, so it could materialise again. This was acknowledged by the EU's High Representative for Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell, who declared in April that 'renewing the pact is an obligation and in the interest of all parties'.

However, beyond the ordago to Brussels, Erdogan's domestic situation is complex. This time around, despite his advantageous position, the Turkish president is going through one of the lowest hours of his term in office. The Ottoman country is experiencing a major crisis, both internally and externally. The problems plaguing Turkey include the devaluation of the lira, galloping inflation and the dispute over hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean.

Combatientes talibanes en las calles de Kabul, Afganistán, el jueves 19 de agosto de 2021
AP/RAHMAT GUL  -  Taliban fighters on the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021

This ecosystem is fuelling the growth of anti-immigrant sentiment. More and more Turkish citizens are flatly rejecting the influx of new migrants, and Erdogan is looking askance at the polls. The president's line is clear: "Our state is primarily responsible for the security and welfare of its 84 million citizens," he said. "It is our obligation to Turkish citizens to ensure the safe return of refugees to their countries of origin.

Erdogan's relationship with the Taliban will also play a role here. Ankara's intentions are to establish cooperative ties with the insurgents, hence the Turkish president has "welcomed" the alleged restraint shown so far by the fundamentalists. "We will meet with the government formed by the Taliban if necessary and discuss our mutual agendas," Erdogan said. "We have said before that we can accept the Taliban leaders," he warned.