The Afghan Tragedy – There Are Ways Out of Helplessness

Afghanistan should serve as a catalyst to remake migration policy at national and international level. Civil society and local authorities can contribute in important ways, yet we will have to create a better enabling environment. An essay by Sandra Breka, CEO of the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

Sandra Breka | September 2021
Two young people sit in front of a poster with the inscription "Welcome".
UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

The situation in Afghanistan must be a reason for Germany and other countries to establish a sustainable and humane migration policy.

In August 2015, thousands of refugees were met by cheering locals at Munich’s central station. That summer’s elation stands in dramatic contrast to our collective powerlessness now as tragedy unfolds in Afghanistan, a country in which tens of thousands of people are still waiting to leave in search of international protection. Today’s migration policy functions as an antithesis of policy back then. It prizes “order” and “control” – and aims to restrict responsibility for Afghan refugees to Afghanistan’s direct neighbors.  

Afghanistan must serve as a catalyst for Germany and its partners to establish a sustainable and humane migration policy. In doing so, we are also making important provisions for a global context in which migration interacts with other pressing challenges like climate change, inequality, and conflict. Our current international migration system is ill-equipped for the looming effects of these interdependencies.

The vast majority of the world’s 26.4 million refugees are outside of a Europe that continues to close itself off. Even in Germany, claims for asylum have fallen sharply since 2016 and could in 2021 well reach their lowest level in eight years. At the same time, there is no end in sight for the tragedies unfolding in the Mediterranean or for the perennial crises affecting Lebanon, where one in six inhabitants is a refugee.

Sandra Breka
Gene Glover

About the person

Sandra Breka is CEO of the Robert Bosch Stiftung. Before joining the foundation in 2001, she served as Program Director at the Aspen Institute Berlin after an assignment with the American Council on Germany in New York. After studies in Germany, France and the United States, Sandra Breka obtained her M.A. at Columbia University in New York. She was a Yale World Fellow in 2008.


International solidarity – humanitarian duty and national self-interest

Germany and Europe alike need to establish legal, safe and orderly admission programs for refugees. They would be used in times of crisis and provide an alternative to the perilous escape routes people turn to in their desperation. Such international solidarity and respect for human dignity are a humanitarian obligation for every government – and also in each country’s national self-interest.

Iran and Pakistan are currently home to around 90 percent of the 2.2 million registered Afghan refugees. Resettling the most vulnerable among them to other countries would give them the protection they need. Without such international responsibility sharing refugee protection is doomed to fail. In acute crises, refugee admission programs offer a lifeline for tens of thousands.

Sadly, on a global scale, there is a huge gap between the number of refugees the United Nations identifies in need of resettlement and the number of resettlement places offered by governments. Before the pandemic, only around five percent of the most vulnerable refugees had been resettled. Germany is this year admitting up to 6,800 refugees through resettlement and humanitarian admissions programs, even though some experts and politicians say it should resettle at least 40,000 people per year. But where governments fail or are slow to act, civil society and local authorities are increasingly stepping in to offer protection for refugees.

Germany and Europe alike need to establish legal, safe and orderly admission programs for refugees.

Many Germans support refugee resettlement programs

How do the people living in Germany feel about this? The Citizens’ Assembly on “Germany’s Role in the World” is calling for an EU resettlement program and a coalition of the willing with Germany, if a European solution fails to materialize. Some 270 German cities, towns and counties – alongside 70 cities worldwide – have expressed their willingness to take in refugees, including those who have recently fled Afghanistan.

This commitment should be adopted and publicly supported as a complement to a more adequate and reliable state-led resettlement program. So-called community sponsorship should be a feature: local groups or local authorities would be enabled to welcome and support refugees by contributing social, financial, and emotional support. To do this well, these actors would also have to be more involved in decisions on resettlement. A national survey carried out this year by More in Common, a civil-society group, showed that 22% of respondents in Germany said they could imagine contributing to community sponsorship.

A similar program in Canada has welcomed around 300,000 refugees since 1979. To complement efforts by the state, a German pilot program was established in 2019 to welcome 500 individuals through a partnership of government and civil society. This kind of community sponsorship offers many advantages: personal relationships and individual support help integrate refugees and counter social polarization.  

The next German government has the opportunity to remake refugee policy at national and international level. Resettlement programs supported by civil society and local authorities can contribute to European and international migration policy in important ways. There are ways out of helplessness, it is just a matter of applying them.

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