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Afghan Refugee Crisis: Why Merkel Closed Her Open Border

The Syrian refugee crisis in 2015 ignited a bitter rivalry between Germany's Angela Merkel and Austria's Sebastian Kurz. Merkel was in favor of a "culture of welcome," while Kurz argued for border protection. But with the current Afghan refugee crisis, the German leader is shifting course.

Afghan Refugee Crisis: Why Merkel Closed Her Open Border

Angela Merkel leaving the German Bundestag in Berlin, September 2021

Klaus Geiger and Christoph B. Schiltz


BERLIN — Six years ago, the now outgoing German Chancellor,Angela Merkel argued that borders cannot be divided by walls. That was on Oct. 26, 2015. Her future Austrian counterpart, Sebastian Kurz, disagreed. "It's simply not true to claim that it doesn't work," he said in an Austrian radio interview. "The question is whether we want to do it or not."

It was the first time the Austrian chancellor, at that time foreign minister, had openly contradicted Merkel. Kurz went on to say that it was "hypocritical" to give Turkey money for border protection and "at the same time make grand statements about humanity." He said Merkel should "be honest" about her stance.

Here was a 29-year-old politician openly accusing the most powerful national leader in Europe of hypocrisy and dishonesty. It was the start of a long-running battle that centered on different views about what the values of a conservative party should be. A battle that is suddenly heating up again.

In the past it was Syria. Now it's Afghanistan.

Last week, Sebastian Kurz made what will probably be his last visit to the departing German chancellor. The subject of their discussions was once again how to deal with refugees. In the past it was Syria. Now it's Afghanistan.

" Austria has taken on more than its fair share of Afghan refugees," said Kurz as he stood next to Merkel in Berlin. "Relative to our population, we have the fourth largest Afghan community in the world."

A quiet convergence

Kurz is not playing politics with the German chancellor. His view on accepting refugees from Afghanistan is well known. For weeks now, every time Kurz has stood before a microphone, he has said the same thing: no Afghan refugees in Austria, or in Europe, whether they arrive there themselves or are taken as part of a quota. He has argued for helping refugees within Afghanistan or its neighboring countries, and sending any refugees who arrive in Europe back to the region.

In his interview in October 2015, he was already arguing for a system "where asylum seekers can make their applications in their country of origin or countries they are passing through, outside of the European Union."

His stance has been unwavering. Instead, it's Angela Merkel who has been edging gradually closer to Kurz's position. While in 2015 and 2016 she consistently argued for "solidarity" in accepting quotas of refugees in Europe. Now Merkel is speaking about deportation and protecting the EU's borders.

The two politicians, who also clashed during the Syrian refugee crisis, now seem to be aligned. Merkel is not contradicting Kurz at all. Like him, she says that the EU should provide funds to help people stay in Afghanistan — that they need to look after the 550,000 or so internally displaced people within Afghanistan and protect them from a possible famine. Meanwhile, conversations with neighboring countries about accepting refugees are ongoing.

People evacuated from Afghanistan waiting in a hangar at Ramstein Air Base in Germany — Photo: Uwe Anspach/dpa/ZUMA Press

Merkel is employing two strategies: First, she is narrowing down the question. For the moment she has said that she is focusing on the "10,000 to 40,000" local staff, although UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi has said that the internally displaced persons in Afghanistan are the biggest problem.

Second, Merkel is playing for time when it comes to the refugees who want to travel to Europe. "We have not yet reached a decision" about quotas for the resettlement of those entitled to protection in Europe, she says. "We will only be able to answer that question when we see how many people leave Afghanistan." That will depend on conditions under the Taliban.

The EU is struggling to establish a joint asylum policy — resettlement will be decided at national level.

The resettlement question has already sparked conflict within the EU. The European Commission has asked member states to declare by mid-September how many refugees they can accept — not only Afghans, but generally. In total, all member countries only promised 30,000 places for 2020 and 2021. Luxembourg's foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, was the first European politician to name a special figure for Afghans, saying the EU should accept 40,000 to 50,000 people.

German Federal Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer (CSU) was quick to reject Asselborn's proposal. "Luxembourg takes on very few refugees, and it should consider the interests of those countries that accept the bulk of refugees a little more closely," he said. The EU is currently struggling to establish a joint asylum policy — resettlement numbers will be decided at national level.

Mum's the word

Since Kurz first came to power in 2017, Austria has no longer taken part in resettlement programs. Greece and Slovenia have announced that they will not accept any Afghans. Countries such as the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, Portugal and Spain, however, have said they will take a quota, although as yet no one has named a concrete figure.

Then there are those who make their own way by land to Europe. During the Syrian refugee crisis, Germany accepted more than a million people who arrived this way. But although these people were at the heart of Angela Merkel's culture of welcome six years ago, she is now remaining silent about them.

Turkey is building a wall along its border with Iran, in order to keep Afghans out. Greece is building a wall on its land border with Turkey and returning migrants it picks up on the water to Turkey, although that is against EU law. And so far, Angela Merkel is saying nothing.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Vulnerable Are The Russians In Crimea?

Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Russia is doing all within its power to deny how vulnerable it has become.

Photograph of the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters with smoke rising above it after a Ukrainian missile strike.

September 22, 2023, Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia: Smoke rises over the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters after a Ukrainian missile strike.

Kyrylo Danylchenko

This article was updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.

Russian authorities are making a concerted effort to downplay and even deny the recent missile strikes in Russia-occupied Crimea.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Media coverage in Russia of these events has been intentionally subdued, with top military spokesperson Igor Konashenkov offering no response to an attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, or the alleged downing last week of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Ukrainian Air Defense.

The response from this and other strikes on the Crimean peninsula and surrounding waters of the Black Sea has alternated between complete silence and propagating falsehoods. One notable example of the latter was the claim that the Russian headquarters building of the Black Sea fleet that was hit Friday was empty and that the multiple explosions were mere routine training exercises.

Ukraine claimed on Monday that the attack killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. "After the strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 34 officers died, including the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Another 105 occupiers were wounded. The headquarters building cannot be restored," the Ukrainian special forces said via Telegram.

But Sokolov was seen on state television on Tuesday, just one day after Ukraine claimed he'd been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry released footage of the admiral partaking in a video conference with top admirals and chiefs, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, though there was no verification of the date of the event.

Moscow has been similarly obtuse following other reports of missiles strikes this month on Crimea. Russian authorities have declared that all missiles have been intercepted by a submarine and a structure called "VDK Minsk", which itself was severely damaged following a Ukrainian airstrike on Sept. 13. The Russians likewise dismissed reports of a fire at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, attributing it to a mundane explosion caused by swamp gas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refrained from commenting on the military situation in Crimea and elsewhere, continuing to repeat that everything is “proceeding as planned.”

Why is Crimea such a touchy topic? And why is it proving to be so hard to defend?

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