Afghan Refugee Crisis and How it Impacts the Relations between NATO Allies and Turkey-U.S. Bilateral Relations

By THO Team Member, Beliz Aluc

Afghan Refugees and NATO’s policy

The immigration and refugee crisis is one of the biggest issues in the World in the 21st century. While trying to find the best way to deal with the problem, international alliances and organizations have significant responsibility, especially NATO, whose members are key actors in dealing with the immigration and refugee issue within the Middle East. However, members are getting worried about being able to support the recent influx of refugees since the numbers are becoming overwhelming, especially after the U.S. decision to leave Afghanistan.

Starting from the beginning of this year, the UNHCR report shows that 116,403 Afghan asylum seekers and 980 Afghan refugees have resided in Turkey. In Europe, Afghans made up 6% of all arrivals to Europe through the Mediterranean from 2020 to February 2021. These numbers went up since the U.S. announced its decision to permanently leave Afghanistan in early August. Some countries have established a strong stance against accepting refugees, jeopardizing the positions of thousands fleeing the Taliban’s rule and overwhelming the numbers in other Ally countries. 

With policies like the Dublin Regulation, a European Union law that limits the options for the refugees to be able to choose where they are seeking asylum, it’s difficult to distribute refugees on a fair scale. According to the regulation, asylum seekers can only seek asylum in the country that they have entered first. So, the obligation to support the refugees lies disproportionately on border countries such as Greece and Italy. This increases the chance of refugees being returned to their country of origin, as the first countries they arrive in are usually overwhelmed in numbers. At the same time, refugees’ preferences are not taken into account in refugee distribution at all. With this kind of policy in place, both refugees and some members have to pay a bigger price especially with the recent fluctuation of Afghan refugees arriving in border countries like Turkey and Greece. 

After the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, several far-right and populist parties gained popularity all over Europe because of the overwhelming numbers of refugees and the economic crisis at the time. Fearing far-right parties gaining potential popularity in Europe again, European countries have responded to the influx by saying that they would come up with a robust response that would essentially aim to pay transit countries like Turkey, Central Asian countries, and Pakistan to keep refugees there.

At the same time, NATO countries feel the obligation to accept and resettle as many Afghan refugees as possible since they were also sending troops to Afghanistan in collaboration with the U.S. Several countries, including Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany despite their fears of going through another 2015 crisis are pledging to take in refugees. However, a lot of experts say that the number of refugees that these countries declared to take are not sufficient compared to the number of Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban’s rule. For example, Estonia, another NATO ally bordering Russia, said that it would only take in only 10 Afghan refugees which to many people sounds humorous considering Turkey, who is a Key Ally in the region, is accepting thousands of Afghan refugees every day. So, even in the body of NATO, countries have different principles in resettling refugees, and there seems to be no consensus on the distribution of refugees within the body of NATO.

Relations between The U.S. and The Allies

The U.S. decision to leave Afghanistan was not welcomed by the Alliance as they had a different opinion on the issue. Even though John Stoltenberg backed up Joe Biden and claimed to have unity between the Allies on the issue, a lot of countries expressed a lack of consultation on the U.S.’s part as they have felt like the decision was already made without their input even though they had 7,000 non-American NATO forces on the ground in Afghanistan. Most European leaders came forward saying that they have opposed the timeline from the very beginning. Especially considering the influx of Afghan refugees in the region and the Allies’ attitude towards migration as mentioned above, the decision caused tensions between the U.S. and the other allies to increase. On the other hand, Turkey has gained positive attention from the Allies in the EU and by the U.S. as it became a key actor in accepting refugees even though the U.S. and Turkey had some tensions prior to this crisis because of the S-400 crisis. So, the refugee crisis might be a way to strengthen the relations between the Allies as well as providing a reason to negotiate a refugee policy that NATO can implement now and even in the future. 

Possible Solutions

In order to best deal with the crisis, the Allies’ unity within NATO is crucial. NATO can act as a common denominator to this problem by instigating conversation and negotiation between the Allies as well as challenging the EU policies like the Dublin Regulation in order to come up with a policy that can distribute refugees in Europe and some parts of the Middle East on a fairer scale. In addition, the U.S. will need to increase the number of Afghan refugees that it’s accepting at the moment in order to protect its image as a hegemon that is dedicated to supporting refugees and serve its own national security interests by heightening U.S. soft power and reassuring its allies both in Europe and the Middle East that are struggling to deal with a migrant crisis. NATO’s transition to a different period and the U.S. leaving Afghanistan marks a new beginning in the history of International Relations and NATO cooperation. This cooperation can be crucial in determining the future relations between the Allies and the U.S. and that’s why the Allies need to come together in order to protect their own interests as well as the Alliance’s future.