Europe hasn’t learned the real lesson on refugees. Afghanistan shows that

Afghans arrive in a small boat on the beach on the Greek island of Kos in May 2015. (Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post)
Afghans arrive in a small boat on the beach on the Greek island of Kos in May 2015. (Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post)

The ongoing crisis in Afghanistan is already uprooting European politics, before the majority of refugees have even arrived. Across the continent, leaders are stoking fears of a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis, when more than 1 million people sought safety and asylum in the European Union.

“We have learned the lesson of 2015 so that we will not see a new migration crisis in the European Union,” said Ylva Johansson, the European Union commissioner for home affairs. “We should not wait until we have Afghan refugees at our external borders. We have to intervene much earlier.”

But what, exactly, is the “lesson of 2015”? Six years later, it’s high time for European leaders to admit that the “crisis” so often invoked was an entirely political fabrication. On the whole, the refugees and asylum seekers who arrived never posed the “civilizational” or “existential” threat we were told they would.

I remember the feverish summer of 2015 — the emotion, the spite. At the time, the conventional wisdom among the commentariat was that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s days were numbered, because she had dared to declare that Germany would open its doors to asylum seekers. “The motive with which we approach these matters must be: We have already managed so much, we’ll manage this,” Merkel said in August 2015, speaking during a news conference at the same time as Hungarian authorities sent tens of thousands of refugees to the German border.

But Merkel’s days were not numbered. Fears of what the French novelist Michel Houellebecq called “submission” — the title of his best-selling novel published that year — and what right-wing extremists called “the great replacement” proved unfounded. Merkel’s decision on refugees was a success story, not a failure. This, if anything, is the lesson of 2015.

Critics always point out that the influx of refugees also included a small number of Islamic State fighters who pretended to be asylum seekers, and who then participated in the devastating terrorist attacks that Europe experienced in 2015 and 2016 — and especially the November 2015 attacks on Paris, when 130 people were killed. Those terrible days I remember, too.

At the same time, the worst fears of 2015 — the so-called clash of civilizations — never quite came to pass, at least beyond the declarations of public agitators and professional polemicists. The European “way of life,” whatever that means, was not under siege. In fact, the vast majority of refugees have contributed to life on the continent.

Consider the case of Germany, which took in the largest number of refugees. As the Guardian’s Philip Oltermann reported last year, more than 10,000 of those who arrived in the country since 2015 have learned the language to the level required to enroll in a German university. More than 50 percent of the 1.7 million who applied for asylum between 2015 and 2019 work and pay taxes. Arguably most important of all: More than 80 percent of younger refugees, children and teenagers, say that they have a strong sense of belonging in their German schools.

But these are statistics. There is a moving human story behind each one, such as the 24 Syrian families who settled on the remote Scottish island of Bute in 2015 and ultimately won the hearts of the local community. There are stories like this — success stories — across Europe.

Yet, of course, the true lesson of 2015 has not been learned. And what is behind much of the current hand-wringing over a potential repeat from Afghanistan is the usual cynical politicking in the run-up to two crucial elections — in Germany in September, and in France in April 2022. Almost like clockwork, those vying to keep or attain power have made clear that they will not allow a mass influx of asylum seekers, in an attempt to stave off their opponents on the right.

French President Emmanuel Macron, already campaigning for a second term next spring, wasted no time in saying that “Europe cannot face the consequences of the current situation on its own.” As Macron put it: “We must anticipate and protect ourselves against sizable flows of irregular migration.”

Armin Laschet, a contender in this year’s German election, insisted that — unlike in 2015 — “we should not send the signal that Germany can take everyone in need.”

On a purely practical level, these fears of “sizable flows” seem unfounded, given that Europe in 2021 has a drastically different approach to processing refugees and asylum seekers than it did six years ago, as the Eurasia Group’s Mujtaba Rahman has pointed out.

In March 2016, the E.U. signed a deal with Turkey that turned back all those migrants who entered Europe via Greece across the Aegean Sea. That deal significantly decreased the number of new arrivals. Whatever one’s opinion on refugees, the Afghanistan situation is unlikely to come anywhere near the situation in 2015.

But that’s another issue. The deeper question, as European leaders keep promising to avoid another 2015, is why they can’t admit the strength of their earlier success.

James McAuley, a Global Opinions contributing columnist, is a former Paris correspondent for The Washington Post. He holds a PhD in French history from the University of Oxford, where he was a Marshall Scholar.

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