‘No time to lose’: How is Italy responding to the Afghan refugee crisis?

With an influx of Afghan refugees expected in Europe following the Taliban's advancement in the capital Kabul, Italy has expressed support for the Afghan people seeking protection. Here's how Italy is responding to Afghanistan's humanitarian crisis.

'No time to lose': How is Italy responding to the Afghan refugee crisis?
Photo: AFP

Thousands of Afghan citizens have been fleeing Afghanistan in recent days following a Taliban takeover of regional capitals in the country – especially women and children, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

Most are heading to Iran and Pakistan by land and from there, it’s not clear where they’ll go – or who will accept them at the gates.

Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi and Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel discussed the emergency on Tuesday “in light of the worsening of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and in the framework of ongoing international contacts on the crisis,” a government statement read.

The two leaders discussed protection of the Afghan people and “the most vulnerable categories, in particular the Afghan women”.

Although no official plans have been submitted on how Italy or Germany will support Afghan citizens in need, their governments assessed various initiatives that could be adopted within the EU “to support Afghanistan’s stability and protect the achievements in the field of human rights and fundamental freedoms reached in the last twenty years.”

READ ALSO: Italy creates ‘air bridge’ to evacuate civilians from Afghanistan

Speaking to Italian TV news channel Tg1 on Tuesday, Draghi said, “Europe will rise to the occasion. We are all aware that cooperation is absolutely necessary to address two objectives: reception (accepting refugees) and security.”

“In these 20 years, Italy has lost 54 soldiers and about 700 have been wounded. I say to the families – their sacrifice was not in vain. They defended the values for which they were sent and they did well. For me and for all Italians, they are heroes,” he added.

Italy evacuated embassy staff and other Italian and Afghan nationals on its first emergency flight from Kabul on Sunday night, while hundreds of Afghan citizens tried to flee the country by storming the airfield – with some hanging on desperately to a US military aircraft as it taxied the runway and took off.

A second Italian evacuation flight left Kabul on Wednesday with another 85 Afghan nationals bound for Rome on Italian air force C130J aircraft, according to news reports – 150 more former aids to the Italian mission in Afghanistan are set to depart from Kabul across two further flights.

READ ALSO: German forces to help evacuate people from Afghanistan

Italy repatriated its remaining approximately 900 soldiers as part of the accelerated withdrawal of NATO forces back in June.

The country has deployed some 50,000 troops in Afghanistan over the past 20 years following the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

Matteo Biffoni, a delegate for immigration at National Association of Italian Municipalities, said in a statement, “There is no time to lose, we know very well how civilians who have collaborated with our missions in Afghanistan are now in great danger, especially women and minors.”

Deputy foreign minister Marina Sereni took a similar stance. “We must adopt an attitude of openness and maximum welcome,” she told reporters.

“Also in light of the many municipalities, associations and civil society organisations that have made it known in the last few hours that they are ready to welcome people, families, women and children who want to flee Afghanistan,” she added.

‘A humanitarian corridor must be established urgently’

Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has reminded all countries of their “obligation to protect civilians” and to “refrain from any repatriation”.

He spoke of his concern for human rights violations against women and children in Afghanistan “who fear a return to the darkest days”.

The Afghan Ambassador to the UN, Ghulam Isaczai, confirmed that the Taliban are going door to door, rounding up people and looting in the capital and that “Kabul residents are living in absolute fear now”.

People sit near the French embassy in Kabul on Wednesday following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Photo: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP

As Greece is the main transit country from the Middle East, how many refugees arrive in Italy partly depends on this country’s approach to the disaster.

But Greece doesn’t want to become Europe’s gateway for Afghans seeking refuge, Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said on Tuesday.

“We cannot have millions of people leaving Afghanistan and coming to the European Union … and certainly not through Greece,” he said.

Should the EU decide on a common response to the crisis, Italy’s show of support to the people of Afghanistan – both historically and in recent days – will be put to the test.

According to data released by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), Italy has accepted the highest number of Afghan refugees between 2008-2020.

Since 2008, European countries have assessed 600,000 asylum applications from Afghans – of which they have refused 290,000, repatriating more than 70,000 people (including 15-000 – 20,000 women), according to the analysis.

Researcher Matteo Villa from the Institute tweeted, “In the sea of hypocrisy, for once Italy stands out in a positive light.”

How are other European countries responding?

18.4 million people will need humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan throughout 2021, according to ISPI, making up over half the population.

Meanwhile some 270,000 people have been displaced in the country since January this year.

More than 60 countries, including Italy, issued a statement on Sunday saying that Afghans and international citizens who want to leave Afghanistan must be allowed to and that airports and border crossings must remain open.

“Those in positions of power and authority across Afghanistan bear responsibility – and accountability – for the protection of human life and property, and for the immediate restoration of security and civil order,” the statement read.

Along with Italy, countries including France, Germany, the UK, Austria, Spain, Norway, Denmark and Sweden signed the document, which added, “The Afghan people deserve to live in safety, security and dignity. We in the international community stand ready to assist them”.

The governments of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece and the Netherlands wrote to the European Commission earlier in August asking to be allowed to send Afghan citizens back if they reject requests for asylum.

It followed a plea from the Afghanistan government not to deport Afghan migrants for three months ahead of the full US military withdrawal from Afghanistan on August 31st, while security forces tackle the Taliban.

Austria’s stance seems to be conflicted, asking permission to deport asylum seekers, but yet also signing the agreement on Sunday to welcome those from Afghanistan seeking protection.

Other EU countries such as France are calling for cooperation on the crisis.

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday that Afghanistan should not become the “sanctuary of terrorism” that it was until US forces invaded the country.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also called for a coordinated response to help Afghanistan’s most vulnerable following the Taliban resurgence, acknowledging divisions within the EU on the topic of asylum.

The lack of unity is something she described as a “weakness” which the 27-member bloc needs to “work on in earnest”.

In Sweden, the authorities have announced they will stop sending development aid to Afghanistan for now, after the Taliban expanded their military control in the country once again.

However, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven insisted they “are not abandoning the Afghan people”.

And in Norway, the Prime Minister Erna Solberg said that the government would not be bringing deported Afghans back to the country, saying “those who have been returned have no personal reason to be persecuted by the Taliban or by others.”

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Brussels warns Italy to rein in public spending amid pandemic

Most EU member states should continue to invest to support the continent's economic recovery, but heavily-indebted Italy should rein in public spending, the European Commission warned on Wednesday.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi expects the country's GDP to recover in the coming year. Photo: Alessandra Tarantino / POOL / AFP

“The economy is bouncing back from the recession, driven by a rebound in demand across Europe,” EU executive vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis said.

“But we are not out of the woods yet. The economic outlook remains riddled with uncertainty,” he said, warning that the coronavirus is still spreading, prices are rising and supply chains face disruption.

Despite these unpredictable threats, European officials predict a strong recovery, and want eurozone governments to maintain their “moderately supportive fiscal stance” to support investment.

EXPLAINED: How Italy’s proposed new budget could affect you

Italy, however, remains a worry. Its public debt passed 155 percent of its GDP last year, and Brussels is worried that it is still budgeting to spend too much next year.

“In order to contribute to the pursuit of a prudent fiscal policy, the Commission invites Italy to take the necessary measures within the national budgetary process to limit the growth of nationally financed current expenditure,” the commission report said.

The commission did not say by how much Italy’s spending plans should be reduced, and its recommendation is not binding on the government.

The European Union suspended its fiscal discipline rules last year, allowing eurozone members to boost their public spending to help their economies survive the Covid-19 pandemic.

But the European commissioner for the economy, former Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni, said governments should now “gradually pivot fiscal measures towards investments”.

“Policies should be differentiated across the euro area to take into account the state of the recovery and fiscal sustainability,” he said.

“Reducing debt in a growth-friendly manner is not necessarily an oxymoron.”

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former European Central Bank chief, has said Italy’s economy is recovering after the pandemic-induced recession.

Draghi forecast economic growth this year of “probably well over six percent” in a statement on October 28th.

Italy’s GDP rate grew by 2.6% in the third quarter of 2021.

While economists don’t expect Italian GDP to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels until 2022, ratings agency Standard & Poor has revised its outlook for Italian debt from stable to positive.