ROME—There is new life in the sleepy hilltop village of Roccaraso, a hamlet known for its sweeping views and nearby ski hills east of Rome. This town of just 1,600 permanent residents dates back to 975 A.D., but it was wiped off the map by German troops who hoped to use its vantage point to stage an attack on Rome during World War II. Now it has a new incarnation with hundreds of Italy’s Afghan helpers evacuated from Kabul settling into the military base that rose from the ruins of the second world war. A temporary mosque punctuates the cultural shift.
But as idyllic as it is, the peaceful place has already drawn scorn from Italy’s right-wing politicians who say they will not tolerate a wave of Muslim migrants inundating largely Christian Europe, just as they said at the height of the Syrian war in 2015 when more than 1 million people from Syria, Afghanistan, and sub-Saharan Africa poured into European countries. Those who come in by military flights have to be accepted, but it is already numbingly clear that anyone else will not be welcome. Matteo Salvini of Italy’s popular rightwing Lega tweeted Wednesday, “Humanitarian corridors for women and children in danger certainly yes. Doors open for thousands of men, including potential terrorists, absolutely not.”
The first of the Afghan translators and medical staff—men and women alike—who worked with the Italian Defense contingent in Afghanistan arrived in late June as part of Italy’s now-abandoned tiered plan to bring out the most vulnerable of its collaborators in small groups. The rest, who are arriving after being hastily shoved onto packed Italian military flights via Kuwait this week after the fall of Kabul on Sunday, will be taken there to quarantine against COVID before settling permanently. The Italian government is hyper-protective of them, fearful that even in the relative safety of Europe, those who collaborated with the American-led 20-year war could be targeted by rogue hitmen among Italy’s substantial migrant community. “We are taking no chances,” base commander Alessandro Pantaleo said. “They need to be protected even on Italian soil.”
Once Italy has welcomed those it has deemed a priority to protect, they will have to pivot to dealing with those who were not invited. Between 2008 and 2016, more than 100,000 unaccompanied Afghan minors came to Europe, making Afghanistan the largest country of origin for under 18s during that period, which is remarkable given that the time frame coincides with the Syrian war, which sent countless refugees to the continent.
That was also before Afghanistan collapsed into its current chaos and before Donald Trump set the date for American troop withdrawal. Most of those who came then joined family in Germany and Sweden, but many used Greece and Italy as entry points, traveling the well-trodden migrant trails serviced by smugglers that often ended in sea rescues by NGOs who disembarked at Italian ports.
The migrant trail from Afghanistan to Europe is long and winding. Most have to traverse thousands of miles by land through Iran to Turkey where they are all but pushed to sea. The EU’s Eurostat agency estimates that tens of thousands of Afghans who didn’t make the cut for evacuations, or who did but who couldn’t get to the Kabul airport from elsewhere in the country, are now plotting their escape.
EU leaders know it too and have warned that those who aren’t coming by military evacuation flights will not be welcome, even if they should be. As packed flights left Kabul this week, European leaders started the subtle messaging, at once applauding organized evacuation flights and at the same time warning that anyone not on them had better not find their own way in.
Elections in Germany to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose open-door policy for Syrian refugees in 2015 won her praise and scorn in equal doses, have complicated the political scene with no politicians wanting to say anything that will come back to haunt them once elected. Other countries in Europe have also put out the Not Welcome mat. Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi warned this week that Greek borders are closed to Afghans. “We cannot have millions of people leaving Afghanistan and coming to the European Union,” he said. “And certainly not through Greece.” Smugglers are also clearly aware.
In July, as Afghanistan teetered on the brink of the inevitable disaster that has engulfed it, 200 Afghan migrants were detained in the Aegean sea heading directly for Italy, bypassing Greece entirely. Italian prime minister Mario Draghi has made calls to his European counterparts to get them on board early to help distribute those who will inevitably find their way to Italian shores. There is no way Italy can close its porous borders, as years of irregular migration have proven.
Austria has also said it will not take any Afghan migrants at all. French President Emmanuel Macron was more subtle, but the message was clear. “Europe cannot alone assume the consequences of Afghanistan’s fall,” he said, calling on so-called “transit countries” like Iran and Turkey—which already hosts more refugees than any other country in the world—to take Afghans left behind and instead urged Europe to “anticipate and protect itself from a wave of migrants.”
On August 5, ten days before Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, Austria, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece, and Germany signed a letter to the EU asking that whatever happens, they will be allowed to repatriate—essentially send back—any Afghan citizens who don’t meet asylum criteria. “Stopping returns sends the wrong signal and is likely to motivate even more Afghan citizens to leave their home for the EU," the letter stated. It has not been evoked, nor even mentioned in talks, since sending asylum seekers to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is an unsavory thought for many.
Two weeks later, packed flights of Afghans are arriving directly into Europe. EU Commissioner Ylva Johannson said Wednesday that the EU will not abandon those in immediate danger in Afghanistan, which could refer to anyone who does not subscribe to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic law, but she also warned that Europe cannot accept the spoils of what is seen as America’s war. “We should not wait until people arrive at the external borders of the European Union,” she said. “This is not a solution.”
The U.S. State Department estimates that as many as 60,000 Afghan citizens qualify for evacuation, though it cannot guarantee any of them safe passage, leaving many little choice but to find their own way to safety.
On Thursday morning, another flight landed at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, this time with a dozen women collaborators and their families who had worked at a hospital set up by the Italian government. At least two more flights are scheduled before the Italian government considers their obligation to those who helped them fulfilled. Other European countries are also hoping to wrap up their official evacuations this week, their duty to those who helped them complete.
Then, without question, the real crisis begins.