North Africa, West Asia: Feature

Afghans fleeing the Taliban face death, deportation and push-backs in Turkey

With financial support from the EU, Turkey has toughened up its migration policies – putting hundreds of thousands at risk

Karolína Augustová
15 July 2021, 12.00am
The Seyrantepe cemetery in Van, where many Afghans who attempted to cross Turkey are buried
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Karolina Augustova

As the US continues withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan, and the Taliban increases its control in the country, around 1,000 Afghans have been arriving to Turkey’s eastern border with Iran every day.

According to an aid provider for refugees in Eastern Turkey who wishes to remain anonymous, local authorities are exposing the arriving migrants to harsh controls as they struggle to process all those in need of safety. To avoid detection by state authorities and potential mistreatment, many migrants must rely on smugglers and use dangerous routes that can sometimes end in death.

When walking in the Seyrantepe cemetery in Van, in eastern Turkey, one might stumble across a large area at the end, lined with headstones without names. The gravestones are marked either by numbers or nationalities. Most are Afghans who tried to cross from Iran to Turkey before attempting to travel to Istanbul and finally to the European Union.

“The majority of refugees die during the smuggling accidents,” the local gravedigger, a Kurdish man in his late forties, explained while walking around the cemetery. “Smugglers put too many people in small fishing boats when trying to transport them across the Van Lake, which results in boat accidents and drownings.

“Refugees are also driven very fast through army road checks, drivers lose control and kill the passengers,” he added.

Residents say they find dozens of dead bodies in the mountains when the snow melts every spring. These are refugees who try to cross the border in the winter and either freeze to death, are attacked by wild animals or are shot by the Iranian army.

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Refugees in eastern Turkey regularly cross the 3,600km2 Lake Van with the help of smugglers, to avoid army checks and prevent deportations and push-backs | Karolina Augustova

Who crosses the Iran-Turkey border?

Turkey’s eastern border with Iran has served as the main transit point for Afghans since the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s. The Afghans I met at this border were mostly Hazara Shia Muslims, LGBTIQ+ individuals and former soldiers or translators for the US Army. All were particularly vulnerable to the recent increase in Taliban control.

I also met Iranian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Iraqi, Syrian and Nigerian nationals crossing Turkey’s eastern border in search of an alternative transit route to safety after Turkey’s southern border with Syria was sealed with a wall in 2018.

Since refugees lack access to legal routes to safety, most move without authorisation and rely on smugglers. The Turkish Ministry of Interior estimates that almost half a million ‘illegal’ migrants entered Turkey prior to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019 and around 62,000 in 2021. However, it is likely that the real numbers are much higher due to the clandestine nature of this movement.

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A map of Turkey, identifying Van's close proximity to Turkey’s eastern border with Iran | Jack Sapoch

Toughening up migration policies in Turkey

Turkey hosts the largest refugee population in the world, with more than four million refugees. Since the country retains geographical limitation to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, only people fleeing events in Europe can be given refugee status there. Yet, the majority of refugees in Turkey are Syrian nationals granted special status of temporary protection.

Those who are non-Syrian and non-European, including Afghans, are not entitled to seek asylum in the country but must instead ask for international protection, and if successful, wait for a third country to resettle them, explains Mahmut Kaçan, a lawyer from the Bar Van Association.

“I registered five years ago, but no one has even asked me for an interview to be resettled. We are losing hope to be resettled,” says Taimur, a refugee from Afghanistan currently residing in Van.

Turkey has recently toughened up its migration policies, which numerous people I spoke to considered to be driven by the government’s fear that migrants will overstay in Turkey.

My friend was crossing with a large group from Iran to Turkey. When the Iranian police saw them, they started shooting

In 2018, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) gave its responsibility for determining a person’s international protection status in Turkey to the Directorate General Migration Management (DGMM), which acts under the Turkish Ministry of Interior. This centralization had a catastrophic impact on non-Syrian refugees in Turkey. The DGMM gave positive international protection status to only 5,449 applicants in 2019, compared to 72,961 successful applications in 2018 under UNHCR mandate: a 92.5% drop.

At the same time, the number of removal centers, where people are accommodated before being deported, increased in Turkey from ten to 28 since the 2016 EU-Turkey Agreement. The European Commission gave €60m to Turkey for the management, reception and hosting of migrants, some of which was spent on the construction and refurbishment of these facilities. This boom of removal centers goes hand in hand with an increase in the number of deportations of Afghans from Turkey from 10,000 in 2017 to 33,000 in 2018 and 40,000 in 2019, according to an internal presentation allegedly from a Turkish government meeting, which was sent to the Afghanistan Analyst Network (AAN). While return flights mostly stopped in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ANN reports that still more than 9,000 Afghans were deported from Turkey during the last year.

Navigating the local military conflict and push-backs

Migration in eastern Turkey takes place under the shadow of Turkey’s fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a military struggle that has been ongoing since the 1980s.

Although the fighting has calmed down over the past five years, a large Turkish military presence and military operations continue across the region, marked by killings and arrests of PKK suspects.

Civilians are also subjected to military surveillance and anti-terror operations, including Kurdish people who are economically dependent on the smuggling of goods (e.g., tobacco, petrol, food) or refugees across the border.

“You can be killed on the spot if you cross the border through a military area,” explained Muge, a member of the Hayatadestek (‘Support to Life’), a humanitarian organization helping disaster-affected communities and refugees in Turkey.

The European Commission has criticised Turkish authorities for detaining, persecuting and convicting journalists, students, lawyers, opposition political parties and activists mostly on overly broad terrorism-related charges, which concern particularly populations in eastern Turkey. However, at the same time, the commission has dedicated extensive funds and support for military projects in eastern Turkey with the aim to stop onward ‘illegal’ migration to the European Union.

These involve millions of euros for walls and the construction of barbed-wire fences, as well as delivery of surveillance vehicles, communication and surveillance masts, thermal cameras, and hardware and software equipment, as well as training of border patrols along the Iran-Turkey border.

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People who are pushed back are often trapped in the rough mountainous terrain between Turkey and Iran | Karolina Augustova

Outsourcing borders

What this approach does is push the borders of the European Union much further away, and outsource anti-migration measures to authoritarian governments who apply local anti-terror policies to exclude border crossers.

“My brother keeps trying to enter Turkey from Iran. He tried to cross six times recently but was beaten up by Turkish army each time, and then pushed back to Iran. The army was shooting at him,” Amir, another Afghan living in Van, told me.

The experience of Amir’s brother is an example of ‘push-backs’: the illegal procedure by which people are forced back over a border without consideration of their individual circumstances. Push-backs by EU state authorities and Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, have been reported to take place in Greece, Bulgaria, Croatia and other places along the EU’s physical borders.

A soldier from the Turkish Gendarmerie General Command, who agreed to provide commentary as long as he remains anonymous, confirmed the regular practice of push-backs from Turkey to Iran. “The [national] police told the gendarmerie [serving at the Iran-Turkey border] not to take all migrants for registration, because it is a financial burden to accommodate them all in removal centers, feed them, and legally process all of them,” he explains. “So, the gendarmerie was told to push some migrants back.”

People who are pushed back are often trapped in the rough mountainous terrain between Turkey and Iran and face harsh treatment by the Iranian state authorities, as Ali, an Afghan in his late twenties, recalls while drinking tea in a café in Van: “My friend was crossing with a large group of people from Iran to Turkey. When the Iranian police saw them, they started shooting. They killed 14 people. My friend was shot in his leg but survived.”

While these tough border measures have been deployed to stop onward ‘illegal’ migration, they paradoxically push refugees to flee further from Turkey without authorization. “If we do not get resettled from Turkey in a few years, our family will try to cross into Europe by ourselves,” says Taimur while holding his young son on his lap in a small flat in Van.

Those arriving in Eastern Turkey often do not stay long in the country for fear of push-backs and rapid deportations. Instead, they place their money and lives in the hands of more smugglers and wish to move on.

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