ANKARA (AFP): Turkey already hosts the world’s largest refugee population, including three million Syrians, but over the last year there has been an influx of Afghans seeking a safe haven and not just from Afghanistan itself, but from Iran. For decades Iran, to Turkey’s east, has been home to some three million Afghans who have fled the endless war pitting the Taliban and other rebels against the western-backed government in Kabul.
Many live in miserable conditions and their prospects have become even more precarious due to the Islamic Republic’s increasingly troubled economy. Turkey is home to 145,000 Afghans, according to Amnesty International figures in April, but the influx has really taken off this year. Up to mid-August, 61,819 Afghan migrants had arrived in Turkey in 2018 compared to 45,259 in 2017, according to Turkish interior ministry figures. Javad Saadatnejad was a refugee in Iran for 34 years before arriving in Turkey last month.
“Iran didn’t do anything for me,” he said. Those who seek asylum in Turkey are called “conditional refugees.” Izza Leghtas, senior advocate for Europe at Refugees International, said this gives “the idea that really they’re only in Turkey temporarily until they go and resettle” elsewhere. But resettlement figures to the US have gone down “drastically” in the last 18 months, Leghtas said. In 2017, US President Donald Trump cut the number of refugees that Washington would accept to 45,000 from 110,000 in the last year under Barack Obama.
The new arrivals find they have to make the best of limited or even no facilities. Mohammad Hussein, from northern Kunduz province, said his six children aged between two and 15 slept in an Ankara park for a week in “uncomfortable” circumstances in front of the Association for Solidarity with Asylum-Seekers and Migrants (ASAM) building. ASAM works together with the UN and the Turkish Provincial Directorate of Migration Management to register refugees.
Hussein, 35, said he fled the Taliban because he had helped NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) find the group’s weapons. Fearing reprisals since “the Taliban knew” about his work, Hussein fled, walking across the Turkish border with his wife and children aged two, four, six, nine, 13 and 15. But Hussein said he could not stay in Turkey where he is “in danger”, saying he wanted to go somewhere like Switzerland or Canada.
Afghanistan ranked second globally as the largest source of refugees in 2017, with 2.6 million compared to 6.3 million Syrians concentrated in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. According to UN refugee agency the UNHCR, three million Afghans are in Iran but only a third of them are officially registered as refugees. Levent Ulusoy, deputy general coordinator at ASAM, said Afghans were coming from Iran “because of the economic situation (there), the difficulties persisting in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, they leave to find work or to flee the war”. The Iranian economy has been hit hard by renewed US sanctions following President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
For Afghans who stay in Turkey, Metin Corabatir, president of the Ankara-based Research Centre on Asylum and Migration (IGAM), described the “difficult process” of getting work permits, which often leads many to work illegally. If a Syrian or Afghan seeks to work legally in Turkey, the company who wishes to hire them must apply for the permit.
The magnitude of the influx first became apparent when nearly 30,000 Afghans arrived in Turkey in the first few months of 2018. Turkish authorities reacted by deporting thousands back to Afghanistan, in coordination with the Afghan government. Amnesty in April said 7,100 had been deported and the figure is believed to be higher today.
“As they come, the government put the majority in removal centres and from there, they send them back to Afghanistan,” Corabatir said. Zakira Hekmat, who founded Afghan Refugees Solidarity and Aid Association (Afgan-Der) in 2014, said there was “no support” for Afghan refugees in Turkey which has become tired of bearing the brunt of the problem. “We have seen more incidents in the past three months” of refugees sleeping in parks, she added. Hekmat also described how attitudes towards Afghans had changed in Turkey with “increasing prejudices” and many Turks assuming the war in Afghanistan was over. “But the war continues in ways unseen.”