Afghan refugees find firm, hostile border in Turkey

VAN, Turkey – In the days before the Taliban captured Kabul, an Afghan woman was doubled over sobbing on a bench at a bus station in eastern Turkey, her children moaning at her feet.

Fourteen Turkish security and migration officials rushed at her and other Afghan asylum seekers as our reporting team interviewed them, as part of an intensive Turkish crackdown to apprehend Afghans crossing through Iran by the thousands and to prevent journalists from reporting their plight. As her husband tried to gather their things, the woman grabbed her stomach and gagged. After prolonged interrogation, they were escorted to a police vehicle.

“We have come out of despair,” said another Afghan, 17-year-old Gul Ahmad. “We knew that if the Taliban got the upper hand, they would kill us – either fighting or recruiting us. So it was the best option for the family.

Even before last week’s heart-wrenching scenes of Afghans flocking to Kabul airport to escape the Taliban, thousands of people regularly fled their country by land, heading some 1,400 miles through Iran. to the Turkish border. Their own desperate efforts to escape the Taliban have unfolded in calmer, but no less painful, pictures at distant border posts like the one in the eastern town of Van.

In recent months, as the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan collapsed, 30,000 Afghans were leaving Afghanistan every week, not all but many across the Iranian border, according to the International Organization for Human Rights. migrations. They have topped the list of asylum seekers attempting to travel to Turkey and then to Europe, supplanting Syrians as the largest group of new arriving migrants, even as the overall number of migrations has fallen since. summit of 2015.

Now that the Taliban are in power, there is every indication that these numbers will rise further as people have started selling goods and talking about permanent exile.

Many Afghans interviewed in recent weeks said they had crossed in large groups – sometimes hundreds of people – but only a small number had managed to escape Turkish border guards. Thousands of Afghans have massed in the border region of Iran, they said.

While recent violent upheavals in the world have displaced millions of people, whether from Iraq, Syria or parts of Africa, the timing of the final chapter of the war in Afghanistan has left Afghans at the end of their tether. roll, and most likely without recourse.

As in Europe, public opinion in Turkey has turned against immigrants and refugees, sometimes resulting in violence, such as knife fighting and a recent attack on Syrian homes in the capital, Ankara. The scale of Turkey’s pushback has increased dramatically since last month, said Afghans, human rights observers and even government officials.

For Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the burden of hosting so many refugees – 3.6 million Syrians and over 300,000 Afghans, among others – has become a burning political issue, especially as Turkey’s economy s ‘is deteriorated. He made it clear that he did not intend to open the door to more Afghans.

When photos appeared on social media of columns of Afghan migrants crossing Iran to Turkey in recent weeks, opposition politicians accused Erdogan of negotiating a deal with the European Union, as he said. had done for the Syrian refugees, to accommodate the growing number of Afghans. arriving.

Mr Erdogan has often used the threat of migrants as leverage in negotiations with the European Union, while his police have long carried out ruthless operations to control the numbers of migrants and their perceptions at home. But he also criticized Western countries for expecting less developed countries to endure the migrant crisis.

“Europe, which has become a center of attraction for millions of people, cannot stay out of this problem by firmly closing its borders in order to protect the security and prosperity of its citizens,” he said. said in a televised speech last week. “Turkey has no duty, responsibility or obligation to be the repository for refugees from Europe.

Mr Erdogan warned German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday by telephone that his country “will not be able to shoulder the additional burden” in the event of a new wave of migration from Afghanistan. Turkey, he reminded Merkel, “has already taken in five million refugees”.

Afghans interviewed in Van said Turkey had stepped up security along its border with a widespread and often violent police operation in recent weeks, turning back Afghans regardless of their asylum claims.

In a single operation in July, more than 1,400 Afghans who entered Turkey were rounded up and driven back by Turkish border guards and military police, according to a statement from the governor’s office in Van.

Hundreds more, including women and children, have been detained in towns in eastern Turkey as they tried to go deeper into the country.

Such deportations violate the international refugee convention, said Mahmut Kacan, a Van lawyer specializing in refugee and asylum cases.

Few Afghans know their rights under international law, he said, but Turkey does not even respect its own laws, as migrants should have the right to an appeal process before being deported.

The Afghan family recently detained at the Van bus station were sent to a migrant center and then returned to Iran within days without due process, according to another Afghan, Abdul Wahid, who was detained at the same time.

In an interview before their arrest, husband Najibullah, 30, said they had made the arduous three-day trip with their 1-year-old twins to Turkey three times in the past few weeks, only to be pushed back each time . The children had lost weight considerably, he said.

His wife, Zeineb, 20, seemed very shaken by the experience. “It would have been better to stay and die in Afghanistan than to take this trip,” she said. They only gave their first names out of fear because of their undocumented status in Turkey.

The ethnic Uzbek family left home two months ago in part because the Taliban had taken control of their district in northern Afghanistan. “We had nothing,” Najibullah said. “They ordered us to cook for them. We could barely feed ourselves.

Mr. Wahid was deported after spending four days in a migrant center, and sent a phone message from Iran about what had happened.

Mr. Wahid lived in Turkey and had come to Van to help his wife and two children attempt to enter the country from Iran. They had crossed the border 10 times in recent weeks in an attempt to reach him in Istanbul, where he worked in a textile factory, he said, but every time they entered Turkey, the police caught them and them. returned. They were once detained in Tatvan, a town over a hundred miles from the border, he said.

“My wife asked them for asylum,” he said. “She said she wanted to send her children to school. At first they said OK, then they kicked her out.

Many Afghans interviewed said they were looking for economic opportunities but the Taliban’s advances and killings prompted them to leave. Two in a dozen interviewed for two days recently said they had family members who had been killed by the Taliban.

A teenager, Ilias, 15, in a bright yellow T-shirt and black jacket, said he fled with three friends from his home village in Daikundi, central Afghanistan, after that his father was killed by the advancing Taliban forces three or four months ago.

“The Taliban started attacking our area and people started defending my village, and that’s when my father was killed,” he said. “We are all three from the same neighborhood and we managed to get out,” he said, pointing to his companions.

They were stopped by the Taliban on the way and questioned, stolen by human traffickers in Iran, and arrived in Turkey without food or money to continue their journey.

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