Turkish government underestimates number of Afghans in Turkey as public opinion strongly turns against refugees

Levent Kenez / Stockholm

The Turkish government’s stance against a new influx of Afghan refugees is hardening. This week, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly stated that Turkey lacks the capacity to accommodate a new wave of new arrivals and that Turkey will not become Europe’s refugee warehouse. Severely criticizing the opposition for manipulating figures for political ends, Erdoğan announced that there were around 300,000 Afghans, registered and unregistered – refugees in a foreign country illegally or otherwise without permission – in Turkey. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu shared more detailed figures yesterday, confirming the president’s remarks. However, a quick study by Nordic Monitor shows that the official figures do not fully reflect the situation on the ground.

According to Soylu, Turkey has captured 460,000 illegal Afghan migrants since 2016. About 15% of these migrants have been apprehended multiple times, meaning the same person has been arrested and deported multiple times. Soylu said 151,000 of them have been deported to Afghanistan and 80,000 of the remaining 250,000 are now under international protection provided by the UN. Turkey has reportedly granted residence permits to 20,000 Afghans. Soylu added that 150,000 Afghans have left Turkey for third countries, referring to international figures. The minister concluded that there are 182,000 registered Afghan migrants in Turkey, with a total of 300,000, including unregistered individuals.

First of all, when explaining the number of Afghan refugees, Minister Soylu ignores official data on at least 50,000 Afghan migrants between 2014 and 2016, which was announced by the General Directorate of Migration Management of Turkey.

Considering that a minimum of 15,000 to 20,000 Afghan refugees entered Turkey illegally each year between 2005 and 2014, based on a projection that approximately 40 to 50% of the total refugees are Afghans, some 150,000 to 200,000 Afghan refugees were not included in the minister’s calculations.

Stating that some of the same people are captured and deported more than once, the minister not only undermines the reliability of the statistics, but also admits that the same person can return to Turkey without any hindrance.

Soylu claimed that 151,000 Afghans had been deported since 2016, an unreliable figure that is not based on concrete evidence. According to data obtained by Nordic Monitor, the number of Afghans expelled by Turkey is well below the minister’s figure. For example, an official statement from the United Nations Refugee Agency said that Turkey was only able to deport 6,000 Afghans in 2020. According to a report by the state-run Anadolu news agency, Turkey has until now deported 13,000 Afghans this year. Amnesty International announced in 2018 that Turkey would deport around 10,000 Afghans in the same year. Turkey should have returned at least 30,000 Afghans by plane each year from 2016 according to data announced by the minister.

Professor Murat Erdoğan, vice-president of the Center for Asylum and Migration Research in Ankara, estimates that the current Afghan population in Turkey is at least 500,000 people. According to Erdoğan, many Afghans try to leave Turkey soon after arriving, but when they fail, they decide to stay.

Turkey has not traditionally granted immigrant status to refugees. No matter how long they stay or work in Turkey, very few can become citizens and only their residence permits are extended. Nordic Monitor previously reported that Afghans are now increasingly buying homes in order to acquire citizenship or residence permits through a real estate campaign to encourage the sale of homes to foreigners to meet their foreign exchange needs.

The deterioration of the economy and the pressure of the opposition on the refugees, especially the Syrians, are causing a radical change in the discourse of the government. Erdoğan has often said in the past that welcoming Syrian refugees to Turkey is a religious duty as well as a duty of conscience. It is no secret that Erdoğan holds an advantage against the European Union by keeping Syrian refugees in Turkey and that this prevents the EU from imposing sanctions for its undemocratic actions against its critics.

However, the changing mood of public opinion shows that Erdoğan will no longer be able to use refugees or irregular migrants at the negotiating table. President Erdoğan said this week for the first time that he was aware of Turkish public unease over refugees. He reiterated that the country had reinforced its border with Iran with the army, gendarmerie and police and that a wall being erected along the border was about to be completed.

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