Refugees or Ghosts? Afghans in Turkey face growing uncertainty  

The number of Afghans in Turkey has been steadily growing, with those already settled or in transit to Europe joined by thousands more fleeing Afghanistan following the Taleban takeover in August 2021. Turkey already had the world’s largest refugee population, and the new arrivals, coming in the midst an unprecedented economic crisis, has only heated up the increasingly hostile political debate about migrants. In the first instalment of a two-part report, Fabrizio Foschini looks at the worsening political and economic environment facing Afghans in Turkey, and at the bureaucratic hurdles preventing many from regularising their status that contribute to making Afghans a largely undocumented presence.
Young Afghans walking towards the sea in Zeytinburnu, Istanbul. Photo: Fabrizio FoschiniIn a second report, the author look at the diverse livelihoods of Afghan migrants in Istanbul and reports on the dangers experienced by those making it across the Turkish-Iranian border and the risks facing those trying to leave Turkey for the European Union.

Report highlights

– The number of Afghan refugees arriving in Turkey, already on the rise since 2018, has soared following the Taleban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 and subsequent political uncertainty and economic collapse.

– As events unfolded in Afghanistan last summer, Turkey became alarmed about the prospect of a new influx of refugees and the reaction by its government has since been one of trying to keep Afghans out. A border wall with Iran is nearing completion and police checkpoints have been set up on migrant routes close to main cities, as well as along Turkey’s western borders with the European Union (EU).

– Public perception of Afghan refugees among Turks has worsened since the fall of Kabul. The unprecedented devaluation of the Turkish lira in November 2021 and the economic crisis it triggered have contributed to an increase in tensions with migrants and anti-migrant prejudice.

– The economic crisis and police threats have brought further uncertainty to those Afghans who were living in Turkey, many of whom are undocumented despite having lived there for years. Besides exploitation by employers and a lack of access to public services, they are now facing the threat of detention or deportation to Iran.

– Given the regionally prevalent securitarian approach to border control, ie prioritising ‘security’ above everything, Afghans are finding it increasingly difficult not only to enter Turkey, but also to transit through to the EU. This comes when even long-term residents are unsure whether to remain or try their luck elsewhere. The costs and perils of a journey to Europe are likely to mount, but given the worsening situation in Afghanistan as well as uncertainties in Turkey, this may feel like the only option.

Facts and figures

Turkey has long been an important point along the transit route to Europe for Afghan migrants attempting to enter the EU through its sea and land borders to Greece and Bulgaria. Moreover, since the economic crisis in Greece in the late 2000s and the expansion of Turkey’s economy, the country has increasingly become a stopover for Afghans who never intended to go further or who could not afford to do so without first earning some money. These migrants mostly settled in major Turkish cities and engage in low-wage labour, especially in the construction, textile sectors and other industrial sectors. The comparatively few Afghans who wanted to stay in Turkey applied for international protection and were given documents. The rest have remained undocumented. The Turkish authorities initially tolerated them because they were a cheap (and transient) labour force. A separate group are Afghan businessmen who relocated their assets and eventually their families to Turkey, a country they saw as both safe, economically vibrant and culturally close.

The number of irregular Afghan migrants arriving in Turkey has increased since 2018, when according to the Mixed Migration Centre, some 100,000 irregular Afghan migrants entered the country. This led to the first wave of opposition among the Turkish people. At the time, Turkey was host to the highest number of refugees worldwide as, indeed, it still is. The government’s response was to focus on securing its border with Iran and resorting to mass deportations to Kabul (see AAN’s previous report here). These, while couched under the term ‘voluntary repatriations’ were regularly aimed at undocumented migrants who were held for months in detention camps (see here).

Despite the rising rate of deportations to Afghanistan, possibly as many as 40,000 in 2019 (see here), over the two subsequent years, the pace of arrivals increased as Afghans struggled with growing insecurity and the decline of government control over large swathes of territory. Turkey once again became the main gateway for refugees heading to Europe. The Turkish government tried to secure financial support from the EU in what it hoped could be a revival and expansion of the so-called “EU-Turkey deal” of March 2016 to include non-Syrian refugees.[1] It also attempted to deter irregular migration by periodically increasing police raids against undocumented migrants (see AAN’s previous reporting).

However, the steady influx of Afghans into Turkey did not diminish and gathered pace as territory fell to the Taleban in summer 2021 (reported, for example here) and especially after the country the Taleban captured Kabul in mid-August 2021. The media frenzy in Turkey that ensued, about the expected incoming mass of refugees, and the lack of dedicated major support schemes by international organisations has made the prospect of more migrants less and less palatable to the Turkish public. Even before the Republic’s fall, the issue was a bone of contention between the government and the political opposition (see here), resulting in more pressure to control borders and use police action against migrants. By then, a de facto moratorium on deportations to Afghanistan had been declared by the countries previously backing it (see here), such as Germany, the UK and the Scandinavian states, and Turkey followed suit. Nonetheless, attitudes towards new arrivals, or towards those Afghan migrants already in the country, changed for worse.

A portrait of the Turkish president in an Afghan restaurant, Istanbul. Photo: Fabrizio Foschini

Opportunity turns into a problem

Attitudes towards Afghan migrants also comes in the context of Turkey’s relationship with the Afghan state. For the past two decades, Afghanistan has been of relative strategic interest to Turkey, which found itself in the rare position of being a regional country with historical and cultural links to Afghanistan as well as an untarnished reputation gained by steering clear of previous Afghan conflicts.[2] From this vantage point, Turkey has consistently sought a presence and role in Afghanistan in an attempt to improve its international and regional profile, first through its participation in the NATO missions in the country – indeed, it has at times been among the major contributors to ISAF and the subsequent Resolute Support (see here), and later, by becoming an active player in the quest for an Afghan peace process.

By 2021, Turkey was looking at the Afghan crisis as a suitable arena for diplomatic and military intervention in order to mend its strained relations with the US and other NATO members and boost its prestige among Muslim countries (see an Al Jazeera article here). As the Taleban offensive against the then Afghan government unfolded, Turkey was indeed poised to play a pivotal role by taking charge of Kabul international airport, the last link connecting Afghanistan – and the foreigners still there – with the rest of the world. This ‘last ditch’ intervention would have fit the US need for a controlled exit and remaining oversight capacity by a NATO member state. Ultimately, this did not work out as the Taleban’s opposition dampened Turkey’s enthusiasm and the government’s rapid collapse came before the US and Turkey could agree on details. While the idea was revived after thAssociation Taleban takeover, it has yet to materialise despite ongoing talks with the Taleban and recent announcements about a deal that would see Turkey and Qatar manage the airport jointly (see reports by Chatham House and Reuters herehere and here ).

Besides the Taleban’s own ambivalence towards the plan, which would have again seen the presence of international security firms inside the airport, by the last months of 2021 such a critical engagement had become less attractive for Turkey. Ankara had apprehensions of its own, owing to the uncertainty surrounding the Taleban government’s international relations, the realisation that Afghanistan’s importance on the NATO agenda was in decline and by the fact that, by then, Afghanistan had gone, in Turkey’s politics, from an arena offering opportunities for international recognition to an internal problem of its own, in other words, the growing number of Afghan migrants.

Frequent media reports about the mass exodus of Afghans towards Turkey on their way to Europe set the tone for Turkish public opinion (see for example here) and unease about the groundswell of migrants turned into outright hostility.[3] Turkey’s economic decline triggered further strain in public attitudes towards migrants. After nearly a decade of rapid expansion, Turkey’s economic growth had been slowing since 2018, when the economy first went into recession. However, the depreciation of the Turkish lira (TL) was never so bad as it became in the second half of 2021 (see here) when the currency plummeted to 18 TL for USD 1 in November, compared with 7 TL to 1 USD a year earlier. Currently, inflation levels are conjuring up ghosts of the 1980s and 1990s when Turkey experienced a similar economic decline (see here).

The issue of migrants, coupled with the downsizing of Turkey’s diplomatic ambitions in Central and southern Asia, became tools for the opposition to criticise the Turkish government (read an article by Reuters here). In particular, the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP) lambasted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s perceived inactivity and started a nationalist social media campaign with the slogan “Borders are our honour” (see here). A new ultra-nationalist political formation, Zafer Partisi (Victory Party), was established on 26 August 2021, only days after the collapse of the Afghan government, with the declared objective of sending all migrants present in Turkey home, Afghans and Syrians alike (see here).

The ruling AKP (the Justice and Development Party, abbreviated officially to AK Parti in Turkish) was quick to follow its opponents lead. On 19 August 2021, Erdogan warned that Turkey would not become “Europe’s refugee storehouse” (see here).

On previous occasions, Erdogan had attempted to use the migrants as leverage to call for additional financial support, including threatening to open its borders and let refugees cross into the EU (see here). This time, however, Turkey has found itself needing to prevent a mass influx of refugees by focusing on reinforcing control of the Turco-Iranian frontier. In July 2021, Erdogan announced that Turkey would be resuming the construction of a wall along its border with Iran. It was not by chance that on 15 August 2021, the day the Taleban entered Kabul, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar inspected wall construction sites and border police garrisons in the eastern city of Van (see an article by Hurriyet here).

Fencing the 534 kilometre frontier with Iran is not a new project. A 144 km stretch of the wall had already been erected in Ağrı and Iğdır provinces in 2018 when border crossings were frequent in those areas. A new section will eventually cover an additional 243 km, mostly in Van province, with the first 64 km slated for completion by the end of 2021. Once complete, the wall would cover a significant stretch of the border between the two countries. The project was funded in part by the so-called ‘EU-Turkey deal’ which provided Turkey a total of six billion euros to stem the flow of irregular migrants to the Greek Islands. These funds supported, for example, the building of some 103 watchtowers along the wall (see a report by Politico here).

But how many people are arriving from Iran? If thousands of Afghans are leaving their country every day for Iran in the wake of the Taleban’s victory, the number of those actually entering Turkey is the subject of much speculation. In late July 2021, reports put the number of undocumented migrants entering Turkey daily at between 500 and 2000, mostly from Afghanistan (see here). Last October, the governor of Van, Mehmet Emin Bilmez, claimed that, thus far in 2021, security forces had detained 10,000 undocumented migrants in Van province alone and had stopped a further 91,000 attempts by people to enter the country illegally (see here and here). His words point to a key feature of Turkey’s border control policy – detained migrants are routinely subjected to informal ‘pushbacks’ – meaning that they are expelled back to Iran upon arrival or after a period of detention (read reporting by the New York Times here).

The lack of information regarding the number of new arrivals has fuelled the Turkish public’s wariness about Afghans in Turkey. The last figures provided by The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in late 2018 put the number of Afghans registered as international asylum seekers in Turkey at 170,000, while estimates about their total, including those who were undocumented, ranged around 300,000. After that, responsibility for registration was transferred to the Turkish government, which has not made all figures publicly available. However, an Istanbul-based association of Afghans in Turkey, Uluslararasi Afghan Turkleri (Afghan Turk International), interviewed by AAN in December 2021, said they thought there were around 600,000 Afghans in the country, fewer than half of whom were registered, and that more than 100,000 were living in Istanbul alone. Other Afghan organisations in Turkey give higher estimates, sometimes as many as 800,000 (see here), although they may be overestimating numbers to highlight the importance of their type of organisations.

Indeed, border security may be a major concern for the Turkish political elite, regardless of their background; both the ruling AKP and its rival CHP would probably agree on using irregular migration as a pretext to reinforce border control and militarise the eastern frontier. However, it is public opinion in big cities such as Istanbul and Ankara that has been raising the temperature, with people alarmed about the growing concentration of refugees in cities and the perception that they are taking over entire neighbourhoods and this is prompting the government’s tough stance against Afghan migrants.

The Afghan-Turkish Association in the Yenimahalle neighbourhood of Istanbul is co-housed in a shop filled with imported rice and cooking oil. Photo: Fabrizio Foschini

A close-knit migrant community divided by paperwork

The aptly titled “Ghosts of Istanbul,” the Association for Migration Research’s (GAR) detailed January 2021 report, puts Afghans living in Istanbul into five categories:

  1. Those who are undocumented without passports or with expired visas;
  2. Those who have been registered in different satellite cities, but informally live in Istanbul;
  3. Those who are in transit to Europe;
  4. Those who are established, who have residence permits or citizenship; and
  5. Those who arrive via official routes, either for business or education.

According to the report, most Afghans living in Istanbul fall into the first category and are young men.

Afghans living in Turkey generally fall into two main categories: first, those who have legalised their status and hold the coveted kimlik (or kimlik kartı, Turkish national identity card). This group enjoys the relative stability offered by a recognised legal status and its associated benefits, such as freedom of movement and access to education and healthcare. Second and more typical are undocumented irregular migrants who are either transiting through and intend to stay only for the time necessary to arrange the next stage of their journey, or those who have lived and worked in Turkey for several years, even decades but have no legalised status. Members of this second group have no legal protections, cannot send their children to school or access basic services such as healthcare.

The reasons for remaining undocumented are many, from the priorities of Afghan migrants themselves to the legal and bureaucratic hurdles they encounter in Turkey.

Importantly, in what looks strange in the current situation, but which is a curious historical hangover, Turkey grants political asylum only to refugees proceeding from European countries (for an introduction to Turkish asylum laws, see this paper by the Heinrich Böll Foundation). Those coming from Asia, including Afghans, who register with the Turkish authorities, must apply for international protection, which would pave the way for Turkey to give them temporary asylum pending acceptance of their application for resettlement in another country.[4] Registration comes with certain benefits, such as the right to work, healthcare and education. These temporary migrants, however, cannot choose their place of residence, including the city and province. The Turkish government assigns them to designated locations until their application to a third country, which can take several years, is accepted. Major cities and employment hubs such as Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Bursa or Antalya have long since stopped accepting asylum seekers. Afghans are more typically assigned to faraway provinces and small towns across Turkey. Many are unhappy being sent to these remote locations, even when they plan to stay for the long haul, as they cannot access connections or social capital to start their new lives. Instead, migrants often opt to remain undocumented in order to live among the Afghan communities that have developed in major cities.[5] While it is more common for families, who represent only a small fraction of the Afghans in Turkey, to have registered, many remain undocumented, and their children can not go to school.

Over the years, the Turkish government’s attempts to tackle the issue of undocumented Afghans have been inconsistent. Until recently, it largely viewed them as communities in transit, far fewer in number than Syrians and almost self-sufficient, as they do not tap into public services, but do find employment opportunities in the burgeoning informal sector, such as in construction or textiles. However, hostile public sentiment has translated into a less hospitable government approach. Indeed, an assessment in mid-2021 pointed out that single men trying to register for international protection were likely to see their applications rejected by the Turkish Directorate of Migration Management (see here). As the head of a small Afghan-Turkish association in Istanbul put it:

The EU countries have shaped their conceptual and institutional reaction around the concept of ‘muhajer’, refugeeas somebody in need of assistance. Turkey instead does not have this approach. ‘Muhajer’ here doesn’t make much sense – there are no programmes for refugees. The state supports the Syrians only, and that for maybe 50 per cent of their needs. It does not support Afghans. The Afghans all work and pay for everything out of their own pockets.

Indeed, the terms ‘hard-working’ and ‘invisible’ have often been attributed to Afghans by the Turks, who until recently compared them favourably to the much more numerous, better assisted (and stigmatised) Syrians (Ghosts of Istanbul, p 31; 36). This explains why, at least until 2018, the Turkish government had not felt the need to intervene.

However, between 2018 and 2019, a number of undocumented Afghans were allowed to regularise their status by registering with state institutions and getting legal recognition on Turkish soil. Then, by travelling back to Afghanistan, they were entitled to return to Turkey legally on payment of a fee, and if successful in securing a job, to obtain a short-term work permit which they could renew every year. A union of Afghan-Turk organisations reportedly lobbied for this government initiative and the main beneficiaries of this limited opportunity were people from Turkic minorities or northern Afghanistan.

Such was the case for two boys from Keshem in Badakhshan, who arrived in Turkey four years ago at the age of sixteen. In 2019 they returned to Keshem and had come back to legalise their status. While back in Afghanistan, they had both got married. They did not bring their wives back to Turkey with them and did not hope to do so legally. Several Afghans interviewed by AAN confirmed that such family reunions had become no longer possible for the past few years.

Significantly, said almost all Afghans interviewed by AAN in Turkey, there had been no registration of any Afghans since the fall of Kabul. Some interviewees, however, said this had in fact been the case since early 2021. The only way to obtain a legal permit was to enter with a valid Turkish visa. Some Afghan-Turkic associations justified Ankara’s (still unofficial) decision on security grounds, saying that Turkey cannot know the identity or intentions of new arrivals, but the move seems to reflect the government’s uncertainty about what to do with Afghan migrants as a whole.

Even before the registration of Afghans came to a halt, getting hold of a prized kimlik was no easy task and did not depend solely on one’s agreeing to be settled in remote locations. The transfer of registration from UNHCR to the Turkish Directorate General of Migration Management in September 2018 brought delays to procedures and increased the number of rejected applications filed by Afghans. A 2019 report by the Asylum Information Database noted that applications for international protection by Afghans seemed to be rejected by default.[6]

A young man from Yangi Qala district in Takhar province told AAN that after almost four years in Turkey, he had tried to regularise his status and register himself and his family in early 2021. He was sent to live in an Anatolian town with his wife and three children, but was then told that, to receive his permit, he would have to pay a fine of 4700 TL (around 630 USD at the time) because they had had a baby in Turkey and not registering her. Eventually, they left Anatolia and came back to Istanbul. After the fall of Kabul, he was ready to pay the fine, and attempted to register again, for the sake of sending his children to school. By then, however, it had become impossible, as the Turkish authorities were not accepting new applications.

It comes as no surprise then that a major feature of the Afghan community, one noticed by those working in migrant support organisations as well as by the broader Turkish public, is its close-knit and labour-oriented character. Around the world, Afghans have few references other than their kin and fellow compatriots, and with the collapse of the Republic and uncertain status of Afghanistan’s diplomatic missions abroad, this sentiment will likely be heightened.

The settlement patterns favoured by Afghan migrants, driven more by economic or legal constraints rather than by cultural norms in an environment such as Turkey, have contributed to shaping an image of Afghans among the Turkish people. Afghans, even more than Syrians for whom the government manages accommodation schemes, tend to group together in areas where rents are cheaper and services and opportunities among a community of fellow countrymen are on offer (see this National Public Radio (NPR) report about the Afghan community in Trabzon helping newcomers). This is of great importance for the newly arrived, who are often cash-strapped and struggling with a new language and unknown bureaucracy, but it does reinforce the perception, however wrong-minded, that spiralling refugee communities in Turkey are developing a ‘parallel society’.

Yet despite this social solidarity, within the Afghan community in Turkey, there are major differences in status. These do not apply only to those members of the Afghan economic and political elite, including many members of the former government who relocated to Turkey after having, for years, invested their assets in the country. They are mostly settled in Beylikduzu, one of Istanbul’s westernmost suburbs, which expanded as a high-income residential area in the 2000s. The divide among Afghan migrants always has to do with whether or not one has a kimlik. Those with and without a kimlik can live side by side in the same housing block, but while some exist for the state, others do not. The first can access schools and hospitals, travel to other parts of Turkey or simply walk freely down the street without having to hide in the shadows. Most importantly, they have access to better-remunerated jobs and can also legally rent a house – and sub-let it to crowds of their ghost-countrymen until they earn three or four times the rent.

As is apparent from the interviews in the second part of this report, these simple things remain out of reach for a majority of Afghans in Istanbul, whose lives remain fraught with danger and uncertainty.


Edited by Jelena Bjlica and Emilie Jelinek

References
1 The deal stipulated that all irregular migrants crossing into Greece from Turkey would be readmitted into the latter country, while for every readmitted Syrian national, a Syrian living in Turkey who met the required criteria for asylum in Europe would be resettled there. Meanwhile, the EU allocated 3 billion Euros to finance facilities and projects for refugees in Turkey and committed to mobilise up to an additional 3 billion Euros until 2018 if requirements were met (see here).
2 Turco-Afghan relations go back several centuries. Although limited in scope, have always been extremely cordial. In fact, Afghans in the previous government saw Turkey as a model. Even the Taleban, although certainly distant on ideological grounds and resentful of Turkey’s participation in the NATO mission, have appreciated its role as a strong and independent Muslim country.
3 Alarmist reports on Afghan refugees, often with exaggerated numbers, are not altogether a novelty in Turkey. For example, in 2018 CNN Turk stated that 1.5 million Afghans were waiting to enter Turkey from Iran. The estimate given by a local organisation working with migrants was widely circulated and fed into the public’s fear about the growing number of refugees Turkey was hosting.
4 Turkey applies a geographical limitation to the 1951 Convention regarding the status of refugees. The 2013 Law on Foreigners and International Protection in the legal provisions regarding asylum in Turkey introduced an exception for Syrians, who have been granted temporary protection and access to public services.
5 According to some registered Afghans interviewed, until a few years ago, Turkish authorities would let applicants choose among a number of available locations, major cities excluded, but since 2021 these choices are no longer available and all registration came to a stop. For many newcomers, which of the many provincial centres of Turkey they were assigned to would make little difference, except relatively big cities with job opportunities in the industrial and manufacturing sectors such as Kayseri, where an early and well-organised Afghan community has developed, and families are relatively numerous (the city finds itself on the main route from east to west, travelled by migrants).
6 As noted by AAN in 2020, differences in the treatment of Afghans by the police and by public service agencies, depending on the municipality, must be taken into account. This is true even at a more political level: at the time of AAN’s visit in December 2021, while the police in many parts of Turkey and Istanbul itself were intensifying raids and detentions of undocumented Afghans, the municipality of Kadikoy, governed by the same CHP party whose national leadership is so vocal about the need to stop migrants from crossing the borders, organised and hosted a public event on Afghan women with renowned director Sahraa Karimi.

 

Refugees or Ghosts? Afghans in Turkey face growing uncertainty