As Taliban Advance, Thousands of Afghans Seek Refuge in Turkey

As Taliban Advance, Thousands of Afghans Seek Refuge in Turkey

11:37 - Migrants from Afghanistan are making arduous journeys through Iran to reach Turkey, which already hosts millions of Syrian refugees

When the Taliban swept across northern Afghanistan in June, burning shops and executing government soldiers, Jamal Naser and Farida Kohi fled with their four children.

Instead of heading to Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul or on to Pakistan—the destination for many Afghan exiles—the 41-year-old mechanic and his wife from Faryab province paid a smuggler $4,000 to take their family into Iran. They walked across the country, with little food and water, for 18 days before scaling a mountain to reach Turkey. Now the family hopes to reach Europe.

“I want my daughters to go to school,” said Mr. Kohi as he sat resting with his family on the concrete floor of a half-built house on the edge of the city of Van, in eastern Turkey.

The fresh influx of Afghan migrants to Turkey shows how the U.S. military drawdown in Afghanistan is rippling through the wider region. Ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline set by President Biden to withdraw U.S. troops from the country, the Taliban have seized swaths of the Afghan countryside and are threatening some cities. Civilian casualties surged in the first half of the year, according to a United Nations report.

Increasing numbers of Afghans are fleeing their homes, with many headed to Turkey, say migrant aid groups. If the flow continues to escalate, it could echo the wave of Syrian refugees who fled that country’s bloody civil war. Some 3.6 million Syrian refugees still live in Turkey.

The U.N. refugee agency estimates that 270,000 Afghans have fled their homes since January, with most of them displaced inside the country.

There are five times as many Afghans coming into Turkey via Iran as there were at this time last year, when the Covid-19 pandemic also reduced the number of people arriving, according to Hanife Guzel, head of the Serhat Association for Migration Research, a human-rights group based in Van. Ms. Guzel estimates that 500 to 1,000 are arriving in Turkey each day. She and other aid groups assisting Afghan migrants expect the number to increase as the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates.

Nationalist politicians in Turkey have criticized the government for allowing in too many people.

“Syrians weren’t enough, now Afghans,” tweeted Lutfu Turkkan, a member of parliament from the centrist Iyi party. “Is this [Turkey] a roadside motel?”

Turkish opposition politicians say the Syrian refugees are a burden on the economy. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that the refugees who have fled to Turkey from war shouldn’t be returned to Syria.

Turkey has played the role of Europe’s buffer against refugees since signing an agreement with the European Union in 2016 to stop the flow of migrants in exchange for billions of dollars in financial support. In 2015 and 2016, more than a million people, most of them Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans, arrived in Europe fleeing war and poverty.

“Turkey will be under pressure from the international community and the EU to share the burden,” said Metin Corabatir, president of the Ankara-based Research Center on Asylum and Migration and a former spokesman for the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Turkey.

As the Taliban advance, an increasing number of professionals and middle-class people are fleeing the war, according to refugee advocates and researchers. Among them are teachers, police officers and civil servants who fear for their lives under the insurgent group.

Sitting under a tree in the midday heat in the town of Tatvan, more than 100 miles west of the Iranian border, was an extended family of 20 people including eight children. The family patriarch was a general in the Afghan security forces, they said, who had been killed by the Taliban a year and a half ago, and now the family of minority Shiites had fled for their lives. Two teenage girls said they wanted to go to school, a right they will likely be denied if the Taliban take control of the country.

“We’re relieved,” said Omar Nazari, a 20-year-old mechanic. “There’s no war here, but we’re worried about deportation.”

To deter the new generation of refugees coming to Turkey, the Turkish government is building a concrete wall along with watchtowers and is digging trenches along its border with Iran.

Turkey is also stepping up efforts to round up and deport people who arrive in the country through irregular means. In Van province alone, Turkish security forces stopped 34,308 people from crossing the border from Iran and detained another 27,230 people who entered the country without permission over the past six months, according to the regional governor. Aid groups say the majority of these arrivals are Afghans.

“We are checking the potential wave of migration to Turkey,” said Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar earlier this month.

Though thousands have been turned away, some refugees still manage to enter Turkey with smugglers who help them slip past border guards. Within Turkey, some also travel by car, depending on how much they are able to pay, according to migration experts and human-rights groups in contact with the migrants.

Despite the clampdown, Turkey still represents hope for Afghans who fled the war and walked for weeks through Iran in hopes of starting a better life elsewhere. Groups of Afghans could be seen around Van province, walking westward toward Istanbul and the fringes of Europe.

On a recent July morning, a group of roughly 60 Afghans, along with migrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh, moved quickly through a muddy field on the shores of Lake Van, a vast saltwater expanse. They passed farmers grazing cattle and parted tall reeds on the edge of the lake.

Suddenly, a cluster of tan-uniformed officers from Turkey’s domestic security forces appeared on the other side of a stand of reeds. The crowd of migrants shifted and ran back in the other direction with the security men in pursuit.

“Catch them all!” shouted an officer into a cellphone, an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder, while another officer sprinted after the migrants.

The gendarmerie rounded up the migrants and told them to sit in a group on the muddy shore of the lake while they waited for reinforcements. One man, who gave his name as Ismail, began to weep as his long journey from Afghanistan ended in arrest.

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