Faced with a potential uptick in arrivals of refugees from Afghanistan, Turkey is reinforcing its border with Iran. Even though a new concrete wall appears to have limited irregular crossings, the number of Afghans said to be gathering near the border with no way back is causing concern in Turkey and the EU.
Mohammed, 18 years old, has been on the road for 25 days. He started his journey in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He told the news agency AFP that he paid a Turkish smuggler €600 to get him to Istanbul, his destination, but the smuggler dropped him off a long way away from there.
On the border between Iran and Turkey, a new wall has been built to deter migrants from crossing irregularly. Yet some manage to sneak around it at night -- the only traces the migrants leave are empty bottles or fresh footprints, AFP reports. Turkish armored vehicles patrol the border in the early morning hours.
The Afghans who make it this far via Iran "spend days hiding from law enforcement and nights devising ways to get to big cities such as Izmir and Istanbul before finding smugglers to take them to Europe," reports AFP.
Uptick in border crossings
Like Mohammed, countless Afghans are desperate to leave their country. Many however are deterred by border restrictions -- figures by the European Union even say the number of Afghans who crossed into Europe dropped by roughly 40% in the first six months of the year due to border restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
However, the number of Afghan refugees trying to cross into Turkey from Iran has been on the rise lately. Citing estimates by human rights activists, news agency dpa said more than 1,000 Afghans arrived in the Van province each day in late July. In late July, Turkish authorities apprehended over a hundred irregular migrants there, three days after a similar incident.
Afghans who fled weeks and months ago now show up at the rugged Iran-Turkey border -- a border crossing that regularly claims lives as migrants die in road accidents or of drowning trying to cross Lake Van in small boats.
Turkey tries to seal itself off
There is growing concern among Turkish authorities about a potential wave of Afghan refugees entering Turkey -- security officials reportedly said in private that "tens of thousands of Afghans are believed to be massing on the Iranian side," according to AFP.
In response a 243-kilometer "concrete wall, topped with barbed wire and surrounded by trenches," is currently being built along Turkey's 534-kilometer border with Iran. According to Turkish officials, the 156 kilometers that have already been built have likely already limited migrant flows.
Recent riots in Ankara were a stark reminder that the four million or so refugees in Turkey are increasingly facing xenophobic attacks. Experts have even warned that things could escalate in the future. In an apparent attempt to capitalize on the nation's mood, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he'd put a "complete stop" to irregular migrant crossings.
On Thursday (August 19), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on European nations to shoulder the responsibility for Afghans fleeing the Taliban and warned that his country won't become Europe's "refugee warehouse," AP reported. In a televised address following a Cabinet meeting, Erdogan also said his government would "if necessary'' engage in talks with a government that could be formed by the Taliban '' for the stability and security of this country.''
In 2016, Turkey and the European Union signed the so-called EU-Turkey deal so Turkey would stem the flow of hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees towards Europe, in return for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens and substantial EU financial support. Erdogan has frequently accused the EU of not keeping its side of the bargain.
'Afghanistan is finished'
Ikbali, whose 15-day journey from Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan took him to Pakistan and Iran, doesn't see a future for himself in his home country. "Afghanistan is finished," he said. "It will be even worse now. I am 19. I would love to go to school or mosque, but my life is gone."
Others, like A. A., are already making their second attempt at escape. The 17-year-old was deported from Turkey back to his home country last year after being caught in Istanbul, where he worked illegally as a barber. He said he'd love to stay in Turkey for good. "Your state [Turkey] tells me to go to Afghanistan, but there's a war," he told AFP. "I don't want to go to Europe. If Turkey provides me shelter, I want to stay."
No resettlement, uncertainty in Iran
The practice of Turkey resettling Afghans in mostly European third countries and refugee-friendly places such as Canada ended in 2013 when EU member states declared Afghanistan safe because of the presence of NATO troops there.
In Turkey, Afghans are the second-largest migrant group after Syrians with 120,000 Afghan refugees and up to 300,000 undocumented Afghan migrants. The largest group are the approximately 3.6 million Syrians.
Metin Corabatir, former Turkey spokesperson for UN refugee agency UNHCR, said that in the past, Afghanistan's western neighbor Iran has been able to absorb migrant flows. "It hosted two million Afghans during the 1979 Soviet invasion," he told AFP.
Yet he also said that years of sanctions spearheaded by the US and linked to Tehran's nuclear program have devastated Iran's economy, which in turn made the whole situation in the region more volatile. "To what extent Iran could provide protection to new arrivals, we don't know yet," Corabatir said.
'People have no other choice'
In Tatvan, a city located at the westernmost point of Lake Van, some 200 kilometers away from the border with Iran, a group of Afghans has found temporary shelter after crossing the border. M. Z., 16, saw no future for himself in Afghanistan without help from other countries.
"The Taliban will kill you if you go to a school, they will kill you if you side with the government," he said. "And the government will kill you if you side with the Taliban," he added, recalling life before the Taliban's takeover of Kabul.
"People have no other choice, they have no money, no work, and no employment. What will anyone do there? Where will we go if the neighboring countries do not provide us shelter?"
Note: Names have been anonymized