Turkey should prepare for new refugee influx from Afghanistan
We often use numbers when discussing the topic of refugees, asylum seekers or migrants who leave their home countries for a better future. However, the issue is about more than just numbers; lives, integration with new societies in host countries, and the future of coming generations are at stake. As Turkey’s last ambassador to Syria, Omer Onhon, rightfully said: “While for the Netherlands or Belgium the refugee issue might be just an academic topic to discuss at conferences, for Turkey it is a huge reality that it may need to face for years.”
After the US decided to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, several reports were published that highlighted a rising number of asylum seekers of Afghan origin crossing Turkey’s eastern border due to the worsening security conditions in their country. These reports triggered criticisms in the media, as well as in parliament.
Turkey’s Deputy Interior Minister Ismail Catakli rejected claims that Afghan refugees were crossing Turkey’s border with Iran in an uncontrolled manner, saying that footage shared online does not reflect the truth. He added that Turkey has completed 149 km of the planned 259-km security wall on the Iranian border. Defense Minister Hulusi Akar also stated that the Turkish authorities were closely following the developments in Afghanistan, including a potential refugee influx toward Turkey, which already hosts millions of refugees.
A tough mission already awaits Turkey in Afghanistan, as it prepares to take responsibility for security at Kabul airport, and there are also disquieting challenges concerning the new refugee flow. For decades, Turkey has been a critical refugee hotspot for hundreds of thousands of Afghans, who constitute the second-largest group of refugees and asylum seekers registered in the country. Its proximity to Europe has made it a transit hub for refugees fleeing Iraq, Iran, Syria and Afghanistan as they make their “journey of hope.”
However, due to the deal signed between Turkey and the EU in 2016, the route to Europe has largely been shut down, causing millions of refugees and asylum seekers to stay within Turkey’s borders.
In June, Greece stated that Turkey was a safe country in which to seek international protection. A joint decree from the Greek foreign and migration ministries said that Turkey meets all criteria to examine asylum requests, as “they (asylum seekers/refugees) are not in any danger … due to their race, religion, citizenship, political beliefs or membership in some particular social group, and can seek asylum in Turkey instead of in Greece.”
This statement is very problematic, firstly, as people who flee cannot be accepted or rejected according to their “race, religion, citizenship or political beliefs.” This is against the 1951 Refugee Convention. Secondly, they are not just numbers, but humans. Once we stop categorizing these people according to their nations or numbers, we may bring a possible solution a step closer. Finally, these people should not be part of any political dispute between countries, as their lives are at stake.
People fleeing Afghanistan generally do not consider Pakistan or Iran, which are direct neighbors, when seeking refuge. In Iran, the economic conditions do not allow refugees to find a better life, while Pakistan has its own problems related to insecurity, poverty and unemployment. Many choose to travel to Turkey and then stay there despite the crawling economic conditions in the country.
Once we stop categorizing these people according to their nations or numbers, we may bring a possible solution a step closer.
In 2018, following a change in asylum procedures, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees transferred refugee registration to the Turkish authorities. This has raised questions over the number of asylum seekers in the country and whether they are properly registered. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) even recently submitted a motion in parliament seeking an investigation into the issues Afghan-origin migrants and refugees face in Turkey. And several reports have been published in Turkish media outlets questioning the government's plan to deal with the new flow of refugees.
In today’s international media, it is hard to believe what is true or fake. However, even if the footage circulating online was not filmed at Turkey’s border, the reality remains that Turkey is a host country rather than just a transit country for refugees and migrants. How the situation in Afghanistan will affect Turkey in humanitarian terms is not hard to predict. Now that the Taliban have strengthened, a new wave of refugees is expected to arrive in Turkey. The country should prepare its plan clearly this time, calling on international authorities to help it deal with the influx and avoid a new version of the Syria case.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz