‘There’s no life for us here, but we risk death if we stay’: Afghan refugees flood into Turkey
Skinny, dirty and exhausted, dozens of young Afghan men gather at a disused bus station in Turkey’s south eastern Bitlis province, trying to catch some sleep and perhaps a meal after weeks on the road.
They have walked more than 1,200 miles to get here, crossing mountains and deserts, braving extreme heat and cold, dodging wild animals, criminal gangs and border guards. Most attempt the crossing several times before they succeed – one woman said that out of her group of 200 who started the journey just 50 made it, as many fell sick and were left behind or fell foul of border police.
Those who do succeed have the scars to prove it. Bahtiyar, 22, from Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan, carefully unwraps a scrap of green cloth from his right foot revealing two deep gashes on the sole. He caught his foot on barbed wire as he was smuggled across the border from Iran.
The men say they will travel first to Istanbul to find work and save money, then they will hit the road again and attempt to get to Europe, searching for opportunity and prosperity.
“We live in poverty, I came to Turkey to make money to eat,” says Touhid, 18, from Laghman province, pulling up his shirt to show deep scars on his back and ribs. He fled Afghanistan after the Taliban, which has now re-captured around 85 per cent of the country almost 20 years after the regime was deposed, started to make gains in his region. His house collapsed after being hit in clashes between the Afghan government and Taliban militants, killing half his family.
Walking up to 12 hours a day, it took Touhid 29 days to reach Turkey. He suffered multiple beatings from Iranian police and when he reached the border a call came – the rest of his family had been killed in the fighting.
Touhid is just one of tens of thousands of Afghans thought to be fleeing the country before it is engulfed in chaos as foreign troops prepare to withdraw before September 11 this year. According to local news, between 500 and 1,000 Afghans are thought to be entering Turkey illegally each day
Two people smugglers in Turkey’s eastern province of Van told the Telegraph they have seen “10 times” more business than usual in recent weeks and humanitarian agencies in the region said they are bracing for a large surge.
Even before this latest wave of migration countries such as Turkey, Iran and Pakistan were already hosting millions of Afghans, many of them undocumented. However, the Covid pandemic has hit these countries hard and they are ill-equipped to deal with the latest arrivals.
Turkey is already home to the world’s largest refugee population, at almost four million. Migrants from the east enter the country via Iran and although an 81-km security wall along the border was completed earlier this year, a further 400km of porous frontier remains policed by border guards.
Both migrants and smugglers claim the officials receive money from family-run gangs that operate across the border. These gangs used to smuggle commodities, such as sugar and oil, but have switched to people as it is a much more lucrative trade and they operate with relative impunity. The Turkish government did not respond to a request for comment about this.
According to the International Organisation for Migration there are around 130,000 Afghan migrants in Istanbul, although that figure is likely to be much higher as many do not register with the Turkish authorities over fears they will be refused temporary protection status and sent home. They receive no official health care and are vulnerable to exploitation and crime, working in garment factories where they earn between 150 Turkish lira (£12.50) and TL250 a day.
The Telegraph has spoken to dozens of migrants in Van and Istanbul over several months, the majority of whom said they hope to move on either legally or illegally to Europe – life in Turkey can be tough, with poverty, inflation and unemployment soaring and the lira continuing to hit record lows against the dollar.
Some said that although they were expecting many more Afghans to make the perilous journey in the coming months, they had told friends and family at home not to come.
“There is no life for us Afghans here,” said Badaat, 27, who worked as an interpreter with US and coalition forces at a base in Kandahar before fleeing to Turkey following threats from the Taliban. “But we risk losing our lives if we stay at home.”
Badaat migrated five years ago and lives in a two-bedroom house with eight other unregistered Afghan men. He showed the Telegraph paperwork from the US army that should help grant him a special immigration visa to live in America, but he can’t apply now he has left Afghanistan.
He has given up on the US and is working to save the $2,000 he needs to be smuggled into Europe.
From their tiny cigarette smoke-filled Istanbul sitting room, Badaat and his housemates described their shadow existence. Some are forced to become mafia drug runners, others say they suffer frequent assault from unscrupulous employers and others even risk being taken hostage for ransom by other Afghan gangs who are desperate for money.
If they were murdered or died at work, they said, no one would face any justice as, officially, they do not exist.
This erasure of their existence applies in life as well as death. In the centre of Van, two graveyards reserve sections for the bodies of unidentified migrants found dead in and around the province, including some of the 61 mostly Afghan migrants who were killed when their boat sank while trying to cross Lake Van last year.
Most of the graves are marked with a simple stone memorial inscribed only with a number and perhaps a nationality, but the most heartbreaking reads: “baby, alone”.