Afghan migrants’ experiences in Turkey and why it matters now

Published 8 September 2021 / By Atakan Keskin and Emre Eren Korkmaz

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As thousands of Afghans cross the mountainous Turkey-Iran border each day, Turkey faces a new movement of desperate people despite President Erdoğan’s warning that Turkey had no intention of becoming “Europe’s migrant storage unit”. As the journey from Afghanistan to Turkey takes at least three to five weeks, along a route favoured by human smugglers, we will only now begin to observe the increase in the numbers arriving in Turkey.

In this post, we will summarize the smuggling business, share findings of some other recent studies and provide more details about our interviews with Afghan migrants, done in November and December 2020, which provide some insights into this dangerous journey, which is only now receiving media attention.

While Turkey remains a crucial transit country for Afghans en route to European countries, the country also currently hosts more than 110,000 Afghan nationals under international protection. As a result, Afghans represent the highest number of irregular arrivers and the year-on-year most increasing refugee group in Turkey. This number is overshadowed by the 3.5 million Syrian refugees currently living there.

The accounts of chicanery, overcharging, abuse, torture, robbery, kidnapping, detention, sexual violence, family separation, and threats committed by the human smugglers on Iran-Turkey route are ubiquitously mentioned in the interviews conducted by Mixed Migration Centre with Afghan refugees in 2019. In the study, out of 341 respondents, only 5.6% stated that they used regular means to enter Turkey. The rest came into Turkey illegally from Afghanistan to Iran and Turkey or stopped by in Pakistan before Iran.

The city of Van is a significant hub for Afghans and migrant smugglers, which shares a 240 km border with Iran. In August 2020, 61 Afghans died in Lake Van, when they tried to cross the lake on a small fishing-type boat filled with over 100 refugees. These tragedies in Van have not ended; in March 2021 three immigrants froze to death trying to cross the border between Turkey and Iran.

The Smuggling Business

In November 2020 Deutsche Well (DW) journalists contacted social-media account owners promoting smuggling Afghans into Turkey and Europe. These people openly post how they can create fake passports and travel documents on social media. One migrant smuggler explained three different smuggling packages: "5,000 TL to travel in a car with five people; 4,000 TL for 1.5 hours of walk and 2,500 for 4 hours of walk…" "I have been in this business for 14 years and learned from my father… Smuggling people into Turkey is as easy as buying cheese and bread from a supermarket.”

Once the border is crossed, migrants stay in apartments either in Van or the Dogubeyazit district of Agri. This particular smuggler makes his clients call their family or friends in Iran or Afghanistan as soon as the clients are safely smuggled into Turkey. After this phone call, the client or family/friends must make the client's payment to continue the journey.

Another migrant smuggler who spoke to DW Turkey said that he does not recommend being smuggled into Greece with a boat as the risk to sink is "50%." If clients choose that option, they need to pay 2,500 Euros. This particular smuggler recommended being smuggled into Germany for 8,000 Euros via car through Bulgaria and Serbia, where he claims to know the Border Patrol officials there personally. He insisted that most of the money he gets from clients goes as bribery to those officials at the borders. Other options are to be smuggled into the Kastellorizo Island, which is only 1 mile off Kas, Antalya for 2,000 Euros, and Italy via cargo or commercial ships for 6,000 to 7,500 Euros, respectively.

Figure 1: Social Media Posts of Migrant Smugglers [1] 

Our study with Afghan migrants

Our study on irregular migration from Afghanistan, commissioned by the UK Home Office, employed a qualitative research methodology using a structured interview design, and took place in November and December 2020. 44 Afghan refugees provided interviews, including 12 female and 32 male participants, where the average age was 28, with the youngest being 18 and the oldest 54 years old. 38 interviewees were of the Hazari background. The other six were Tajik-Afghans, all from the Jaghori district in Ghazni. While 13 of them started their journey from Afghanistan, 35 participants were either born in Iran or moved there at a very young age.

27 interviewees trusted smugglers with claimed a high success rate. 11 of them took the advice of relatives who have crossed the border before. The remaining six had no other option but to confide in smugglers they have met through acquaintances. All of them use Telegram and IMO applications to stay connected with the community where many smugglers post ads in these apps' channels or groups.

Turkey was not a desired destination for these participants, and 38 out of the sample of 44 are not even registered with the Turkish officials. Even if they do register, they know that there is no path to citizenship for them as their options are either deportation or asylum acceptance from a Western country. Those 30 people in the sample living in a smuggler's safehouse and working at nearby textile and leather factories show a clear intention of saving enough money to go to Europe.

Migrants’ experiences on the border

Although all respondents said they never witnessed any collaboration between smugglers and state agents along the way, they have heard numerous tip-off calls as they were being transported by the smugglers. All of them believe that Iranian officials must have been paid off. Once the smugglers get a green light for a particular hour of the evening to cross the border from the Iranian side, migrants were asked to get ready for the journey immediately.

Three participants that travelled on separate occasions described the Iranian checkpoint as similar to a festival area with thousands of people. According to the smuggler they had chosen to work with, the organisers were shouting out smugglers' names and dividing them into groups. After this bifurcation and branching process, the smugglers told the participants that their friends went to speak with the 'friends at the border' and that they should wait until receiving the green light. After receiving the clearance, these participants were put into the back of a pickup truck with 30 or more people and covered. When they reached the border, one soldier whistled to another to lift the fence, and they effortlessly passed through, as one participant said, "as if they passed with a passport." This participant described his experience further in Turkey. Once the Turkish authorities pulled them over, there was an initial dispute where these authorities were suspicious of illegal activity. The driver came back into the vehicle, called someone, and spoke to this person in Kurdish. Within minutes, the authorities received an order from their radio and immediately let the buses continue their journey. The participant then expressed his total conviction that there had to be some cooperation between the smugglers and these authorities.

To conclude, interviewees' primary goal was being placed in a country that recognises them as legal residents. Their priority is to overcome the uncertain situation and to avoid deportation back to Afghanistan. The latest crisis after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban and the departure of the occupation forces has sparked a new movement of asylum-seekers, and the legal channels to apply for asylum has yet to be expanded. Although NATO allies such as the US, UK and Canada have declared they will accept a certain number of Afghan refugees, the numbers are still quite limited and there are questions of where these applications will be processed, for example in Pakistan or Turkey. This will also have an impact on the decision to cross borders with the help of smugglers.

[1] Ibid (Account handles blurred by Van Bar Association)

Atakan Keskin is a graduate of MSc in Comparative and International Education at the University of Oxford’s St Anthony’s College.

Dr Emre Eren Korkmaz is a lecturer at the University of Oxford’s Department of International Development (ODID) .