Afghanistan Analysts Network – English


Afghan Exodus: Migrants in Turkey left to fend for themselves

Christine Roehrs Khadija Hossaini 23 min

For Afghans seeking refuge or a new life in Europe, Turkey used to be a major migration transit hub. With routes through Turkey largely shut down after a refugee pact with the European Union in 2016, the country is now permanently hosting millions of refugees and migrants – among them possibly hundreds of thousands of Afghans. They are struggling to survive in an increasingly hostile environment as Turkey suffers through an economic crisis and is continuing large-scale deportations. Despite this, 2018 and 2019 saw an additional influx of Afghans, with the current situation in Afghanistan likely to provide even more push factors. However, while most media reports focus on Afghans wishing to go onwards to Europe, many actually intend to stay in Turkey. AAN researchers Christine Roehrs and Khadija Hosseini look at the plight of this largely unassisted migrant community.

Afghan migrants waiting for offers of daily wage labour along a central road in Istanbul's Küçüksu area in October 2020. Istanbul is assumed to host the largest group of Afghans in the country. Many are not registered. Photo: Christine Roehrs.

Report summary

·      Afghans are believed to be the second-largest community of refugees and migrants in Turkey, after Syrians. Their number in Istanbul, the country’s largest city, alone has been estimated at somewhere between 130,000 and at least 200,000. Many are living in the shadows, without official papers and barely surviving in the illicit economy.

·      The squeeze on migration routes, especially from Turkey on to Europe and the repercussions of policies such as United States sanctions on Iran seem to have heightened Afghan migrants’ interest in going to and staying in Turkey.  

·      According to 2019 figures from Kabul and Ankara, more than 200,000 Afghans were detained by the Turkish authorities and around 40 000 were sent back to Afghanistan. 

·      Despite these attempts to deter migration towards Turkey, experts say that higher levels of migration out of Afghanistan should be expected because of additional, Covid-19-induced pressure on the Afghan economy and intensified violence, at the same time as international aid is declining.

Introduction: the political backdrop 

In early 2020, scenes at the Turkish-Greek border shone a spotlight on the sizable, but little-known Afghan refugee community in Turkey. On 28 February, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared the borders to the EU open to refugees and migrants. The announcement had been mainly triggered by a stand-off between Erdoğan and the European Union over what he viewed as insufficient support for the millions of Syrian refugees Turkey is hosting under a joint pact with the EU. After Erdoğan’s statement, thousands of migrants headed to Turkey’s borders with the EU (Greece and Bulgaria). The majority were not Syrians as many had initially assumed. They were mostly young Afghan men, some with families. 

Camped out for weeks in the cold and mud, mostly at one border crossing, they gave to reporters grim accounts of their lives in Turkey, with no access to healthcare or other assistance and difficulties finding work. There were clashes as Greek border forces drove advancing refugees back, using tear gas and rubber bullets. On the other side of the border, Afghans already accounted for the majority of those living in overcrowded Greek camps, such as Moria on the island of Lesbos. A recently published IOM report, “Afghanistan: Survey on Drivers of Migration,” states that in December 2019 “44 per cent of all arrivals in Greece” had been “of Afghan nationality, making Afghanistan the country of origin with the highest numbers of migrants in 2019.“ According to UNHCR figures (by 13 December 2020), Afghans again were the largest groups among all sea arrivals to Greece, with 3,331 (36.0%) out of 9,608. (The almost 6,000 additional land arrivals are not disaggregated by country of origin.)

Then, however, the Covid-19 pandemic kicked in and attention to the situation at the border waned rather abruptly. Turkish security forces removed the last of those holding out at the border at the end of March, throwing the Afghan migrant community back into the shadows. 

AAN last looked at the situation of Afghan refugees and migrants in Turkey two years ago. (See this AAN report from Erzurum, then a hotspot of detentions and deportations, and for more background AAN’s thematic dossier on Afghan migration since 2015 here.)

Then, the first mass deportations had started.  The deportations were the government’s response to, among others, a growing influx of Afghan migrants from Iran, including those who were transiting through the country and others leaving the large and longstanding Afghan refugee settlements there, as well as more temporary migrant labourers. Migration experts link this, among other factors, to the worsening economic situation in Iran after the US had imposed sanctions on the regime, resulting in reduced income opportunities for Afghans and more deportations of Afghans (more below). Many decided to move further west, to Turkey, in search of jobs. Since then, much has changed for the Afghans coming to, or staying in Turkey, warranting another look at the fate of the community. 

For one thing, Turkey’s previously relatively open attitude towards refugees and migrants has soured. Turkey today hosts the largest refugee community in the world. Around 3.6 million Syrians are registered as refugees in Turkey. Under the EU-Turkey refugee pact and a temporary protection scheme, they receive some assistance from the state and international organisations. In addition, Turkey hosts approximately 370,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers from other countries as well as many unregistered migrants (based on the most recent UNHCR figures, which date from 2018). However, an economic crisis which spiked in 2018, with runaway inflation and growing unemployment, caused underlying antipathy towards migrants from Turks to grow into a more widespread perception of the foreigners being a burden. President Erdoğan, who had been losing support over the deteriorating economy and whose governing party (AKP) faced domestic elections in 2019, stoked those sentiments by putting the migration issue front and centre in many public appearances. He turned it into a bargaining chip both in domestic politics and in foreign relations. In this climate, ‘asylum’ processes changed to the detriment of Afghan migrants and the government stepped up deportations (more below). 

In early 2020, with the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, tensions increased further as some people accused Syrians and Afghans of having brought the virus into Turkey. Also, many businesses that employed Afghans – mostly illegally and often for low wages – had to close or lay off staff making the living conditions of migrants even more precarious. The arrival of winter and new Covid-related restrictions could see the situation worsen.

Some central figures – and why they remain blurry

Afghan refugees and migrants are estimated to be the second-largest community in Turkey after Syrians. Registered and unregistered Afghans may well amount to several hundred thousand people. However, their exact or at least an approximate number is still not known, mostly because Afghans have been, and still are, entering the country without the necessary paperwork. Fearing detention and deportation, many do not register with authorities.  

The largest cluster of Afghans is assumed to have formed in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city and economic engine, with more clusters in other large cities. Findings of a “Baseline Assessment for Istanbul Province” published by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in mid-2019 suggest “the presence of 127,163 Afghans in Istanbul province, as the mass arrival of Afghans, which started in 2018, continues.” One migration expert who spoke to AAN in early October 2020 estimated the number of unregistered Afghans living in Istanbul to be “at least 200,000, to be on the safe side.” 

The district of Zeytinburnu alone, one centre of the Afghan community, is said to host an estimated 35,000 registered and unregistered Afghans. [1]See a June 2020 report of the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC), “Destination Unknown – Afghans on the move in Turkey”, p 45. The IOM baseline study from mid-2019 puts the number of Afghans in the … Continue reading This part of Istanbul is Afghanistan in miniature. In a maze of streets near the central 58th Boulevard, merchant signs include the Balkhi Center, the Logari Call Shop and the Kunduz Restaurant. In small ‘all-in-one’ shops one can make a phone call to Afghanistan, purchase a mobile phone cover adorned with the Afghan flag, or send money home. There is Afghan naan to be had, kabuli pilaw, even fresh shiryakh (Afghan ice cream). More such communities have formed in other Istanbul districts, such as Ataşehir, Pendik and Tuzla, Gaziosmanpaşa, Sultangazi, Beylikdüzü, or the Küçüksu area of Beykoz district (impressions from a visit there further below). The decision on where to settle is often informed by job opportunities in industry, construction, agriculture, or hospitality (tourism, restaurants). Many also go where they already have friends and family. 

As for the Afghans in Turkey with an ‘official status’: in an October 2018 fact sheet, UNHCR reported that of the 370,932 registered asylum seekers, 46 per cent (around 170,600 individuals) were from Afghanistan. There are no newer figures from the UNHCR as the agency by the end of September 2018 stopped registering refugees and handed the process over to the Turkish government. This step has decreased transparency further as the Turkish Directorate General for Migration Management (DGMM) does not make certain figures publicly available. This includes the number of Afghans granted a protection status (see bottom of first page here) which entitles people to some assistance and allows them to stay in Turkey while awaiting resettlement to a third country. Turkey itself only grants asylum to refugees from Europe. [2]Turkey does not grant asylum except to refugees from Europe as it has retained a “geographical limitation” on the 1951 Refugee Convention. Afghans can therefore at the most receive a temporary … Continue reading 

While the nature of Afghan migration into Turkey makes it difficult to know how many people are entering the country, some insight on the size of the community can be gleaned from other data sets. For example, in 2019, the Turkish migration directorate, the DGMM, reported that it apprehended 454,662 “irregular migrants,” of whom the largest group at 201,437 were Afghans. [3]Most are apprehended while either entering the country in the eastern provinces bordering Iran – Erzurum, Ağrı, Van – or leaving the country in western coastal provinces by boat towards Greece … Continue reading 

In 2020, the figures are so far smaller, in large part probably due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the related pause in the activities of security forces, as well as tighter border controls. As of 24 September, the DGMM reported that 90,941 “irregular migrants” had been “captured” (first graph) of which 36,415 were Afghans (second graph). 

An Afghan ice cream shop offering shiryakh in Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu district. This area is a centre for the Afghan community, a home away from home. Photo: Christine Roehrs

More detentions and deportations

A. Deportation

With the Turkish government politicising the presence of the many refugees and migrants in the country in 2018 and 2019 more strongly, the number of detentions went up. For example, in July 2019, the government began a campaign to relieve Istanbul’s facilities that were strained by the large number of Syrian refugees and other migrants that had flocked to the city. It aimed, among others, at relocating registered Syrian refugees to other provinces. In November 2019, the Istanbul governor’s office reported that in the course of this campaign, 42,888 “illegal“ migrants had been arrested and sent to repatriation centres with a view to remove them from Turkey (details on nationalities were not given). The increased police presence and raids sent Afghans deeper into hiding. One young Afghan man working in Istanbul’s Küçüksu area – Habibullah, 24, from Samangan province – said:

About seven or eight months ago, it was really bad. Many Afghans were deported, including one of my friends. Corona gave us a break. Currently, we don’t hear of many arrests, but I am still afraid. Me and my friends don’t go out if it is not absolutely necessary. We don’t go to crowded places where the police could show up and ask for papers. We don’t have Turkish friends. We keep to ourselves.

There is little transparency regarding the detentions. According to a report by the Asylum Information Database (AIDA), a platform managed by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, as of December 2019, there were 28 active removal centres in Turkey with a total detention capacity of 20,000 places (up from 19 centres in December 2016). “Most of these centres are filled with Afghans since they are the majority of the illegal migrants in Turkey”, says a well-connected aid practitioner and activist, Ali Hekmat from the Afghan Refugees Solidarity Association (ARSA) in Kayseri province. The AIDA report adds that more Removal Centres are being planned, with the overall “pre-removal detention capacity” expected to reach 21,466 places.

That, however, does not add up to the large number of refugees and migrants allegedly captured in 2019 (201,437 Afghans alone), even if they were detained and flown to Afghanistan and other countries quickly. Turkish prisons are already overcrowded because of Turkey’s continued crackdown on civil society and political opposition since a coup attempt in 2016. Ali Hekmat says that he hears from Afghans that his organisation supports that families are usually not kept in detention and that sometimes, due to overcrowding, even single men are released. The AIDA report points to some evidence suggesting detainees may be held in makeshift spaces such as sports halls or basements of police stations.

Zalmai, 25, from Parwan province, was deported from Turkey in September 2019 and spoke to AAN in Kabul about his experiences after almost two months of detention. He first stayed in a facility in the Tuzla area of Istanbul, then in other facilities, indicating that detained migrants are at times shifted around, possibly due to the availability of space:

They kept us in container rooms. The rooms were meant for six people, but often they were filled with 12 to 14 people… Then they moved us to Izmir, into a gym. We stayed there for one and a half weeks. The people I was in contact with were under a lot of mental pressure and for some, [it] was so bad that they wanted to harm themselves just to be able to get out of there. We were about 600 people in this gym. Then they moved us to another camp. The hall and the rooms were filled with detainees. We protested that we could not live like this. After two days of hunger strike, they sent us back to the first camp [in Tuzla], and we stayed there for two weeks. It was not fit for humans. We were piled on top of each other like animals. The food was not edible. 

There have also been allegations of forced deportation where migrants from Syria and Afghanistan, many of whom are illiterate, were coerced to sign or fingerprint papers they could not read or did not understand, possibly in an attempt to make the return look voluntary. Some also report threats of violence from Turkish authorities. 

B. Deportation

In terms of numbers, deportations play out in the same grey area as detentions. Figures vary and not all are publicly available. All sources agree that these returns were in the tens of thousands over the past two years and that they have increased. 

One source sent to AAN an internal presentation slide which they said were from a Turkish government meeting showing around 10,000 returns by flight in 2017. By the end of 2018, the number had grown to around 33,000. The slides could not be verified independently, but figures seem in line with partial reporting from other sides. In April 2018, interior minister Süleyman Soylu said that 7,100 Afghans had been deported in the first three weeks of April alone. The New York Times, citing Afghan officials, then reported that year, that “more than 17,000” were deported by mid-June. 2019 saw another hike in returns, with around 40,000 Afghans sent back from Turkey according to a source from the ministry of refugees and repatriation. This seems to fit with partial Turkish government figures. Turkish minister Soylu said in August 2019 during a press conference that so far 32,000 Afghans had been “sent to their country.” 

In 2020, return flights stopped between March and August due to the Coronavirus crisis, according to several sources, but resumed in early September. IOM statistics until the end of September confirm 7,300 returns by flight, with 1,313 in the month of September alone. A source from the Afghan ministry of refugees and repatriation said mid-December, there had so far been 9,120 such returns. 

There seems to be very little in terms of a formal agreement between Afghanistan and Turkey regulating these mass returns. According to the IOM, returns are carried out on commercial flights with Turkish Airlines, Kam Air and Ariana. The costs are carried by the Turkish government, adding to the anger in Ankara over the burden irregular migration puts on resources. The source from the ministry of refugees and repatriation said these “flights are scheduled in coordination with the government of Afghanistan and the Afghan embassy in Turkey.” Negotiations about a comprehensive readmission agreement are still ongoing. “It is unclear if they will be finalised this year” said the source.  

These are not the only deportations from Turkey, though. Missing in these figures is a chunk of returns from Turkey that is harder to pin down – those via the land border with Iran. Here, Turkey detains migrants entering from Iran and hands them over to the Iranian authorities who deport them back to Afghanistan. There are no reliable figures for the Turkey-Iranian portion of deportations. As for the Iran-Afghanistan returns: as of 12 December, IOM’s weekly report on the cross-border return situation (based on statistics from the Afghan governmental Border Monitoring Units) says that in 2020 over 307,000 Afghans were deported from Iran – among them people detained trying to enter Turkey. (Sometimes, according to one source, groups of migrants are simply pushed back but not handed over to Iranian authorities, enabling them to regroup and try again.) 

Lack of assistance for Afghans

To survive, Afghans must either find work or access assistances schemes of government, NGOs, the Red Crescent, or international organisations (see an overview here). However, large-scale aid programs are limited to registered refugees with a particular focus on Syrians (under the EU-Turkey pact). Most of these programs do not assist unregistered migrants, among them many Afghans in Turkey. 

Locally and on a smaller scale, Afghans may be aided by NGOs or municipalities. According to Burcuhan Şener, director of the Migration Policy Center of the Marmara Municipalities Union (MMU), an increasing number of municipalities are helping unregistered migrants. Sener estimates that in Istanbul alone around 30 of the 39 district municipalities are assisting some of the most vulnerable irregular migrants. Some municipalities use their own resources, some receive donations and grants, some are supported by NGOs or international organisations.

But municipal support remains a scattershot approach – not least because there is confusion over the mandate of municipalities to assist people who are not citizens. [4]According to the UN the municipalities are “the primary responders” at least when it comes to dealing with Syrian refugees, see the Regional Refugee Resilience Plan (3RP) 2017-18 on … Continue reading  Existing laws do not mention service provisions to refugees or foreigners per se, but the wording can be interpreted as such. “It is mostly dependent on the respective mayor, the municipal team and their willingness to take this step”, Sener says. “With regards to the registered refugees, there is a reason for municipalities to take care of them [Turkey’s refugee pact with the EU creates obligations and provides resources, particularly for Syrians]. But for the unregistered migrants – “this is an ambiguous and risky area,” she says. Risky for example financially, because the cost of assisting a hidden refugee/migrant population is not factored into local budgets that are based on official citizen counts. But “municipalities are also concerned with the local communities”, Şener says. “Many people already feel that the registered Syrian refugees are taking away resources that they consider their own. Even more so for the Afghans. So services to them are given not too publicly.”

Undocumented migrants who spoke with AAN had not heard of any local or international assistance available to them. They said they mostly relied on other Afghans for healthcare, housing, finding work or even cash loans. The following voices were collected on the streets of the Küçüksu area of Istanbul. Here, Afghans have formed a large community around daily wage labour, mostly in construction. From the early morning workers gather at a few roundabouts along a central traffic artery, offering themselves up for jobs (this looks much like it does in Afghanistan, see a recent AAN analysis on daily wage labour here). Would-be employers stop in cars or trucks by the roadside to negotiate wages (100-150 Lira per day is typical, about 13-19 USD) and hire workers for short-term assignments such as gardening, cleaning, or construction work. 

Sher Muhammad, 26, from Samangan said that more settled Afghans help newcomers navigate work and shelter:

Just a few days ago, another group of people made it here from Afghanistan. It is not easy, but we help each other. I went with them to find a place to sleep, and I showed them where they can find work. Most of it is in construction, cleaning, or carrying things. 

Habibullah, 24, from Samangan, described how Afghans also try to sort out healthcare needs among themselves: 

We have no health insurance. Some time ago, a friend got injured. He was hammering stones and a piece flew in his face. He was at home for two weeks. Thank god, he recovered. Sometimes, we can get stuff from the pharmacy to help ourselves, but another friend injured his leg so badly he had to go back to Afghanistan. [Government] hospitals ask for the ikamet [a short-term residence permit]. We don’t have that. The private hospitals are too expensive. Sometimes, we can ask an Afghan friend who has a kimlik [a Turkish ID card that entitles the holder to free or low-cost health care]to come with us. [The person with the necessary ID signs in as the patient, but the undocumented person goes for the treatment.]

Muhammad, 40, from Samangan describes how he recently left a job as a shepherd in another province and came to Istanbul. He is not yet earning money but is being helped by friends: 

Moneywise, the situation is at the red line. I have to take money from my friends in order to live and send money to my family in Afghanistan. But this is normal. We are eight people in the house. Usually, only three or four find daily work. They help those with no work out as long as they can. When the others find work, they will pay it back.

Afghan men are negotiating for a daily wage labour job in Istanbul’s Küçüksu area in October 2020. Every morning, many dozen men are waiting here along a central road, one of many such ‘labour bazaars’. Photo: Christine Roehrs

The lack of papers is the biggest grievance for unregistered migrants, says Didem Danış, a sociology professor at Galatasaray University who also runs the Association for Migration Research (in Turkish Göç Araştırmaları Derneği). The organisation has a rare study forthcoming on the socio-economic and legal circumstances of Afghan migrants in Istanbul with about 60 interviewees. (Most research has so far focused on the much larger group of Syrians, backed by money – and interest – from the EU.) The lack of ikamets (residency permits) and kimliks (ID cards) excludes the unregistered Afghans from accessing education, health care, and the ability to travel freely in Turkey. The wish to have a more secure status also makes them an easy mark for criminals, Didem Danış explains:

There is a huge sector of intermediaries, among them so-called associations or ‘ikamet avukatlari’ [lawyers claiming they can obtain residence permits/ikamets]. Many are basically robbers. They are Turks, but also Afghans… Migrants complain that many are corrupt – they promise to get them papers in exchange for money, but they often do not deliver. People say ‘I paid 500 Lira’ or ‘I paid 1500 Lira. But the ikamet did not come.’

Barely surviving – Afghans and the Turkish illicit economy

The exact number of Afghan refugees or migrants who have found work in Turkey is not known. In 2018, Turkish authorities issued only 823 work permits to Afghans (see an overview of the past years here, page 75). Most are employed in the illicit economy. Job ‘security’ is better in the big cities. In the provinces, where work is generally scarcer, the economic crisis and the pandemic have made an already difficult situation worse, ARSA head Ali Hekmat said. His work in Kayseri province partly consists of distributing aid packages or financial aid to migrant families: 

Before [the pandemic], we would only support the most vulnerable families. They were the only ones who would register for the assistance. The other ones, who felt a little more financially capable, would not register [with us]. This changed this year. We found that now 100 per cent of migrants living here are registering for the packages. 

When the pandemic struck, he was suddenly seeing Afghans begging on the streets, for example women sitting next to a bakery on his way to work. 

Afghans often expressed gratitude that they could earn some money in Turkey, given the absence of work back home in their often heavily conflict-affected provinces. However, the hardships described in Turkey are enormous, with many unable to find regular employment. Muhammad, 40, from Samangan, said:

We don’t live. Our lives are reduced to trying to stay alive [Zendegi-ye ma zenda mandan hast]. I came here in 2016. I have four children at home, my parents and my wife and I needed to find food for them. We don’t have our own house. We also need to pay rent. Here, I can find work ten days a month on average, then I am jobless again … I can maybe send home 150 dollars every month, from jobs in construction. We carry stones and cement. We work like donkeys. I am not happy and at home, they eat dry bread. 

Fewer Afghans granted protection status

At the same time, chances for achieving official protection status are small. The Turkish government seems to be delaying applications. According to official statistics, last year, 56,417 foreigners applied for “international protection” of whom 62 per cent, or approximately 35,000 individuals, were Afghan. But a 2019 yearly report by the Asylum Information Database concludes that Afghans applying for international protection “seemed to be rejected by default,” adding that “the main public policy seemed to be to leave people unregistered and thus push them to leave Turkey, especially Afghans, except in vulnerable cases. Afghans are thus kept as ‘unregistered irregular migrants’ in the migration system.” (See similar accounts in this 2018 Refugees International report.)

Ali Hekmat has seen such practices towards migrants on the ground:  

When their cases get rejected, they come to us. We know the decision is not reversible, but we still send a letter to UNHCR and explain the situation… and the reason why they are seeking asylum. Most people we have known… have been rejected in the past two years… 2019 had the highest number of rejections.

Hekmat also blames the Afghan government. He speaks of a “weak response” to the ill-treatment of Afghan migrants, which encourages the Turkish government to intensify its practices. In Hekmat’s view, these are aimed at creating “fear and disappointment among the Afghans to the point that no one comes to Turkey [anymore].“

Fewer, or more, refugees and migrants towards Turkey? 

However, it is too soon to say if the intensified measures against irregular migrants in Turkey and increased deportations in 2019 were indeed effective deterrents to outmigration from Afghanistan to Turkey (and onwards). The few figures available for 2020 do not give a clear indication as the pandemic has disrupted migration patterns and data collection. At the same time, the Covid-19 phenomenon has become its own push factor, while other domestic push factors have intensified, chiefly war and the failing economy, potentially encouraging more migration for survival instead of less.

Covid-19 has brought significantly more pressure to bear on the Afghan economy, with experts predicting a decline in the country’s national income (Gross Domestic Product or GDP) in 2020 in the five to ten per cent range. The World Bank estimates that due to the impact of Covid-19 the poverty rate may rise sharply in 2020, from around 55 per cent to 61-72 per cent. This could mean up to another six million Afghans falling into poverty. The UNDP has warned that the country will need significant amounts of additional assistance. However, at the most recent donor conference in Geneva on 23-24 November, pledges by the international community of 12 to 13 billion USD represented a drop of around 20 per cent compared to the amount pledged four years ago in Brussels (15.2 billion USD; AAN analysis here). 

This is while levels of violence, the underlying cause for so much migration from Afghanistan – in terms of threats to physical security and denial of economic opportunity ­­– have not been abating as hoped. With the start of fragile discussions about peace with the Taleban in Doha, many have demanded a ceasefire. However, the Taleban seem determined to combine talks with bloodshed.

One international migration expert said: “All of this tells you that people will [still] need to go abroad to earn money to feed and care for their families in Afghanistan… People are definitely migrating again [after an initial Covid-19 related lull]. Between 450,000 and 750,000 Afghans are moving westward every year [for shorter periods of time or long-term]. We don’t expect this to decrease.” In fact, higher levels of migration out of Afghanistan should be expected, the expert cautioned.

Individual statements from migrants seem to support the view that attempts to deter migration are having limited success. In his account from September 2019, the previously mentioned deportee Zalmai told AAN about fellow deportation candidates he had met in detention, many of whom had migrated repeatedly:

There were people who had come to Turkey several times and were deported several times. There was this person who was deported, and within 10 days he went back to Turkey… There was a boy from Shamali, he was deported from Turkey but has gone back… When I was deported to Kabul, I came back with two of my friends. Both have migrated again by now. One is back in Turkey and the other is in Indonesia.

In Istanbul’s Küçüksu area, AAN spoke to Hamid, 37, from Faryab, who said: 

In Afghanistan, the difficulties come from all directions, from war and Corona, and everything is becoming more expensive. More people are coming [to Turkey]. Yes, the border is closed, but it is not fully under control. People find a way.  

In Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu area, AAN met Ahmadullah, 24, from Logar who had just returned to Turkey after having been deported in late spring, just before the Covid-19 crisis hit for the first time. Ahmadullah said that he went to Logar after returning to Afghanistan. “There was war. There was the Taleban,” he said, shrugging. So he borrowed another 1,200 Dollars from friends and paid a smuggler to get him back to Turkey. 

However, this time the journey was harder than the first time, he said, due to more border controls on both the Iranian and Turkish side (Turkey is also building a fence at the border). It took Ahmadullah two months to get back into the country. “Twice, the border police pushed us back into Iran. They also took all our clothes and things. The third time, I got through. We were ten people of 70 who made it.”

A change of heart? For some, Turkey is now more attractive than Europe  

The idea that most Afghans want to go on to Europe as soon as they have managed to reach Turkey, however, is a misconception, despite persistent media reports. Didem Danış from GAR calls this a “Europe centric view.” Turkey has long been a final destination for many migrants from the Middle East and Central Asia, she said. “Don’t forget that until a few years ago, the Turkish economy was doing very well. Especially the construction sector was booming which is traditionally a sector where migrants would find work. The same applies to the tourism sector, until Covid-19.”According to migration experts, Turkey also remains an attractive destination because it is a Muslim country, making assimilation easier. Also, many migrants will already have friends or family in the country, guaranteeing some sort of support system. 

Two reports support this view. The 2019 IOM “Drivers of Migration” report (noted above) clearly shows that there are different types of migrants. Some, usually those with more education and better financial means, are indeed keen on getting to Europe and often for good. However, others, usually those with less money and education, do opt to go to Iran or Turkey in the first place (and often intend to stay away from Afghanistan for only one to three years). The already mentioned 2020 MMC report on Afghans in Turkey (pages 61/62) says that 30 per cent of their respondents reported they had “reached the end of their journey, which implies that for them Turkey was or had become their de-facto destination country.“ Figures showed “that Europe is not the main destination for the surveyed Afghans that currently reside in Turkey irregularly. The majority expressed the intention to move within 12 months, but primarily within Turkey (51.4%), with a smaller percentage (17%) intending to move to another country.“ 

Didem Danış also speaks of pragmatism and a “perception change” among some migrants from 2018 onwards. “The Afghans in Turkey are aware of the situation in camps like Moria in Greece or on the Balkan routes. They are realistic. When they know they cannot go, they change plans.” Therefore, asked if they would go to Europe if they could, many migrants would still often say yes – however, especially among the poorer there are careful calculations regarding the immediate survival needs of their families. Danış said about the respondents in her study: “For many new arrivals, the objective is clear. They want to earn and send money home. Fewer people told us that they want to save money to travel onwards to Europe. Most of them cannot afford to pay the smugglers. At home, whole extended families may rely on the 100 or 200 Dollars they may be able to send home per month.” One migrant in Istanbul told AAN: 

Everyone wants to go to Europe, sure, but I don’t have the money. Whatever I earn, I have to send to Afghanistan. When the Turkish president said that the borders were open, I did not go. The Turkish border was open, but what about the Greek one? I watched others who went there, and they left their work and lost weeks’ worth of income, and they still had to come back. They gained nothing.


Afghans continue to leave their country, fleeing violence or poverty (often both), but their opportunities have been shrinking. The Turkey-EU refugee pact – as fragile as it may be – has cut off main migration routes to Europe. Classic close-by destinations such as Iran have been facing more economic hardships, making labour migration stints less interesting, while voluntary and forced returns have been intensifying. However, despite stronger measures to deter migrants across the board, current local and regional factors could mean that outmigration may even increase. Important here are the Covid-19 induced economic crunch that is expected to last several years and the continued violence. The great unknown is the peace talks with Taleban in Doha. An agreement may in the longer-term bring less violence and greater chances for development. It may also bring the involvement of Islamist forces into the government that many people fear, fuelling another exodus. 

The squeeze of migration routes and regional dynamics such as the US sanctions on Iran seem to have heightened Afghan migrants’ interest in Turkey. However, Turkey has not received support with the additional influx, although it also hosts, holds, and returns Afghans who might otherwise head onwards to Europe. Frustration in Turkey has been increasing, along with an economic crisis, leading to a crackdown on people from one of the poorest countries in the world – and one of those most affected by conflict. With the EU-led assistance so far focused on the much larger group of Syrian refugees, a large migrant community of Afghans is thus being left to fend for itself, with next to no systems in place to deal with hardships. 

One possibility to mitigate these hardships in the short-term may be to include assistance for Afghans in an update of the refugee pact with the EU from 2016. Talks about a renewal of the deal persist since Erdoğan’s ‘opening’ of the border in February and the dramatic scenes in March. However, the Turkish government may view this as counter-productive, fearing that it would create an additional pull factor for Afghans heading to Turkey. One official from the ministry of foreign affairs in Ankara rejected the idea out of hand in an online discussion in which the author participated. 

An additional challenge for reaching those in need may be the often-made distinction between Afghan labour migrants and Afghan refugees (fleeing persecution). Assistance under an expanded EU pact would only be available to refugees, not labour migrants which many Afghans in Turkey are assumed to be. However, this is not a helpful construct to approach Afghan migration in the first place as it misrepresents and creates an artificial distinction between the reasons Afghans are leaving their country. The IOM “Drivers of Migration” report puts it succinctly, rejecting the “division“ of migrants between those fleeing insecurity, persecution and violence, and those migrating for economic reasons. It states that “the lack of livelihood options and insecurity are mutually reinforcing – years of prolonged conflict has led to a lack of overall economic development and vice versa.”

Another means to relieve Turkey and help – at least some – Afghan refugees in Turkey may be to revive resettlement programs. This would require the Turkish government to make greater use of the allocation of the international protection status (in lieu of asylum, as explained earlier), which then opens the door to resettlement. However, this would also require third countries to increase their current – dramatically small – quotas for accepting refugees. 2020 will see a “record low for refugee resettlement,” the UNHCR has warned recently, speaking of “one of the lowest levels of resettlement witnessed in almost two decades.“ [5]Globally, only 15,425 refugees were resettled from January to the end of September, compared to 50,086 over the same period last year. It is somewhat promising that the incoming new US president Joe Biden has pledged to increase America’s admission of refugees to 125,000 after the Trump White House had slashed it to a cap of 15,000 for 2021. This may also benefit Afghan refugees in Turkey, although it would merely be a drop in the ocean. In Europe, however, the stalemate over migration policy has only been exacerbated by Covid-19, so no breakthroughs are expected. 

Besides, measures in Turkey would anyway only mean to be treating symptoms. The root causes are the violence and lack of development in Afghanistan. A holistic approach would need both international supporters and Afghan government (and in some significant ways also the Taleban) to tackle together the abysmal security situation, growing poverty, entrenched corruption, weak rule of law and the lack of access to healthcare, education, and livelihoods – all major drivers of migration. It is a daunting challenge. But unless this happens, Afghans will continue to leave in search of better prospects elsewhere, however hard the reality of their new life may be.

Edited by Rachel Reid.


1 See a June 2020 report of the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC), “Destination Unknown – Afghans on the move in Turkey”, p 45. The IOM baseline study from mid-2019 puts the number of Afghans in the district at up to 21,000, p114.
2 Turkey does not grant asylum except to refugees from Europe as it has retained a “geographical limitation” on the 1951 Refugee Convention. Afghans can therefore at the most receive a temporary protection status and then be resettled to other countries by the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR.
3 Most are apprehended while either entering the country in the eastern provinces bordering Iran – Erzurum, Ağrı, Van – or leaving the country in western coastal provinces by boat towards Greece – meaning the provinces of Mugla, Izmir, Çanakkale or Istanbul that promises the best chances to find work; see a map here, last graph.
4 According to the UN the municipalities are “the primary responders” at least when it comes to dealing with Syrian refugees, see the Regional Refugee Resilience Plan (3RP) 2017-18 on “Strengthening municipal resilience in response to the impact of the Syria crisis in Turkey”, p3. However, this Mamara Municipalities Union on “Urban Refugees from Detachment to Harmonization. Syrian Refugees and Process Management of Municipalities: The Case of Istanbul” (pp 40-42) notes some of the disputes over municipal powers.
5 Globally, only 15,425 refugees were resettled from January to the end of September, compared to 50,086 over the same period last year.


Afghan refugees deportations EU-Turkey pact Greece Istanbul migration povert resettlement Turkey


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