Afghanistan Analysts Network – English


Afghan Exodus: Smuggling networks, migration and settlement patterns in Turkey

Noah Arjomand 25 min

Turkey is both a means and an end for Afghan migrants. Many thousands of Afghans seeking better lives have come to Istanbul, the bridge between east and west, on their way to the European Union. Many thousands have stayed on and built an expatriate community that both aids and exploits those passing through. In this dispatch, AAN guest author Noah Arjomand* tells stories about life for Afghans in Turkey, explains the practical implications of Turkish and United Nations refugee policies and how the migrant smuggling economy works. Together, the stories show the networks of Afghans that include single men, families and the occasional lone woman, legal residents, asylum seekers, undocumented workers, smugglers and those who have already left Turkey for Europe.

The characters in this dispatch are fictional composites, constructed based on conversations with and observations of 33 people between June and August 2016, including Afghan migrants in Turkey, NGO employees and one Turkish employer of Afghan workers. The advantages of using composite characters are that they both protect individuals’ anonymity better than simple name changes and allow a tidier narrative with fewer individuals to keep track of. These composites are meant to show some of the range of experiences of Afghans who have come to Istanbul in recent years, though they by no means represent all Afghans in Turkey. (1)

The research for this dispatch was funded by the Kabul office of the German foundation Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) and is a part of a four-dispatch series for a joint publication with FES.

Coming to Turkey

Asef (2) came to Istanbul in 2010 at the age of 23. A Tajik from Kunduz, he had friends in Turkey who told him on Facebook that there was work to be found in the country. Knowing very little about Turkey, Asef and his younger cousin Hamid collected 1,000 US dollars each toward a total 1,400 US dollars per person that a smuggler, whom one of their friends in Turkey had introduced, demanded for passage to Istanbul. Asef and Hamid travelled overland in a large group of single men and families through Pakistan’s Balochistan province and Iran.

In Istanbul, their friends told them to come to Zeytinburnu neighbourhood, approximately midway between Atatürk Airport and the touristy old city. Afghans escaping the 1980s war had settled in the area, and in so doing had dropped an anchor for the chain migration to come. In Zeytinburnu, Asef and Hamid found an Afghan community and even a signature Afghan restaurant opened by an Uzbek who had fled the Soviet war. The smuggler who had brought them to Turkey set them up working in one of the small, Turkish-owned, textile factories that had sprung up in the neighbourhood to make use of cheap immigrant labour. After living expenses, their wages went to paying back the 400 US dollars each owed the smuggler.

Zabihullah (3) worked in Iran on and off for several years before paying to be smuggled to Turkey at age 35 in 2010, the same year that Assf came. He left his wife and five children behind in Faryab province. Instead of Zeytinburnu, Zabihullah moved straight to the urban outskirt of Küçüksü in the north of Istanbul’s Anatolian side, where his older brother Besmullah had an apartment.

Zabihullah, an Uzbek, could already understand a good bit of Istanbul-dialect Turkish from the satellite TV channels he had watched back home and when in Tehran, and arrived with construction skills he had learned working in Iran. In Turkey, aside from working-class Kurds whose employment he threatened, people were far friendlier to him than in Iran, where he had faced persistent discrimination.

If Zeytinburnu is the centre of the Afghan community in Istanbul and the key transit point for families bound for Europe, Küçüksu is an important outpost that houses thousands of Afghans, particularly young Uzbek men who come alone to work. Early every morning except Sunday, Afghans gather in their hundreds on the neighbourhood’s main street to be hired as day labourers. Turkish foremen pick them up in vehicles and drive them to work in construction, gardening, greenhouse farming or garbage collection. The street-side Küçüksü labourer market predates the large-scale influx of Afghans in the 2010s; they have gradually displaced Turkish citizens—mainly ethnic Kurds, according to Zabihullah—over the past decade. (4)

Qais (5) completed two years of university in Mazar-e Sharif, but then had to leave school because he could no longer afford it. (Despite this, he claimed to be just 17 years old, probably believing that telling me this might matter for his planned asylum case as an unaccompanied minor.) Even if he could have finished his degree, he was not optimistic for his prospects, as he lacked the family connections that were required, he said, to get a good job in Afghanistan. He worked at a restaurant for a time and was in contact on Facebook with friends who had successfully migrated to Europe. One such friend introduced Qais to the smuggler who had brought him as far as Iran. Qais had heard that some smugglers lie and say they are bringing you across the border but then just drop you off in another province within Afghanistan and take your money. But he figured that this smuggler’s track record of successfully getting his friend to Iran meant the man was trustworthy. Qais scraped together 100,000 Afghanis, around 1500 US dollars, with his family’s help, to pay for his passage as far as Istanbul. The smuggler told him that the route to Greece was open and that he could connect with an associate once in Istanbul who would bring him to Germany. Qais had friends in Germany and heard that the government there provided refugees with financial support and free education.

In April 2016, Qais left Mazar-e Sharif for a journey of more than two weeks. The trip was difficult, even for a healthy young man. He was driven with a group of two dozen others from Mazar first to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan—Qais showed me with amusement the Kandahari cap he wore as a local disguise there—and then through Pakistan’s Balochistan province. He crossed the region in the crowded back of a pickup truck on a track of choking dirt, then walked across the mountainous border into Iran in a party of more than a hundred. After being driven across Iran in a smuggler’s car and quartered in poor conditions along the way, he again walked many hours with fellow Mazaris through the mountains, this time led by Kurdish guides to Doğubeyazıt on the Turkish side of the border. There, Qais and his travelling companions were given bus tickets to Istanbul. He was pleasantly surprised to find that even as security forces in eastern Turkey stopped passenger vehicles and questioned locals, they allowed the bus carrying numerous illegal migrants to pass unmolested.

Qais had planned to go from Istanbul to the Aegean coast. When he arrived in the city, he went to the Zeytinburnu neighbourhood as recommended in order to connect with the smuggler who would bring him to coastal city of Izmir and then on a boat across the sea to a Greek island. In Zeytinburnu, he was told that the first smuggler had it wrong: the route to Greece was closed. Qais had not known when he left Afghanistan that the EU-Turkey deal signed just before, on 18 March 2016, coupled with new policies by the Balkan countries would close down the Balkan route into the EU (see recent AAN reporting on the Balkan migration route here and here). The deal made specific provisions for the eventual acceptance of Syrian refugees to EU countries but did not mention refugees from Afghanistan.

After the signing of that deal, smugglers began bringing migrants over a land route through Bulgaria to Serbia, instead of to the Greek islands (see recent AAN reporting on the smuggling along the Balkan route here). But they took far smaller groups, demanded advance payment and charged a greater fee, which Qais could not afford. He was stuck. He also had no interest in staying in Turkey where he saw no prospects for pursuing his goals. Qais told me that he first and foremost wanted to go to Europe in order to continue his education and have better opportunities after completing school, although he mentioned a generally dangerous environment and suicide bombings in Afghanistan as part of his motivation for migrating.

Threats were more specific for Mina and her husband Wahid. (6) Wahid was a local government official in an outer district of Kabul province which is contested by insurgents. The area is very dangerous, particularly at night and especially for state employees. After a man attacked Mina in the street and Wahid heard rumours of plans to kidnap a member of his family, they decided they had to flee with their three young daughters. They paid a bribe of several thousand dollars to an Afghan employee at the Turkish embassy in Kabul—Mina’s relative in a high government position was able to help secure this deal—and were able to get tourist visas to Turkey after a month’s wait.

They flew into Istanbul in July and met with a smuggler introduced by a friend in Kabul. The smuggler collected a down payment of 2,500 US dollars for the group and told them to prepare to board a bus that would take them to Antalya, on the country’s southern coast, from where they would take a boat to Italy. (It is difficult to know whether this itinerary through Antalya was merely an unusual case, a scam from the start or indicative of a new route that is becoming more common. Turkish government statistics of detainments of illegal migrants this summer do not show an uptick in Antalya through July — arrests are still concentrated in Izmir and on the land borders.) The smuggler lied to Mina and Wahid—for reasons that are not clear — that they could only register for asylum and avoid deportation if they did not carry IDs with them to Europe and they should leave their passports behind.

The next day, the family boarded a bus chartered for the purpose of bringing them to the coast. A Turkish driver chauffeured a mix of Afghan, Syrian, Iranian and Pakistani passengers, all bound for the same boat. Along the way, though, there was a dispute when the driver unexpectedly demanded money that he claimed the smuggler owed him. There was no solidarity among the migrants, and those with cash to pay continued on their journey while those without were abandoned at a remote bus station. Mina’s family was among those left at the station, where police eventually confronted them.

The police demanded identification. The family was in fact in Turkey entirely legally on one-month tourist visas but they could not prove this because they had left their passports behind in Istanbul and so were detained with the others. They spent several days at a police station where they were interrogated about their origin and the smuggling plan, then at a hospital for medical checks, then at a makeshift detention centre. The police treated them decently and provided them with food regularly, although fights repeatedly erupted between the Afghans and Pakistanis over things like access to cell phone chargers and outlets. Eventually the police simply let them go, and they got on a bus back to Istanbul.

Thriving or Surviving

Asef, the 23 year-old Tajik from Kunduz, became a smuggler. When he first came to Istanbul in 2010 with his cousin Hamid, the latter had ambitions to travel on, from Turkey to Europe. After they paid off their debts to the smuggler who had brought them from Afghanistan, the cousins tried to save money for Hamid’s trip but found it difficult to do so when their extended family relied on them sending remittances. In 2013, the number of Afghans travelling illegally to Europe was increasing, in part due to a UNHCR freeze on processing Afghan asylum seekers’ applications in Turkey (discussed below)—so smugglers were hiring. Asef and Hamid had by this time learned serviceable Turkish and the ins and outs of the underground economy that served migrants, thus qualifying for the job of assistant smuggler. They struck a deal to work part-time for several months in exchange for the smuggler transporting Hamid to Germany.

During these years, Zeytinburnu was transforming as more Afghans arrived, creating new economic opportunities for their compatriots already settled in the neighbourhood. New Afghan restaurants opened, as did numerous call shops (referred to as public call offices—PCOs—in South Asia, they are not usually common in Turkey) that not only allow clients to communicate with friends and family in Afghanistan and elsewhere — a service that became increasingly obsolete with the proliferation of smartphones — but also function as hubs for the migrant economy. It is there that undocumented Afghans can buy SIM cards registered in others’ names, send money to their families through the informal hawala system, buy tea and other goods brought from Afghanistan, and make arrangements with smugglers. In 2015 and early 2016, long lines of Afghans waited outside these call shops with their baggage to be taken to the Aegean coast by smugglers.

An apartment shared by seven young Afghan men in Zeytinburnu, Turkey. Photo: Noah Arjomand

An apartment shared by seven young Afghan men in Zeytinburnu, Turkey. Photo: Noah Arjomand

After Hamid left for Europe in 2013, the smuggler who sent him hired Asef full-time. By late 2014, he knew the business well enough and had the contacts with smugglers across borders to start his own operation. As the smuggling economy boomed through 2015, Asef hired employees – both Afghans who had settled in Turkey and others who worked for him temporarily to pay for their passage – and, lacking legal documentation in Turkey himself, informally rented out several apartments from Turkish landlords in Zeytinburnu to host clients.

Smugglers in Afghanistan and Iran would contact Asef to let him know they were sending him a group. He would coordinate with Kurdish smugglers in western Iran and eastern Turkey and then call Afghan and Pakistani smugglers in the Balkans to arrange passage for the group to Europe. Asef also received referrals to clients from local call shops and sent his employees to scout for Afghan and Iranian migrants at Istanbul’s transportation hubs.

For payment, clients would agree with Asef on a price and then give or have the money transferred via the hawala system to an Afghan sarraf (money exchanger) at a call shop or other front. The sarraf would hold the money and give the migrant a numerical code to memorise. Upon arrival at their destination, the migrant would call Asef or a subordinate and tell them the code, which would allow them to collect the money from the sarraf.

Since March 2016, the flow of clients has slowed dramatically. Last year, Asef told me, he was sending 50 to 60 people per day to Greece. Now, he sends five or six per month to Bulgaria. Migrants travel by car or bus to near the Turkey-Bulgaria border, then walk across to meet his associates on the other side, themselves migrants who, like Asef, have ended up staying in Bulgaria long enough to learn the language. Asef told me that they used to have problems with the Bulgarian police apprehending clients at the border, beating them and sending them back to Turkey, but, for reasons he refused to clearly elaborate, those problems have been resolved for his network.

Afghans, mostly young single men, are still arriving, but now Asef instructs them that they have to wait for the path to Greece to reopen and get jobs in the meantime, while subletting shared rooms in his apartments. Those few who come with enough money to pay upfront to jump the queue, mostly Iranians, Asef can send immediately overland to his associates in Bulgaria.

Asef supplements declining migrant smuggling income with sublet rent from his crowded apartments and a drug trafficking operation that brings in contraband from Afghanistan via the same routes that migrants take. He admitted to drug smuggling after I witnessed him selling hashish, but insisted that he only imports small quantities for consumption in Turkey as a side project to migrant smuggling, and that large-scale drug trafficking to Europe is a separate enterprise by different people.

When Zabihullah, the 35 year old Uzbek who had left his wife and children in Faryab, arrived in 2010, his brother Besmullah found him employment. This was not a difficult task in Istanbul amid a construction boom fuelled to great extent by the illegal, non-union labour of both Turkish citizens and foreigners. Zabihullah was soon able to start sending money home to his family. He was their only source of income, and he and Besmullah also supported their parents and other siblings, helping to pay for two younger sisters’ and a brother’s university education. Every month, they sent a few hundred dollars to Faryab through a sarraf based in Zeytinburnu. The sarraf transferred the money directly to a shop in their village through the hawala system for a three per cent commission.

After a few years, Zabihullah’s brother Besmullah decided to return to his own wife and children in Afghanistan. Besmullah chose to be deported, paying a fine at the airport and receiving a five-year ban from entering Turkey because of his years’ long illegal stay, as a less expensive alternative to being smuggled back. Two years ago, in 2014, Zabihullah’s eldest son Omar, then 15, and his younger brother Rahmatullah, aged 20, joined him in Küçüksu.

Zabihullah’s current job, overseeing a crew of Afghans renovating a mansion on the Bosphorus, pays 150 liras, about 50 US dollars, per day. Zabihullah found Rahmatullah employment in construction with a different crew. Rahmatullah, who does not have Zabihullah’s years of experience and skills, makes about half the wage of his brother. Days before I spoke with Zabihullah, Rahmatullah had fallen from a construction site when a board broke underneath him, hurting him but luckily not breaking any bones. Rahmatullah’s employer did not take him to a hospital or help to pay for his treatment. Instead, Zabihullah met his little brother at the end of the work day and took him to a hospital, getting Rahmatullah care by having him impersonate an Afghan friend with legal residency using the latter’s borrowed ID card.

Not having access to healthcare, lacking workplace protection and not being able to own a business are the biggest problems the brothers and nephew, being undocumented, face in Turkey, as far as Zabihullah is concerned. He does not worry about being deported. On one occasion, the police stopped him together with a Turkish boss and Kurdish labourers. They asked for identification, and when he showed them his Afghanistan passport, the officers smiled and told him he was a friend and could go, but treated the Kurds, who were Turkish citizens but working illegally in construction, more harshly.

Qais, the young man from Mazar who had been forced to drop out of university, has now been in Turkey for four months. He is living with a shifting group of young men in one of Asef’s apartments. Some are living and working in Turkey for the foreseeable future; others are waiting for Asef to give the green light for them to continue to Europe. The group currently numbers seven, including a 19-year-old who came to Turkey legally on a student visa and studies at a university in Izmir but joined his brother, an undocumented migrant, over the summer to save on living costs.

Asef found Qais work at a small textile factory in Zeytinburnu where he sweeps and fetches six days a week to earn 500 liras (170 US dollars) per month, barely enough money for apartment rent and food. His co-workers are a mix of Afghans and Syrians who earn 900 liras (300 US dollars) per month if they know how to operate a sewing machine. The boss is a Turkish citizen, and Afghans who have been in Istanbul for longer translate for Qais, though he is doing his best to start learning Turkish so that he can solve everyday problems on his own.

After their failure to cross into Italy, Mina and Wahid returned to Istanbul with their daughters. They recovered their passports from their friend but not the down payment they had given the smuggler. They stayed in Zeytinburnu a few days with the friend and heard rumours that it was still possible to travel overland through Bulgaria, but very dangerous and physically difficult for women and children. They decided not to chance it and instead to apply for asylum. They waited all day at the Istanbul office of an NGO that registers asylum seekers on behalf of the UNHCR; when at last it was their turn, an NGO worker speaking Iranian Persian asked them a few brief questions and then handed them vouchers for healthcare and school enrolment. In Turkey, registered asylum seekers are almost never allowed to stay in the country’s largest cities, but are instructed instead to report to small ‘satellite cities’ in Anatolia where they must sign in with police weekly to prove their continued local residency. Mina and Wahid were given a choice among three towns and they picked the one closest to Ankara.

When the bus dropped Wahid, Mina and their three daughters off in the town, they knew nobody. There was nobody from the UNHCR or Turkish government to greet or orient the family. All they knew was that they were to report to the local police station and sign in as asylum seekers. They had purchased blankets in Istanbul and planned to sleep in the open. But then, as they arranged their bedding in a public park, they met a family of fellow Afghan asylum seekers, complete strangers, who first put them up and then helped Mina and Wahid find an apartment of their own. The monthly rent is 300 liras, about 100 US dollars. Mina says it is bad, not a place for a family.

Lacking a work permit, Wahid finds irregular construction jobs. He gets paid anywhere from 15-70 liras (five to 20 US dollars) a day when he can find work. Their savings, including the money intended for the smuggler upon successful arrival in Italy, are already starting to deplete, though Mina’s sister in Canada is helping. Wahid and Mina told me they used to be valuable members of their community, working respectively in local government and as a schoolteacher. Now, Wahid does menial labour that is breaking his body and Mina is home trying to keep their children occupied and heartened. He might have been able to find better work if they had stayed in Istanbul instead of applying for asylum. But then they would not have had the legal access to free education and healthcare that asylum seekers are granted in Turkey, and these benefits were simply too important for their daughters to pass up, once they resigned themselves to remain in Turkey for the present. Mina told me, however, that they are trying to join her sister in Canada, but that does not seem possible, imminently. If they find a safe route, they will try again to reach Europe.

Migration plans…

Asef married an Afghan woman in 2015, whom he had met in Istanbul. She had come to Turkey with her family and they registered with the UNHCR for asylum, so he joined them. He is now waiting for their case to be reviewed; they have been assigned to live in a small city about a thousand kilometres east of Istanbul. Asef has realised, however, that the police are lenient toward Afghans when it comes to weekly sign-ins to prove local residency and will allow his father-in-law to sign for him, and so spends most of his time in Istanbul. (According to one NGO worker, this leniency is afforded to Afghans in particular; others such as Iranian asylum seekers are more strictly policed).

With little faith in the official resettlement process bearing fruit in the foreseeable future, Asef continues to put down roots in Turkey. He is working now on opening a call shop through a Turkish partner in his satellite city, so that he can spend more time with his family there. He cannot legally work or own a business as an asylum seeker, but he has found a Turkish partner happy to be paid to have the call shop and its utilities registered in his name.

… and side plans

This summer, Asef introduced me to Tahmina, a rare female migrant traveling alone, whom he had been hosting at his own apartment for several weeks. Tahmina told me that she was 16 and had fled Afghanistan because, after her father died, her cruel paternal uncle had demanded her mother bring the family to his village and remarry a local man of his choosing for the sake of honour. Tahmina is the eldest of four sisters, and several months ago the uncle had made plans to marry her off to an elderly man with two other wives for money and to resolve a dispute. (In Afghanistan this practice is called bad and there were many attempts in the twentieth century by different governments, from reformist king Amanullah to the communist regime, to the Taleban and the post-2001 governments to ban it, although none of these attempts was successful. According to the current law, it is illegal.) Tahmina’s mother called an old friend of her father’s, and he introduced her to a smuggler who helped Tahmina escape to Kabul and then Iran. Tahmina was caught and deported from Iran back to Nimroz province on her first attempt, but on the second try she made it across Iran and to the city of Van, in eastern Turkey.

In Van, Tahmina got caught in a money dispute between smugglers on the Turkish and Iranian sides of the border. The smuggler in Turkey held her captive, demanding she pay 1000 US dollars for her passage to Istanbul. Tahmina claimed she had already paid this fee to the smuggler in Iran but he had not transferred it to his associate. Asef was acquainted with these smugglers and intervened when he learned of the situation, paying the Van-based smuggler the 1000 US dollars for Tahmina to be released into his custody. He then brought her to Istanbul and claimed he had done so to help her just because they were from the same home province of Kunduz and he felt sorry for her. She was staying with him at his own private residence because he wanted to protect her from the other migrants staying at the apartments he sublets, he said.

The very next day, however, I was with an NGO worker who knew both Asef and Tahmina, when he received a breathless, tearful phone call from Tahmina saying she was out on the street. She did not know the neighbourhood so he instructed her to walk to an intersection and wait. We found Tahmina in Zeytinburnu’s main square, wearing the same clothes as the previous day and carrying all her possessions in a plastic shopping bag. Tahmina said that in fact, Asef had exploited her sexually. Despite his recent marriage, he had promised to get her to Germany if she became his ‘girlfriend.’ Tahmina said she relented when he promised to also arrange for her sisters, still in Afghanistan and under her uncle’s control, to be smuggled to Germany as well. But then, after an argument, Asef had surreptitiously thrown her out.

The NGO worker was able to find Tahmina a place at a shelter and assist her in registering an asylum application with the UNHCR.

Smuggling both ways: In and out of Afghanistan

Zabihullah’s eldest son Omar came together with his younger brother Rahmatullah to Istanbul in 2014. Whereas Rahmatullah stayed to work in construction, Zabihullah decided in 2015 to send Omar, then aged 16, via the Balkan route to Sweden to register for asylum while still a minor, despite the risks of sending the boy alone on the difficult journey. Zabihullah said Omar managed to get there and has been accepted as a refugee and is now attending high school there. This he had not been able to do when living illegally in Turkey. When I spoke with Zabihullah in July 2016, Omar’s refugee status made Zabihullah, his wife and other children automatically eligible to go to Sweden under the country’s family reunification policy (which in fact was made more restrictive just days after our interview). However, Zabihullah decided against moving to Europe. He likes life in Turkey and has become a prominent member of the Uzbek-Afghan community in Küçüksu. Zabihullah wants to open a business to serve as a communal hub in the neighbourhood, which despite its large Uzbek population so far has just one Afghan restaurant and a couple of bakeries, nothing on the scale of Zeytinburnu. He would prefer a legal residency in Turkey so he can open the business in his own name, instead of relying on a Turkish partner – who holds all the legal cards and might cheat him – and so that his other children can come and attend school in Istanbul.

The problem is that he has been living illegally in Turkey for six years. In order to return to Afghanistan by air, he would have to pay a hefty fine and receive a five-year ban on entering Turkey, as his brother Besmullah did. His plan, then, is that later this year he will pay a smuggler to bring him to Tehran, then get deported from Iran back to Afghanistan. From there, Zabihullah will apply for a visa as a prospective business owner, which Turkish migration law designates as a category for renewable short-term residency permits, and bring his wife and younger children with him.

When I interviewed Qais, several months after the EU-Turkey deal, he knew little of its details or of other legal obstacles for Afghans who want to go to Europe. What little information he had, he said he got from Asef and other Afghans in the neighbourhood or from friends on social media. The latest he had heard was a rumour that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was going to reopen the country’s borders soon. He still has his eyes on Germany and intends to wait and work in Istanbul until a path there opens. Recently though, he has been given pause by Facebook friends in Germany, who are now saying that conditions are not good, even that they want to get themselves deported back to Afghanistan.

On the waiting list

Mina and Wahid are waiting for when or if the UNHCR assigns them a date to be interviewed in Ankara so that the UNHCR can determine whether they meet the 1951 Geneva Convention’s definition of a refugee and thus be eligible for resettlement. Turkey will not be Mina and Wahid’s final destination if their case is approved because the country maintains a caveat – a so-called ‘geographic limitation’ – to the 1951 Refugee Convention: Turkey only accepts refugees from Europe. Other asylum seekers may apply from Turkey to be resettled in other countries, but Turkey will not permanently take them in as refugees.

The UNHCR determines that a large proportion of Afghan applicants in Turkey to be legitimate refugees, but the problem is that many remain stuck in Turkey after receiving this determination. At the beginning of each year, countries issue quotas for refugees they are willing to accept, categorised by nationality, In the EU, the quota is based on the country’s domestic politics and/or ability to resist new EU mandates that each member country accept a minimum number of refugees. Few places in the quota are available for Afghans. In 2012, with Afghans arriving in increasing numbers and duly evaluated by the UNHCR as refugees, they formed a large backlog of people who are officially recognized as refugees but can not find a country to take them in.

Such was the workload created for the UNHCR that the organisation was assigning Afghans who arrived in 2013 preliminary interview dates in 2019. Eventually, in mid-2013, the UNHCR announced that it would suspend the processing of Afghan cases beyond the stage of registering them for asylum. Afghans protested in Ankara, including with hunger strikes and by sewing their mouths shut. In retrospect, at the time of this crisis the UNHCR had a relatively tiny caseload of Afghan asylum seekers compared to what awaited it in the great exodus of 2015-16.

source: UNHCR Turkey

According to the UNHCR, between 2014 and 2015 Turkey became host to the most refugees (excluding Palestinians under the mandate of the UNRWA), and the largest refugee resettlement operation of any country in the world. Along with millions of Syrians, Iraqis, Iranians, Somalis and others, close to 100,000 Afghans applied for asylum in Turkey. Additionally, around double that number passed through the country to apply for asylum from within the EU.

Afghan labourers waiting at a street corner in Kucuksu, Turkey. Photo: Noah Arjomand

Afghan labourers waiting at a street corner in Kucuksu, Turkey. Photo: Noah Arjomand

Starting in 2015, the UNHCR quietly started again determining the refugee status of Afghans. Although in practice, according to an NGO in Turkey, the UNHCR continues to register all applicants, Afghan and other refugees are no longer automatically given interview dates. Instead, the UNHCR only interviews and makes determinations in those cases with realistic prospects of being picked by a recipient country for resettlement because of their particular circumstances. For instance, large families with relatives in receiving countries, survivors of torture or gender-based violence and applicants in serious need of medical treatment tend to be prioritised.

Prospects for legal resettlement for Afghans apart from those with special circumstances are getting ever dimmer. At the beginning of 2015, the UNHCR counted 4,209 Afghan refugees (individuals whose cases had been approved and were awaiting resettlement in a third country) and 5,862 Afghan asylum seekers (individuals whose cases were still being reviewed) in Turkey. As of the end of July 2016, in Turkey there were 3,109 Afghan refugees and 107,655 Afghan asylum seekers (not to mention the over 2.7 million Syrian refugees and around 126,000 other non-Syrian asylum seekers); the backlog of asylum cases waiting to be processed is massive. Some of that processing may be taken up in the near future by the Turkish Interior Ministry’s newly-created Directorate General for Migration Management, but it remains to be seen what that would practically mean for asylum seekers.

Mina and Wahid may be prioritised because they are with their young daughters and have a family member abroad, ie Mina’s sister in Canada. Furthermore, Canada allows groups of five or more citizens to privately sponsor refugees, in which case the country will accept them outside of its normal quota system. If Mina’s sister is able to convince four other sponsors to join her and takes care of the necessary bureaucracy, it is likely that the UNHCR will fast-track Mina and Wahid and their children, granting them interviews and making a refugee status determination relatively quickly.

Mina and Wahid found the asylum application process confusing and they have not been able to obtain any detailed information from the UNHCR or the Iranian translator who works with the Turkish police on how to expedite their case. (They also complained that the Turkish police translator favours Iranian asylum seekers and ignores Afghans). The NGO employee who registered them in Istanbul simply told them they would need to find a new home on their own, and did not have time for their questions.

Information networks and survival strategies

Many thousands of Afghans have come to Turkey in recent years, a flow that the March EU-Turkey deal slowed but did not stop. Although the great numbers of Afghans who arrived in 2015 were largely Europe-bound asylum seekers, a range of motivations brings Afghans to Turkey, from education to work to real estate investment.

The European Union’s Asylum and Migration Glossary makes the categories of asylum seeker, economic migrant and student (one might also add smuggler) seem clear-cut and mutually exclusive. Yet these categories are not so easily separated in the reality of Afghan life in Turkey. Networks of relatives and acquaintances include legal and illegal Afghan residents of Turkey, Europe-bound asylum seekers and temporary workers. The flows of migrants in transit to Europe and those with Turkey as their final destination are related in important ways. Afghans make use of the same infrastructures of money transfers, smuggling networks and available routes, crowded apartments and refugee laws whether they want to stay in Turkey or travel on.

Afghans are in many cases strategic about opting when to travel illegally, rather than legally, making choices shaped by rules and opportunities in Afghanistan, Turkey, and the EU. An individual may be both legal and illegal, both building a life in Turkey and Europe-bound at different times. Deciding whether to apply for asylum, to live illegally, to travel to the EU or to apply for legal residency in Turkey is often based on a cost-benefit analysis of the practical restrictions and opportunities created by different legal statuses.

Mina and Wahid meet the definition of refugee. Yet they decided to apply for asylum after attempting an illegal crossing to Europe primarily because of the healthcare and education benefits, not simply because refugee was the category of migrant they fit into. It was convenient for Zabihullah to live and work illegally in Turkey until he decided to start a business and bring the rest of his family, which is why he plans to smuggle himself our of the country and then apply to return and become a legal resident. At the same time, his son is a refugee in Sweden because last year Zabihullah saw that as the most practical way to get him an education. The ordinary pattern of piecemeal family migration might be for the head of the household and its least vulnerable member to lead the way, but Swedish law’s – until recently – special provisions for unaccompanied minors, as Zabihullah understood them, created an incentive to send his son alone on the perilous trip through Europe before the boy grew any older.

Lack of legal residency in Turkey thus has some disadvantages, but in practice, many legal obstacles can be circumvented or ignored: in many cases Turkish citizens are willing to employ, rent to, or start businesses in informal partnership with Afghans, and police turn a blind eye to their legal status. Furthermore, every Afghan interviewed for this dispatch who had spent time in Iran, without prompting, compared Turkey favourably to it, in terms of encounters with both state authorities and ordinary locals. Turks seem, in many cases, to be more favourably disposed toward Afghans than toward migrants from neighbouring Iran, Iraq or Syria (which are more closely connected with Turkey’s troubled foreign relations and domestic ethnic and sectarian tensions) and even domestic minorities like the Kurds.

Universally, the Afghans interviewed identified personal contacts, especially through social media in the case of the millennials, as their main sources for information about migration opportunities and challenges. Few mentioned mainstream media and none said they got their information primarily from governments or NGOs, although they, in general, provide more reliable information about relevant laws. Even those who try to obtain information through official channels, like Mina and Wahid, run into overburdened bureaucracy and byzantine legal processes.

Even knowing which seeming authorities are trustworthy is not always a straightforward matter. During a crowded bilingual Turkish-Persian information session about asylum procedures, held by a Turkish NGO in Zeytinburnu, a Hazara man raised his hand and surprised the presenter by asking in fluent Turkish whether the organisation would be registering attendees for residency permits (the NGO would not). After the session, I approached the man and he told me he had been living in Turkey for a decade and had heard rumours that the organisation would be signing undocumented migrants up for residency permits – one reason so many had shown up for the information session. He had come to the session, not because he believed the rumours, but to make sure that his compatriots were not swindled. In the past, he told me, there have been scams involving con artists claiming to be affiliated with the Turkish government and stealing ‘application fees’ from migrants who they falsely promised could apply for residency even after entering the country illegally.

The ability of Afghans to strategise is dependent on and limited by knowledge shared among contacts in both Afghanistan and Turkey, including smugglers and scammers who may not have their best interests at heart. Qais, for one, told me he would not have come to Turkey in April 2016 if he had known that –despite the smuggler’s assurances – the Balkan route was closed and that he would be funnelled into a system of low-wage textile work.

For those who do successfully navigate the informal economy and attain prominent positions in informal social networks such as Zabihullah and Asef, however, Turkey has become a place to thrive and build oneself up from humble origins to prominent community positions. At the same time, for particularly vulnerable and socially stigmatised individuals, such as Tahmina, reliance on informal systems can be disastrous.


*Noah Arjomand is a PhD student in sociology at Columbia University in the City of New York. He holds a degree in Public and International Affairs from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. Previous publications with AAN are the thematic report, ‘Eagle’s Summit Revisited: Decision-Making in the Kajaki Dam Refurbishment Project,’ and discussion paper, ‘The Folly of Double Government: Lessons from the First Anglo-Afghan War for the 21st century’.



(1) The characters do not incorporate, for instance, the experiences of wealthy Afghans who in recent years have in significant numbers been buying up property for part-time residences in Istanbul’s outer district of Beylikdüzü. It is also likely that some of the worst-off Afghans in Turkey escaped my study; I found my interviewees through social connections and so did not talk with anyone who was very isolated. As will be seen, social networks are key to survival and success, and thus socially isolated Afghans are likely to be worse off.

(2) The character Asef is based on four characters, all in their late 20s or early 30s, who have each been in Turkey for several years and worked in the migrant smuggling business.

(3) The character Zabihullah is based on three individuals from Faryab who have worked in the construction sector.

(4) A Turkish worker interviewed by a domestic newspaper in 2015 complained that the foremen hiring labourers preferred Afghans because they would do anything and for lower wages and did not demand per diem insurance as did citizens. This competition led to tension and street fighting, including a stabbing, between Afghans and Kurds that peaked in winter 2015-16, causing police to intervene by striking a deal according to which Afghans waited on one side of the street and Kurds on the other. By the time I visited Küçüksü in August, however, there were no Turkish nationals left. Afghans, almost all Uzbeks from Faryab, clustered along both sides of the road, the stench of sewage rising from a stagnant adjacent canal. One of them told me that the last of the Turks had stopped coming a few months earlier. He did not want to elaborate why.

(5) The character Qais is based on eight individuals, all of whom arrived in Turkey in 2015 or 2016.

(6) The characters Mina and Wahid are based on three families who arrived in Turkey after March 2016.


migration Refugee