The Turkish government has spent more than US$3 billion (Dh11bn) over the past three years in support of the 1.7 million Syrians fleeing the conflict on its border. About 220,000 are living in 23 government-run camps and in late December, Turkish authorities confirmed that the growing diaspora would be given national identity cards and those living in cities would be given access to basic healthcare and education services.
But as the Syrian crisis escalates, there are about 40,000 Afghan refugees and asylum seekers living in Turkey’s cities who have been forgotten by the authorities and aid community, ancillary victims of the latest regional war. There are no camps for them and, unlike Syrians, those who are unregistered run the risk of being deported. And while Syrians are able to quit the country and return, Afghans are not allowed to leave their designated cities without permission from local authorities.
Since the 1990s, Afghans in Turkey applying for third-country asylum, mostly for Europe, North America and Australia, did so through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Ankara, Turkey’s capital. The application process was stringent: once an application was made they couldn’t work nor, crucially, apply for asylum elsewhere. All hope fell on a single plan.
Difficult as that was, the killer blow came in June 2013 when the UNHCR announced it would stop accepting new asylum applications and freeze those already being processed because of the growing backlog. After consulting with the Turkish authorities and UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, UNHCR Ankara felt that the recent rapid increase in the number of asylum applications led to “waiting periods for registration and for refugee status determination that are unbearable for the asylum seekers”.
The impasse has left tens of thousands of Afghans with an equally unbearable choice: continue to live and work illegally in Turkey or return to Afghanistan where war still rages. One of the people facing an impossible future is Sohra Jafferi, whose husband died three years ago in Iran. A Turkish aid agency comes to her shared apartment in Kayseri, central Turkey, once a month with food and rent money. A sympathetic local pharmacist gives her free medication for her 10-year-old son who suffers from epilepsy. He makes paper airplanes on the floor while she fights back tears.
“For two-and-a-half years I’ve been waiting for the UN. They just said wait for the call,” she says. The 48-year-old produces an application for asylum with headed UNHCR paper dated December 18, 2012. The phone never rings, she says.
Jafferi’s and other stories have led to rising anger among the Afghan community in Turkey. Last May, dozens of people sewed their lips together at a demonstration outside the UNHCR headquarters in Ankara in protest at the long waiting times.
Metin Corabatir, who resigned as the spokesman for the UNHCR after 18 years in 2013, says only the most vulnerable – minors unaccompanied by parents or guardians, or single-parent families – could expect to be offered help. “There is no support system for the others,” he says.
The UNHCR estimates that 10,000 Afghans will arrive in Turkey seeking asylum this year. The government says it is responding to the surge in arrivals of non-Syrian refugees by building seven reception centres (financed by €90 million [Dh375m] from the European Union). However, not one is ready 13 months after the planned opening date.
Though the majority live in Turkish cities, Syrians have been assisted by the building of 23 camps in Turkey, the latest opening two weeks ago to house 35,000 people fleeing Kobani. Some of the Afghans I interviewed said Turkey’s major aid agencies have stopped helping them because of the demand for help with Syrians.
A UNHCR spokeswoman in Ankara says: “UNHCR identifies the most vulnerable refugees in need of resettlement, but it is the receiving states that offer permanent places of residence in their countries and which determine who and how many they will accept every year.”
Increasingly, host countries are slow to accept Afghan asylum seekers residing in Turkey, believing that others merit greater support.
Sayyed Issa Husseini, from a small town 135 kilometres south of Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, came to Turkey two months ago with his wife and four children, who are between 13 and 22 years old. “Our family was in danger from the Taliban, which has made its way inside our city at night,” he says. Being Hazara, a Farsi-speaking ethnic minority that makes up about 9 per cent of Afghanistan’s population, his family was at serious risk.
Husseini is now working illegally at a factory that makes heaters from 7am to 7pm for 25 Turkish lira (Dh38) a day. “On this money I can’t find a house. How can I find food for my family without proper work?” He and his family are guests of another Afghan family also from the same town. “I escaped from Afghanistan to save my family, now we are dying slowly. So we need to go to another country if UNHCR will help us.”
He says he doesn’t know what to expect from the UNHCR, although his family has held interviews with officials. He says he would like to move to Australia, Canada or Finland because “my children will be able to continue their studies and the governments there will help them”.
But the governments Husseini speaks of aren’t helping.
Of the 232 Afghans who applied for asylum in the United Kingdom in the third quarter of 2014, only 44 were granted refugee status. During that time, 70 per cent saw their applications refused. In the United States, 661 Afghans from a total of 70,000 people around the world – less than 1 per cent – were accepted in 2013. In Australia, Afghan refugees are being forcibly returned home and a controversial government campaign to discourage illegal entry to the country was unfurled last year. All this has been taking place despite the fact that Afghanistan has been the leading source country for refugees for more than three decades.
For some, the notion of asylum is of little consequence, so dire is their situation in Turkey. Assadullah Emiri and his family live on the top floor of another Kayseri apartment block, where his son spends his days on a mattress-less bed.
Ten-year-old Ahmed Wali needs dialysis three times a week and a new kidney. His left arm has swollen and veins bulge from his neck as a result of side effects of his treatment. His family has run up a medical debt of 6,850 lira (over Dh10,000) in the past six months alone.
Their apartment, a home for five children, is drafty and losing the fight to stave off the winter cold. Damp streams down from the ceiling.
Emiri, the father, once worked in a meat-processing plant until an attack by a cow two years ago left him in a coma for a month. Since then he hasn’t brought home a penny of income and depends on other Afghan families to help with the rent.
“After we saw the UN they told us to come back here [to Kayseri] and they would call us. That was two months ago,” he says. “My biggest problem is my son. We are looking for a new kidney for him. The other problem is the rent; I can’t work so I can’t bring home any money.”
As a respite from the dour conversations at home, dozens of Afghan children are taken to a local swimming pool every Saturday morning. Ahmed Wali’s two younger brothers are among 40 children bused to a leisure centre on the edge of Kayseri one cold morning in early January. But even in swimming an ulterior motive is at play: a coordinator says the children are taught to swim in the event they attempt to reach Europe illegally by boat, and it sinks.
Because of the spillover from Syria, the cessation in processing asylum applications and the new difficulties in getting to Australia, more and more Afghans are trying to reach Europe via dangerous sea routes, and with dire results. In November, 27 Afghans drowned in the Black Sea near Istanbul while attempting to reach Romania, the third such incident last year alone.
“People aren’t just blindly taking to the seas,” says Kamyar Jarahzadeh of the Coordination Group of Afghan Refugees, an advocacy organisation. “They know that any other option for ‘legal’ asylum is basically a sham.”
Husseini says returning home to Afghanistan is not an option. “We must wait. I waited in Afghanistan a long time, since the war with Russia [in the 1980s]. Still, today there is war. The situation won’t improve; the war will continue so I will wait here.”
That they have reached some semblance of safety in Turkey counts for little when their options are living in poverty as illegal residents or risking everything to people traffickers and the wild, open sea. For many the current situation is untenable.
“If we stay like this,” says Emiri’s wife, nursing her 2-year-old daughter on the floor, “all of our children will die slowly.”
Stephen Starr is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising and lived in Syria until 2012.