Turkish politicians fear second migration wave as Afghans head for the border

Ankara fears that Afghans fleeing the Taliban will add to its 4 million-strong migrant population

Footage of thousands of people heading to the border between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan provoked fears of a “second wave” of migration among politicians in Turkey, after it was broadcast on Turkish television on Wednesday.

Since the closure of Kabul airport as an escape route from the Taliban, crowds have reportedly flocked to Afghanistan’s borders. Ankara fears that many trying to reach Europe will end up on its territory, adding to about 4 million refugees already living in Turkey.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week that Turkey would not become the West’s “refugee warehouse” amid reports of more Afghans crossing from Iran into eastern Turkey’s mountainous Van province.

His foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said Turkey could not carry the burden of more migrants as it already hosts about 3.7 million Syrians and an estimated 300,000 Afghans.

“As Turkey, we have sufficiently carried out our moral and humanitarian responsibilities regarding migration,” he said at a joint news conference with German foreign minister Heiko Maas on Sunday.

“It is out of the question for us to take an additional refugee burden.”

Since reports of Afghans crossing the Iran border emerged in July, anti-migrant sentiment has risen amid a dire economic situation that includes double-digit unemployment.

Asli Aydintasbas, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said an influx of Afghans represented a “domestic nightmare” for Mr Erdogan.

“The Turkish public has grown increasingly weary of the government’s refugee policy and the presence of 4 million Syrian refugees,” she said. “The steady stream of Afghans crossing Turkey’s eastern border has further inflamed an ongoing domestic debate."

Faced with the opposition’s exploitation of the potential crisis, he needs to “look tough on curbing illegal Afghan migration”, Ms Aydintasbas said.

Unlike Syrians, who live under “temporary protection status”, most Afghans are considered “irregular migrants” as they entered Turkey without papers.

This means they are often unable to access basic health and education services and face the ever-present threat of deportation. They are also vulnerable to exploitation by employers who use them as cheap, uninsured workers.

“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,” the Afghanistan Analysts Network reported in December.

“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.”

Facing a new migration wave, Turkey expects to finish a 295-kilometre wall along its 534km border with Iran by the end of the year. The fortification has been under construction since 2017 and also aims to curtail the cross-border activities of smugglers and Kurdish militants.

The 3-metre-high wall is augmented with a 4m-deep ditch, razor wire and thousands of security personnel patrolling and manning watchtowers. The towers and bases are brimming with the latest hi-tech surveillance equipment, including thermal cameras and acoustic sensors. Overhead, aerial drones constantly monitor the frontier.

“The most important agenda item of Turkey at the moment is Afghan migration,” said Ozlem Ozdemir, an expert on international migration at Istanbul’s Fenerbahce University.

But its eastern border defences are not enough to stop determined refugees. Nor the smuggling gangs that facilitate crossings.

“There’s always a loop open,” Mr Ozdemir said. “The more security measures there are, the more money smugglers want per refugee.”

The European Union, fearful of a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis in which more than a million refugees came to Europe, has made clear it will not accept large numbers of Afghans.

Turkey and the EU are currently negotiating a third tranche of aid, worth €3 billion, for Ankara to care for Syrian refugees. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU foreign affairs representative Josep Borrell have suggested this could be expanded to Afghans.

However, Turkey has rejected the West’s suggestion that it should harbour Afghans as it has done Syrians. As Ms Aydintasbas pointed out, “taking in greater numbers would be politically risky for Erdogan”.

Updated: September 1st 2021, 5:33 PM
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