When Turkish police raided the Istanbul garment factory where Baktash works, he escaped through a back door as they swept through looking for undocumented migrants.
“They come to our homes at night, too. Perhaps neighbours report us – many have been taken,” the Afghan refugee told The National.
Baktash was visiting 12 other undocumented Afghan men in a dilapidated two-room apartment in the working-class district of Zeytinburnu. Some of them arrived in the country as little as a week ago after fleeing in the run-up to the US pullout, amid a sweeping Taliban advance.
There is no furniture, only traditional floor cushions that serve as seating in the day and as beds at night.
In the face of an intense crackdown by Turkish police in recent weeks, the men say that sometimes they do not even go to work because they are so scared they could be caught and sent back to Afghanistan. In one August raid in the eastern province of Van, a migrant transit hub near the border with Iran, 115 mostly Afghans were detained in just two apartments.
The men keep the curtains shut at all times to keep any prying eyes out.
“People don’t go out any more,” said Baktash, 27, a former interpreter for the US military who now works informally operating sewing machines to make cheap clothing.
Baktash is eligible to be resettled in the US due to his former work, but has been unable to understand the complicated application process. He is gaunt, eyes sunken after days of no sleep as he tries to find ways to get his family out of Afghanistan. They are at heightened risk from the Taliban due to his former work.
Applying for resettlement from a third country is even harder, and a US citizen who looked at the documents said they could not make sense of what was required.
Now Baktash is so worried he could be sent home, he is looking instead to be smuggled to Europe.
“If the police arrest you here, they will probably deport you. But the Taliban are terrorists and have no humanity – they know only killing.”
Thousands of Afghans are thought to have entered Turkey in recent months after fleeing the advance of the Taliban, often having traversed over 1,000 kilometres of canyons and desert by foot through Iran to get there. Even before the US began withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan, millions had fled to Turkey and other nearby countries due to the economic and security issues caused by four decades of near constant war.
In the first seven months of the year, Turkey’s migration office says it deported over 37,000 undocumented migrants, including some 13,000 Afghans – the largest single-nationality group. Since Kabul fell to the Taliban in late August, officials said the country has ceased deporting refugees to Afghanistan for humanitarian and logistical reasons, but no official policy to that effect has been announced.
Authorities have been uncharacteristically keen to take journalists to witness border detentions, eager to back up President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s barbed rhetoric aimed towards Europe as both sides seek to avoid a repeat of the 2015 migrant crisis. Several European leaders have suggested that Afghan migrants should remain in Turkey and other countries in the region rather than being given asylum in Europe.
Yet Turkey is already home to the world’s largest refugee population at over four million. It is a divisive political issue as the country heads towards a pivotal general election in 2023, which some believe could be held next year amid waning popularity for Mr Erdogan.
Anti-migrant rhetoric has become rife among even the centre-left opposition – People’s Republican party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdoroglu said on Friday that he will send all Syrians and Afghans back to their home countries within two years if he wins.
Deportation reports rattle already frightened refugees
Rumours abound among the Afghan community that secret deportations are already happening and that people are transported to detention centres near the border before being forcibly pushed back to Iran, something Turkish officials deny. Many of the Zeytinburnu men claim they are in contact with friends that it happened to.
“Since Erdogan said Turkey is not Europe’s ‘refugee warehouse’ [on August 19], we have been getting even more nervous that they want us gone,” said Mustafa, 20, who also works informally in a garment factory.
Like all of the men in the house, Mustafa’s family are still trying to leave Afghanistan by whatever means they can find. Last week, they made it to Kabul Airport only to be caught up in the deadly ISIS-K blast, which killed at least 170. His cousin was killed and sister injured after she was blown to the floor by the explosion and then trampled by panicked crowds.
He says he is trying to save money to help them leave, yet most of the men are also fast-tracking plans to move on to Europe. They don’t trust Turkey, which is in talks with the Taliban over the operation of Kabul Airport and reconstruction of the country.
“Before the Taliban regained control, Erdogan said Afghans were his brothers. Now, it seems like he wants a relationship with them, so we are watching, scared,” Mustafa said.
The path to Europe is not easy either – it can cost thousands of dollars in smuggler fees and as countries scramble to find ways to keep Afghans out. Greece has installed a new 40km border fence and surveillance system. A number of the men The National spoke to have already been pushed back by Greek or Bulgarian border police on multiple occasions, often, they claim, violently.
“What are we supposed to do?” said Baktash. “We can’t stay here, we can’t move on and we can’t go back.”