With the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, fears are rising in Turkey that the country will see a surge in refugees. Turkey is a major final destination for Afghan refugees, as well as a jumping off point for those intending to head to Europe. Already, there are up to 600,000 Afghans in Turkey, refugees who made their way there over the past decade. But the numbers can easily – in fact, will likely – spike. This is the next crisis waiting in the wings.
The refugees already were on their way before the fall of Kabul. Videos on social media lately have shown hundreds of Afghans, mostly men and boys, crossing the rugged border into Turkey. The country’s easternmost province of Van abuts northern Iran and serves as a waypoint in the gruelling migratory path for Afghans hoping to start a new life in Turkey or to reach Europe.
Turkey, already host to 3.7 million refugees from Syria, cannot cope indefinitely with a new surge in refugees, and sees the uptick in conflict-related migrant flows as a global crisis that is being outsourced to neighbouring countries such as itself. There already is increased public unhappiness over the Syrians – originally viewed as temporary guests but are now a permanent, or at least long-term, presence in the country. They are blamed for social, economic, demographic and political tensions, sometimes resulting in armed violence or skirmishes in densely populated neighborhoods. Many Turks also complain of the special status extended to Syrians, who receive government stipends, subsidized healthcare, education and employment opportunities. There is a palpable sense of worry that new Afghan refugees would add to the already considerable strain.
Ankara lacks a comprehensive refugee settlement policy, and already is clearly struggling to limit irregular migration into the country. In the face of a fresh wave of Afghan refugees, one option is for Ankara to strike a new deal with the EU on greater burden-sharing. The template would be the 2016 EU-Turkey migration deal, which allowed EU states to stem the flow of Syrian refugees in exchange for 6 billion euros in aid and a pledge to negotiate frozen political issues with Ankara, including visa-free travel for Turks.
EU states obviously are keen to restrict the number of Afghan refugees reaching their shores, and all signs indicate a willingness to cooperate with Turkey to find a solution. Austria’s chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, controversially declared recently that Turkey and other countries in the region are “definitely a better place than Austria, Germany or Sweden” for Afghans. On August 10, six EU member states – Austria, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece and Germany – urged against halting deportations of unsuccessful Afghan asylum seekers. Updating the migration agreement with the EU will be high on Turkey’s agenda.
The US has also been eyeing Turkey as a solution to its self-made problem. In early August, Washington announced a refugees program for Afghan nationals who worked for the US, NGOs or the press, such as field interpreters and translators. The scheme contemplated third countries like Turkey and Pakistan being used as interim hosts for as many as 25,000 Afghans. They would stay there for up to a year while their applications are processed. But what happens to those with unsuccessful applications was left unclear.
The plan was quickly derided by Turkey. The foreign ministry’s spokesman, Tanju Bilgi, said, “No one should expect the Turkish nation to bear the burden of the migration crises caused by the decisions of third countries in our region.” The government’s main communications director, Fahrettin Altun, called the initiative “utterly unacceptable,” adding that Turkey would not serve as “any country’s waiting room.” However, it may all be moot as it is unclear how the plan would work with the Taliban now in complete control of the country.
Another idea that has been broached is a sub-regional arrangement to distribute the burden of a rise in refugee numbers. But this too is problematic. Combined, Pakistan and Iran already are home to nearly 90 percent of the 2.5 million registered Afghan refugees, with 1.4 million in Pakistan and almost a million in Iran (unofficial numbers are higher in both countries). Now, Pakistan has declared it will shut its 2,400-kilometer long, porous border and follow the “Iranian model” of housing refugee in border camps rather than allow onward movement to towns and cities. While Turkey and Pakistan are close allies, having signed a security cooperation agreement in Baku in July, it is not clear what joint measures can be taken to mitigate the crisis.
Iran could worsen the situation for Turkey by making crossings even easier for Afghans. Some have accused Tehran of wilfully turning a blind eye as thousands of Afghans in Iran are bused to the border with Turkey.
Ankara contributed troops to Nato’s mission in Afghanistan over the past two decades, and until recently had 500 soldiers in non-combat roles there. But the rapid fall of Kabul has thrown in the air all plans predicated on an orderly departure by the US. The only thing clear is that there will be a flood of refugees.
Liza Schuster from the City University of London, who spent most of the past decade conducting fieldwork in Afghanistan, told me: “Afghans are finding it hard to believe that all those countries who were present in theirs for so long have so definitively turned their backs on them.” She might have added how those countries now want to shift the burden to others already struggling with a decade of mass migration. What is required urgently is an international meeting to sort how to deal with the flow, and for nations to face up to their responsibility.
Burcu Ozcelik is a research fellow and affiliated lecturer at Cambridge University.