As the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates, an increasing number of Afghans are making their way to Turkey along dangerous migration routes. Most enter the country by crossing Turkey’s eastern border with Iran, a journey that carries the risk of injury or death. According to NGOs, the number of Afghan refugees in Turkey has grown to 600,000 over the last five years, many living undocumented.
In 2018, just over 100,000 Afghans entered Turkey without permission, according to the Migration Management Directorate, a figure that doubled in 2019. There is no official data available for 2020 and 2021.
“I came to Turkey to escape a war in 2017, but I found another war here” said Abdulvahit Hosseini, 36, who fled the town of Ghazni after it was threatened by the Taliban. His story is typical of many Afghans who have travelled to Turkey, experiencing a difficult journey followed by unexpected hardship when he reached his destination.
“I made a deal with the smugglers who first brought me to Kandahar, a town on the Afghanistan-Iran border. I crossed the border around midnight to Tehran. Two days later, we went to the Iranian town of Maku, on the Turkish border. We had to wait in a converted barn for four days for safety, and other groups of migrants slowly arrived,” he said. “There were about 200 people by the end of those four days.”
The group set off at around 11pm, walking for 13 hours until they reached Doğubayazıt, a district in Ağrı province to the north of Van.
Until 2018, the eastern province of Erzurum was the most common destination for Afghans, as well as migrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh, but Van, in Turkey’s south-east, has recently become more popular. When he left for Turkey, Hosseini told his family that he would travel ahead of them, to get the lay of the land, find a job and rent a house. He had a job laying tiles for three months, saving enough money for accommodation before sending for his wife and daughter.
Hosseini’s wife Halime Jafari, 24, travelled to Turkey with their seven year-old daughter Hesti and three cousins.
“They took me to Kandahar, and then Tehran, just like Abdulvahit. Then we came to Doğubayazıt via Maku. There, I got on a bus the smugglers had arranged to take us to Van Bus Station. Police got us at the bus station and took us to a refugee camp,” Jafari said.
When Hosseini learned that they’d been detained, he immediately went to the camp. Officials confirmed to Hosseini that his family was indeed there, but said he would have to apply for temporary refugee status in order to get an identity card, before they would release them.
During the week-long wait for his documents, Hosseini received a call from his wife saying that the authorities planned to deport around 300 people from the camp. Hosseini went straight to find them, but by the time he arrived at the camp his wife and daughter were already on a flight to a repatriation centre in the village of Pehlivanköy, near the Bulgarian border – at the other end of the country.
“We just could never catch a break,” he said. “I had no money, I felt helpless and my wife and daughter were about to get deported. Somehow, I managed to get my ID and got tickets first to Ankara, and then onto Istanbul. I borrowed some money from a relative and went to the repatriation center in Pehlivanköy. They made me write up a petition, but then said that the document needed to go to an office in Ankara.”
Hosseini said that he had to wait 23 days for the result of his appeal, during which time he worked odd jobs and slept in a park. Hosseini’s wife and daughter were released, but the cousins were deported. “They gave us a permission slip and told us to stay in Van.”
The family tried to build a new life for themselves in Van. Hosseini briefly worked as a contractor for Van Water and Sewage Works (VASKI), but he had trouble holding on to his job because he was still not officially registered with the authorities.
“The contractors were paid by the municipality, but they still failed to pay me and 27 other migrants. We made official complaints with the police, who told us they couldn’t do anything to help since we hadn’t signed any official employment documents. Without IDs or security, me and my friends quit,” he said.
Hosseini then worked in a repair shop for a while, but became unemployed again when it closed down after a year. Now, Hosseini runs his own money transfer business.
“I rented an office and I help out Afghan migrants with currency exchange. I receive money from the families of migrants who can’t open up bank accounts, I cut a commission and give the rest to the migrants,” he said.
When they left Afghanistan, the family thought they would only be stopping in Turkey briefly, before continuing their journey elsewhere. Yet although they have been forced to stay put in Turkey, Hosseini doesn’t see a future here.
“I want to go to America or Canada. I’ve been working in Turkey for four years to save up. When I have enough, I’ll take my family into America or Canada illegally,” he said.
Hosseini predicts his family’s life on the margins will continue. If they try to reach the EU, they might lose their lives trying to cross the Aegean Sea – or they could be deported from yet another state. Despite everything, they keep going: Jafari has had a second child since arriving in Turkey and is expecting her third.