Fleeing the Taliban: Afghans met with rising anti-refugee hostility in Turkey

·4-min read

It was a journey that had taken weeks, and there were times when the 65-year-old Afghan widow, who walks with the aid of a stick, had to be carried by her son.

Their trek, across 15 canyons she says, left Durdana with badly scarred feet. “I have not had a day of peace in over 40 years. I had to come to Turkey, there was no choice.”

She had suffered a heart attack when her husband, a tiler, died five years ago in a roadside bombing in Kabul, and believed she and her three adult children would die too if they didn’t make the trip from home in Ghazni province to a people-smuggler’s safe house in eastern Turkey.

Durdana – who uses only one name – is one of tens of thousands of Afghans fleeing the country as foreign troops, most of whom have already left, withdraw completely before the end of August. It’s estimated that between 500 and 2,000 arrive in Turkey every day. For a country already playing host to four million refugees, the situation is causing alarm.

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s party (CHP) has been vocally anti-refugee, with leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu making a promise last month to “send them home” if his party assumes power.

“The real survival problem of our country is the flood of refugees. Now we are caught in the Afghan flood,” he says in a video released on social media, adding that he believed there could be between 500,000 and one million displaced Afghans coming to Turkey. He has criticised the government for having agreed with the EU in 2016 to keep refugees in exchange for financial support.

In July, the CHP mayor of the north-west city of Bolu, Tanju Özcan, announced plans to charge “foreign nationals” 10 times more for water and waste services. “We want them to leave. This hospitality has gone on too long,” he says, adding on Twitter that Turkey has “become a dumping ground for migrants”.

The proposal drew both anger and support, and resulted in the launch of an investigation into Özcan by the chief prosecutor’s office.

Humanitarian agencies are bracing for a rise in displaced people from Afghanistan as security deteriorates. Taliban fighters are making sweeping gains, claiming to have retaken at least 85% of the country, almost 20 years after the US-led invasion deposed them. They threaten to enforce extremist Islamic practices, to exclude women from work and education, the persecution of ethnic minorities and violence towards those who break the rules.

Turkey’s commitment to refugees has been longstanding, and it is already home to 3.6 million Syrians kept from going on to Europe by the 2016 refugee deal. But hostility towards migrants surfaces frequently, sometimes violently, and as Turkey deals with its own economic problems it is ill-equipped to deal with a fresh migrant crisis.

In late July, seven members of a Kurdish family were killed by armed assailants in the central city of Konya in what the family’s lawyer called an “entirely racist” attack.

The US has pledged to take thousands of Afghan refugees with American links. But it will not help them leave the country or support them during the year-long adjudication process, meaning those who want to leave will probably need to find their own way to Iran, Pakistan or Turkey.

“The reason for our current situation is that the decision was taken abruptly,” the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, told parliament on Monday, blaming the sudden withdrawal of US troops for the increase in fighting.

There has also been controversial rhetoric in Europe. The Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, said last week that Turkey was a more suitable place for migrants. In response, Meral Akşener, the chairman of Turkey’s nationalist Good party, offered Austria €3bn (£2.6bn) to take its Afghans.

Related: Revealed: 2,000 refugee deaths linked to illegal EU pushbacks

Many of the Afghans in Turkey want to move on to Europe. They say their prospects are poor in the country and that they face discrimination from landlords and employers. There has also been an increase in police operations in the past month, with more than 1,500 migrants, mostly Afghans, taken into custody around Van, a province in eastern Turkey near the border with Iran.

The people-smugglers say they are experiencing a surge in business that they expect to continue over the coming months.

Durdana, who arrived in Turkey four days before speaking to the Guardian from the smuggler’s safe house in Van, says her plan is to reach Germany, where she can get the medicine she needs for her heart condition.

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