The Turkish city of Erzurum sits on an expansive green plain, ringed on all sides by towering mountains. Best known as a destination for winter sports enthusiasts, who flock here when snow blankets the nearby slopes, it is also a gateway for another set of visitors – Afghans uprooted by their country’s long and brutal war.
Located about 240 kilometres from the Iranian border, Erzurum is one of the main transportation hubs between Turkey’s far eastern regions and the rest of the country. Before a recent crackdown, its parks, mosques, and bus station overflowed as people slept rough before continuing on to Ankara, Istanbul, or towards the border with Europe.
Once viewed as a short-term transit point, the city has increasingly become an unexpected destination for the ever-growing number of Afghans fleeing to Turkey – a destination where new arrivals find themselves trapped with narrowing options and slim job prospects.
Many apply for refugee resettlement, or hope to move on towards Europe. But the number of people able to leave through legal pathways is minuscule, and Europe’s borders are closing, squeezing off migration routes.
At the start of this year, the number of people crossing from Iran to Turkey spiked: 30,000 Afghans entered Turkey between January and the end of April – compared to 6,000 over the same period in 2017.
Turkey already hosts nearly four million refugees and asylum seekers, more than any other country in the world. The vast majority – around 3.5 million – are Syrians. Afghans, at 166,000, are the second-largest group. Wary of a new influx months before elections in June, the Turkish government began rounding up new arrivals and deported as many as 17,000 back to Afghanistan.
For those who escaped the dragnet, or arrived earlier, Turkey is a paradox. The country only grants refugee status to Europeans. Afghans can receive another kind of protected status that allows them to live legally in Turkey, but it affords them fewer rights than refugees and the expectation is that they will eventually be resettled elsewhere or return home.
So far this year, only 36 Afghans have been resettled from Turkey. European countries and Afghanistan's neighbours have grown increasingly hostile to the presence of Afghan refugees. And 17 years after the US invasion, conflict in Afghanistan is worsening, making conditions for return “far from conducive”, according to Dan Tyler, a regional protection advisor with the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Against this backdrop, Turkey can seem like rare safe haven. But stability is elusive and the future for Afghans in the country is uncertain. Erzurum is a microcosm of this reality. As in the rest of Turkey, the Afghan population here has rapidly expanded in the last decade, from a small handful to somewhere between 400 and 750 families. They mostly live in a rundown corner of town where people’s aspirations for a better future are endlessly deferred and the open wounds of the past bleed into the present.
Firoza is one of the Afghans now living in Erzurum. Her family fled Afghanistan three years ago, but now they find themselves stuck: returning home is out of the question, but refugee resettlement or a safe passage to Europe is also elusive.
On her wedding night three years ago in Afghanistan, Firoza wore a pink, short-sleeved dress. She was 11 years old at the time and had never met the man she was supposed to marry. Her grandfather on her dad’s side had sold her off, accepting around $7,000 to arrange the marriage. Even if Firoza’s parents weren’t comfortable with the match, the grandfather was the authority figure. There wasn’t much they could do.
The groom was at least 50 years old with a greying beard and a weathered face. As he took his place next to Firoza, she angled her body away from him and then broke down. Pictures taken that night show the anguish on her face before she buries her head in her hand. The man next to her looks emotionless, the left side of his mouth drooping slightly down.
“I remember when this picture was taken,” Firoza, now 14, says, pointing at one of the photographs in the house where she now lives. “When I saw this man I refused him.” She threatened to kill herself and her would-be husband if she was forced to go through with the marriage. Her threats accomplished what her parents could not: the wedding was called off.
Firoza’s parents supported her decision, but they also knew it meant the whole family – including their three other children – would have to leave. Within a week, they had sold their house in the Afghan capital, Kabul, to repay the bride price and to cover the cost of travelling to Turkey. “I took my daughter and we escaped,” Firoza’s mother, Hanita, says.
But there were consequences. The shunned groom murdered Firoza’s grandfather with a hand grenade, and Firoza and her family still receive threats, even in Erzurum. “So many times we received a call from those people saying no matter where we go in the world they will find us and kill us,” says Hanita.
Individual pain; collective tragedy
For Afghans, it is hard to draw a clear line between the brutality of the war and the weakness of the state, between individual pain and collective tragedy. The reasons why people end up in Erzurum are often connected to all these things.
Khadija, a 37-year-old mother of five, felt her life hollowed out after one of her children disappeared and another died in a car bombing – both on their way home from school; Mahbouba, a 41-year-old teacher, was beaten by her husband’s brothers until she miscarried because they didn’t agree with her career; Muhamet, a middle-aged teacher and father, struggled to earn enough money to support his family after the Taliban attacked him, forcing him to leave his job; Ruhullah, a recent high school graduate who wanted to study computer science, saw no future for himself in Afghanistan’s slow economy and worried that he would be the next one of his friends to die in a random act of violence.
All left their homes and ended up Erzurum.
Currently, there are around 2.6 million Afghan refugees scattered throughout the world, as well as many more who are undocumented. In recent years, only the war in Syria has caused more people to flee their country.
Afghanistan’s neighbours, Pakistan and Iran, host the majority of Afghan refugees. But both countries have made it increasingly difficult for Afghans to receive and maintain legal refugee status. Each year, hundreds of thousands of Afghans in either country have come home – many of them forcibly returned. “The bottom line is that there is no longer an ability to seek protection in the traditional sense in either Iran or Pakistan,” said the NRC’s Tyler.
Iran is also facing an economic crisis and dramatic currency inflation. More than half a million people have returned to Afghanistan from Iran this year, according to the UN. But many Afghans who had been living in Iran instead headed west to Turkey, where they are less than welcome.
Turkey is in the process of building a wall along about a third of its border with Iran to prevent irregular migration, smuggling, and militant infiltration. Ali Hekmat, the founder of the Afghan Refugees Association in Turkey, says Afghans fear that once the wall is completed, in the spring of 2019, crossing the border will become a lot more difficult – another reason why the number of Afghans entering Turkey this year spiked.
The border between Iran and Turkey stretches for about 500 kilometres, mostly through mountainous terrain. Afghans in Erzurum described waiting for hours, and sometimes days, on the Iranian side of the border for military patrols to leave the area before sneaking across. People who were caught were deported back to Kabul, and often retraced their steps back to the border to try again.
Those who made it walked for anywhere between four and 12 hours guided by Iranian smugglers over the rugged terrain. They carried their children in their arms and on their backs. Some said they waded through foul-smelling water up to their waists.
Once on the Turkish side they walked again until reaching safe houses, and then continued on to Erzurum in vans and sometimes on foot. Some people were arrested by Turkish police and held for more than a week in a detention centre before being released.
This year’s uptick in Afghan arrivals peaked a couple of months before Turkey’s general election at the end of June, in which migration became a campaign issue. Turkish society has traditionally been hospitable to outsiders, according to Kemal Kirisci, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. But years of hosting millions of refugees coupled with a recent economic downturn have led to tensions. “That hospitality has worn out,” Kirisci says.
Fearing a negative impact at the polls, the Turkish government began deporting Afghans. Forcing them back to Afghanistan was both “unconscionable and unlawful”, according to an Amnesty International report that stated it violated the principle of non-refoulement, which safeguards people from being sent back to a place where they risk serious human rights violations.
Turkish authorities have carried out deportations in the past, according to Anna Shea, Amnesty’s researcher on refugee and migrant rights, but usually they try to deny it and obscure the numbers. Now they are publicising it openly in the news and broadcasting it from official government social media accounts.
In doing so, they are following the lead of European countries that have tightened asylum requirements for Afghans in recent years and deported thousands of failed applicants back to Afghanistan, according to Shea. “They look toward Europe,” she says of the Turkish government, “and European countries are also doing this in a very public manner”.
The message being sent by both European governments and Turkey is clear, Shea adds: “If you manage to escape your war-torn country where you might be at risk of serious human rights violations, if you make it to a safe place… you’ll have a high chance of being sent home.”
Afghans have taken note. The number of people crossing the border from Iran has recently dropped. “All the Afghan refugees in Iran and Afghanistan know that the Turkish government is now deporting us,” says Hekmat, of the Afghan Refugees Association in Turkey. “It’s not the time to travel. Let’s wait for one month, or two months, or three months, or one year and let’s start again.”
People arrived with one of three goals, according to Hekmat: they either planned to continue on to Europe, find work in Turkey and send money back to their families, or spend a period of time working to save up and then pay for passage to Europe.
Life in Erzurum
Many of the arrests and deportations earlier this year took place in Erzurum. Most of those rounded up and sent back were young, single men, while families were often allowed to stay. Several months later, there were no Afghans sleeping in the city’s parks. Life had returned to normal. But normal for Afghans in Turkey means economic struggle and legal uncertainty.
Afghans who are granted protected status receive a little bit of monthly aid from the government and access to basic healthcare. Their children can also enrol in schools. Compared to the situation in Afghanistan, it is an improvement. “At least I have security here. My mind is at rest a little,” says Muhamet, the teacher forced from his job by Taliban intimidation.
But most people are struggling financially. Afghans with residency have the right to work, but the government places restrictions on employers that make it hard to find legal employment, and employers for the most part prefer hiring refugees off the books so they can get away with paying them lower salaries. Frequently, they refuse to pay at all, according to Hekmat and many of the Afghans in Erzurum.
Residency as an asylum seeker in Turkey also comes with other restrictions. Afghans are assigned to live in a specific city. Travel outside of that city is prohibited without prior permission from the police. This curtails work opportunities and even makes it difficult to visit family and friends who may live in a different city.
This year’s deportations targeted new arrivals, but they had a chilling effect on the Afghan community overall. The residency permits they receive must be renewed every six months. “We don’t know when the last six months… will come,” says Javid, a 34-year-old Afghan who has been living in Erzurum since 2016. “Of course we are afraid.”
For Hanita, Firoza’s mother, these difficulties have convinced her that the only long-term solution is to leave. She applied for resettlement through the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. But with so few Afghans being resettled from Turkey, and resettlement numbers in a downward spiral globally, the odds are almost impossibly long.
Like most others in Erzurum, she is waiting for a better option to present itself. But it’s unclear what that might be. Her family is too poor to pay a smuggler to take them to Europe. Even if they could afford it, given Europe’s tightened asylum requirements, there’s no guarantee they would be allowed to stay.
Firoza, in the meantime, is afraid to leave the house alone because of the threats she receives from the family of her rejected groom. She fears one of his relatives might come to Turkey to exact revenge, following the well-worn path of Afghan asylum seekers directly to Erzurum.
With chipped nail polish and a black choker necklace, she could be a teenager anywhere in the world. “Right now, she is 14 years old. She should be studying, going to school, getting some knowledge. But unfortunately she can’t go outside,” her mother says.
“I need to go to a place where I’m safe so I can get a little rest and continue my studies so I can help my family in the future,” Firoza chimes in.
Like other Afghans in Erzurum, Firoza and her family are still searching for somewhere to rebuild their lives.
(TOP PHOTO: Several hundred Afghan families now live in a run-down corner of Erzurum. The Turkish government deported some 17,000 Afghans before elections in June. CREDIT: Eric Reidy/IRIN)