ISTANBUL, TURKEY — As the nightly Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul to Kabul begins to fill up, Hemat sits in his seat staring blankly at the television screen in front of him. He isn’t interested in watching “Black Panther” or episodes of “The Big Bang Theory.” His mind is racing with what he is about to face in five hours time. He takes out his cell phone and calls his family in Afghanistan to let them know the news — that he is among dozens of young Afghan men being deported back to Kabul.
“Who knows, maybe [President] Ashraf Ghani will be there when we arrive,” he says in his native Pashto. As the 19-year-old explains to his family that he was kept in detention for 15 days after getting into a fight with another refugee from Syria, dozens of other young men begin to pour into the plane. Usually, deportees are rushed to the back of the aircraft, hidden from view, but tonight, there are too many to hide.
The crowded plane is a physical manifestation of a major shift in Ankara’s policy towards refugees from Afghanistan, one which increasingly favors deportations. In April, Turkish authorities reported that they had deported more than 6,000 Afghan refugees over the course of a few weeks. Amnesty International has said the move amounts to little more than “a ruthless deportation drive which has seen thousands of Afghans rounded up, packed onto planes and returned to a war zone.”
For some deportees, this forced return to their country — currently facing one of its deadliest years — marks the first time they have traveled by airplane, as many of them arrived to Turkey by way of smugglers. The scene is nothing like the images that Turkey’s migration authority has been posting on Twitter over the past several weeks, showing young men waving happily from business class seats on their way back to Afghanistan.
The spate of deportations began early this year, as Turkish media reported that more than 17,450 Afghan refugees were intercepted along Turkey’s eastern border with Iran in the first three months of 2018 alone.
When Turkish Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, visited Kabul last month, he announced his government’s plans to deport thousands of undocumented Afghan refugees at a joint press conference with Afghanistan’s Chief Executive, Abdullah Abdullah.
“Those [Afghans] who come via illegal ways are causing trouble. The Turkish Interior Ministry is conducting very efficient works. The process of voluntarily sending them back is also continuing. I would also like to thank you [the Afghan authorities] for this business partnership,” Yildirim said with Abdullah at his side.
According to images and figures tweeted by the Turkish Migration Authority, at least 1,650 Afghan refugees have been deported on charter flights from the provinces of Van, Erzurum, Agri, and Gaziantep between April 17 and May 6. Cab drivers and money exchangers at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport corroborated these figures, saying that each day for the last month, they have seen at least 200 young men arriving on charter flights from Turkey.
Van ili geri gönderme merkezinde barındırılan 327 Afganistan uyruklu yabancının, Erzurum ilinden 18.04.2018 tarihinde Kabil’e düzenlenen charter (tarifesiz/özel uçuş) seferi ile ülkelerine geri dönüşleri sağlanmıştır. pic.twitter.com/GQ2VdoyqJX
— Göç İdaresi Genel Md (@Gocidaresi) April 19, 2018
Earlier this week, Turkish Interior Minister, Suleyman Soylu, insinuated that the current U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, John Bass, was behind the turmoil leading Afghan refugees to seek asylum in Turkey.
“An ambassador who became a trouble for us here now has become the U.S. envoy in Afghanistan. He now stirs trouble there,” Soylu said of Bass, whose last posting was in Ankara. Throughout his three-year tenure in Turkey, Turkish authorities accused Bass of overstepping and of making statements that Ankara saw as sympathetic to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey, the European Union, and the United States consider to be a terrorist group.
Anna Shea, Amnesty International’s researcher on refugee and migrants rights, said her organization is worried about the “staggering” number of deportations to Kabul.
“Turkey hosts more refugees than any other country. But that doesn’t make it immune to international law. These mass deportations of people seeking safety are shocking and illegal,” Shea told ThinkProgress.
For its part, Kabul has said that the deportations are voluntary returns.
“The only choice people are being offered is between deportation and indefinite detention, which is no choice at all.”
“A number of Afghan refugees are coming back to the country of their own will … They are the ones who wanted to use Turkey as a transit route to other countries, but when they failed they decided to come back,” Islamuddin Jurat, a spokesman for the ministry of refugees and repatriations, told Turkey’s Dogan news agency in April.
Shea refuted this assertion by Ankara and Kabul, saying that based on her conversations with Afghans detained in Turkey “the only choice people are being offered is between deportation and indefinite detention, which is no choice at all.”
Afghan refugees speaking to ThinkProgress from detention camps in the Turkish provinces of Erzurum and Osmaniye said the deportations continue unabated.
“This year is by far the worst it’s ever been,” said Jabar, an Afghan refugee living in northern Turkey, who also volunteers to help other refugees. He said the number of refugees on the list to be deported has ballooned from 3,000 in late March to more than 7,000 in the last month.
“In 2018, Turkey became yet another prison for Afghan refugees,” he added.
“Deport us or accept us!”
When 17-year-old Isaaq first arrived at the detention center in Turkey’s Osmaniye province a month ago, there were nearly 4,000 Afghan refugees. Now, there are just over 1,000. Over the past several weeks, he has witnessed thousands of his fellow Afghans, including minors as young as 15, being deported.
Having fled the violence in his native Kunduz province — which briefly fell to the Taliban in 2015 and 2016 — Isaaq represents the tenuous position in which many Afghan refugees find themselves. On the one hand, he fears returning to Afghanistan, where so far this year, 763 civilians have been killed as part of the ongoing conflict, and on the other, he cannot continue to live in uncertainty in Turkey.
Two weeks ago, after officials in the camp claimed that deportations to Afghanistan were being frozen, dozens of Afghan refugees, frustrated with being trapped in a state of limbo, staged a protest in the camp, chanting, “Deport us or accept us!”
Isaaq and other Afghans in the camp said the protesters were met with immediate violence from the security forces, with many being taken away in ambulances. One refugee, Jamil, told ThinkProgress, “Almost as soon as the protesters went out, they were beat. They were beat with batons, with fists, with whatever was at the police’s disposal. At one point, they launched a tear gas canister.”
Life outside the camps presents its own challenges. Those who make it out are given little guidance. Sorosh, who was recently released from the Osmaniye camp, said he received a document from the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) that said his status as an asylum seeker would be determined in 2021.
The UNHCR document gives him the right to stay in Bilceik province but doesn’t assign him a legal status, nor is he allowed to leave Bilceik for any reason, without proper documentation.
“What am I supposed to do with myself for three years?” he told ThinkProgress in frustration.
He had asked to be transferred to Ankara or Istanbul, where at least he knew other Afghans who could help him settle, but the authorities responded simply by saying, “You will go where we tell you.”
The situation facing refugees is exacerbated by Turkey’s recent financial downturns, which have left most Afghan refugees without work. Many are denied benefits, with some reporting lack of access to lawyers and translators at the border and in the camps. Several refugees who spoke with ThinkProgress described remarkably similar experiences in which they were detained by Turkish authorities at the border and forced to provide their fingerprints and sign several pages of Turkish-language documents, without the aid of translators.
“In 2018, Turkey became yet another prison for Afghan refugees.”
Others spoke of lack of access to critical government services, like health care, even if they have the proper identification card known as “Kimlik,” which gives the holder access to such services. Many have claimed that their employers refuse to pay them, citing their lack of legal status.
Hemat was one of the lucky ones. For the two years he lived in Istanbul, he was able to keep the same tailoring job, with pay. But his luck seemed to run out. On the flight back to Afghanistan, Hemat spoke of his fear of returning to his native province, Kunar, which has seen several of its districts come under Taliban attack while simultaneously facing repeated shelling from the Pakistani side of the Durand Line since 2011.
In Kabul, where Hemat knows only a handful of people, he wouldn’t fare much better. In the past month, attacks claimed by the Taliban and the so-called Islamic State have targeted a voter registration center, journalists gathering to cover a previous bombing, and two separate police headquarters on opposite sides of the capital.
But deportations have continued despite these harsh realities. After several fearful hours, Hemat and the more than 100 young men arrived at passport check of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, where they were ordered to stand by a wall until transportation authorities could figure out how to process them.
“What do you have, a Tazkira [ID], a passport, a visa, what?” a female airport worker asked the crowd of confused men.
“We have them all!” one of the deportees yelled out in a mocking tone.