Afghan migrants after crossing the Iran-Turkish border

Migrants, many fleeing the Taliban regime, claim they are being beaten, harassed and turned back by Turkish border forces

As the sun sets over a dusty ravine on the outskirts of Van city in eastern Turkey, Muhammdullah Sangeen and dozens of other Afghans are preparing for another night sleeping rough.

The 22-year-old, who has a bruised left eye and fresh cuts all over his arms, arrived from Iran a few days earlier with the help of smugglers. “I am not OK,” said Sangeen, his legs trembling. “I’m not feeling human.”

Sangeen, who fought the Taliban during five years as a soldier in the Afghan national army, says that in the past month he crossed the Turkey-Iran border, about 50 miles to the east of Van, on three other occasions. Each time, Turkish border forces caught him and deported him back to Iran, he says. He claims he was often tortured in the process.

Violent “pushbacks” against refugees have surged in eastern Turkey in the months since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, according to an investigation by the Guardian involving interviews with several pushback victims, human rights lawyers working in the region and independent observers.

The International Organization for Migration said, in recent months, between 20,000 and 30,000 refugees were fleeing Afghanistan every week. According to Orhan Deniz, a professor of migration at Van Yüzüncü Yıl University, many are attempting 1,400-mile journeys through Iran and the Zagros mountains to the Turkish border and into towns such as Başkale, Çaldıran, Saray and Özalp.

Turkish military vehicles patrol along a section of the Iran-Turkey border wall
Military vehicles patrol the border wall in Çaldıran, Van province. The border was recently reinforced to stop refugees arriving from Iran. Photograph: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

But Mahmut Kaçan, a Turkish lawyer based in Van who specialises in refugee and asylum cases, claims that pushbacks, which are in breach of the UN’s 1951 refugee convention, are “systematically” taking place. “This is 100% happening,” said Kaçan. “What Turkish authorities are doing is illegal.”

Kaçan added that the Provincial Directorate of Migration Management (PDMM) in Van is no longer accepting new asylum applications, including one of his clients – an Afghan nurse and her family forced to flee the Taliban. “They came with passports, but even they were refused,” he said. “Afghans are in great danger at the moment. We all saw the thousands at Kabul airport and we must support them.”

The Turkish government’s efforts to keep out refugees from Afghanistan escalated in August when construction began on a 183-mile concrete wall in Van province. The defence minister, Hulusi Akar, said the eastern border had been reinforced with thermal and night-vision cameras and more troops, including 750 special operations officers.

Metin Çorabatir, president of the Istanbul-based Research Centre on Asylum and Migration (IGAM), said the refusal to allow many Afghan refugees to enter Turkey legally was forcing them into deadly journeys, citing an incident where up to 60 Afghan refugees drowned crossing Lake Van. “We’ve seen their conditions, they are very tired and exploited by smugglers,” he said. “They are injured on long walks, hungry, without water. They are being made to risk their lives unnecessarily.”

Afghan migrants waiting for smugglers in Tatvan, eastern Turkey
Afghan migrants resting in Tatvan, eastern Turkey, after crossing the border from Iran, August 2021. Photograph: Ozan Köse/AFP/Getty Images

Sangeen, who fled Kabul two days after it fell to the Taliban in August, said that the mountains were strewn with dead bodies when he crossed into Turkey. He said thieves stole $150 from him and Turkish border forces smashed his phone on his head, burnt his clothes and kicked him repeatedly in the face. “We were in great danger,” he said.

Another refugee claimed that his hand had been shattered with a metal helmet by a Turkish soldier, causing his fingers to swell and become infected. Others spoke of beatings and destruction of their possessions by the Turkish army.

Karolína Augustová, a fellow at Sabanci University’s Istanbul Policy Centre who in September published a report on pushbacks in eastern Turkey, said the refusal of the European Union to play a greater role in the crisis has been a key factor. “Pushbacks didn’t emerge just because Turkey decided to toughen up on its eastern border,” she said. “It’s because of the EU’s policy towards refugees.”

Pushbacks against refugees are thought to have started in Greece – the first port of call in the EU for many migrants. In August 2020, UNHCR said it was “deeply concerned by an increasing number of credible reports” of Greek authorities carrying out pushbacks in the Aegean. But these new findings suggest the policy is now being adopted further afield – including in Turkey, which hosts about 4 million refugees, more than any other country.

A family of migrants caught by Turkish security forces
A family of migrants caught by Turkish security forces are held in the deportation centre in Van, near the Iranian border, August 2021. Photograph: Sedat Suna/EPA

A statement from UNHCR said that it is “closely monitoring the situation” and that it had recently issued a non-return advisory for Afghanistan, calling for a ban on forced returns of Afghan nationals, including those who have had their asylum claims rejected. “It is important to bear in mind that states have obligations, including under customary international law, to preserve cross-border access for civilians fleeing conflict and not to return refugees forcibly,” it added.

The Directorate of Van, the PDMM and Turkish government spokesman Ömer Çelik did not respond to requests for comment.

But for Sangeen, trapped in a desolate corner of Turkey, efforts to seek asylum have taken a toll on his physical and mental wellbeing. “They are violent against us to prevent us from entering,” he said. “It’s illegal what they are doing. They shouldn’t do this to us. I can’t go back to Afghanistan. There isn’t any future there. It’s over.”

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