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Afghan refugees flood into Turkey as USA announces final troop withdrawal

A screenshot captured from BBC News video, titled “Afgan göçmenler anlatıyor: Türkiye'ye neden ve nasıl geliyorlar?”

American president Joe Biden announced in a June 8th speech at the White House, that American troops would withdraw from Afghanistan by August 31, after 20 years of occupation in the region. US troops first entered Afghanistan following the September 11th attacks on New York's World Trade Center, when the Taliban was suspected of hiding Osama bin Laden and supporting al-Qaeda.

During his speech, President Biden asserted that the US has achieved its foremost goals and has “degraded” the terrorist threats in Afghanistan. He also said it was time for the Afghan nation to build itself, without foreign help. But since the announcement there have been renewed inter-clashes between Afghan forces, the Taliban fighters have made swift territorial gains, and a growing number of Afghans have left their homes, indicating Biden's expectations for Afghanistan may be far-fetched.

Turkey has seen a spike in the number of incoming Afghan refugees, with more than 125,000 Afghans seeking asylum in Turkey in 2020 alone, according to the UNHCR 2020 report. Afghan refugees make up the second-largest refugee population in Turkey after Syrians.

Illegal border crossings

According to Halk TV, a news media platform in Turkey, police detained 85 undocumented refugees in Niğde province on July 19. Of the 85,  73 were from Afghanistan, and 12 were Pakistani nationals. Another 59 Afghan nationals were detained in Turkey's Van province. According to Turkish officials, police have detained a total of 1,500 mostly Afghan migrants since early July. Some say if conditions in Afghanistan do not improve, the numbers could get much higher, reaching 1,000–1,200 refugees each day. “Should the Taliban expand its advances in the country this number can reach more than 2,000 on daily basis in August and September,” said one Afghan scholar, who spoke to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity for security reasons.

This photograph is from the province of Şereflikoçhisar in Ankara. Some 100 Afghans entering Turkey illegally have almost reached the capital. Afghans who are dropped off by the side of the road continue to wait in the area.

Almost all of the Afghan refugees crossing into Turkey are male and undocumented, risking their lives while embarking on a perilous journey from Afghanistan to Turkey. Some make it through, others don't. Last year, a group of migrants drowned in lake Van and earlier this month, at least 12 Afghan, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi nationals died when their vehicle crashed. 

In 2016, Turkey signed a refugee deal with the EU, agreeing to stop the refugees from entering Europe in exchange for 6 billion Euros (7 billion US dollars). With renewed tensions in Afghanistan, fleeing Afghan refugees may be facing a similar path. 

In addition to Turkey, Pakistan and Iran each have significant numbers of Afghan refugees. But recently the governments of both countries decided to stop allowing refugees to enter. In July 2021, Pakistan’s government declared they have reached “their limit” and won’t be accepting any more Afghan refugees. In Iran, a controversial draft law proposed in November 2020 threatened undocumented Afghan migrants with 25 years in prison and a hefty fine. It also would allow the police to freely shoot at undocumented migrants and vehicles suspected of transporting them. In Turkey, undocumented migrants typically face deportation. Official statistics indicate more than 25,000 irregular immigrants of Afghan origin were deported in the first half of 2021.

Lack of clear policies

For now, many officials have focused on downplaying the influx. The Minister of Interior, Süleyman Soylu, tweeted that “Turkey’s greatest strength lies in its ability to handle illegal immigration,” but he didn’t mention Afghan refugees explicitly.

Turkey's greatest strength lies in its handling of illegal migration. Turkey is controlling the migration in spite of what happens nearby; and is doing what is worthy of our mighty nation. We won't allow any hostility.

Ismail Catakli, the spokesperson for the Ministry of the Interior, claimed videos depicting a refugee influx were misleading.

Tens of thousands of Afghan refugees are leaving Afghanistan as Taliban makes advances in the country. Refugee convoys, who set out from their country, are entering Turkey in groups via Iran.

The government has dispatched special operation battalions to three of Turkey's southeastern provinces bordering Iran including Van, Iğdır, and Ağrı. Additional measures include an increased number of patrols and checkpoints at key crossing points. Those who are caught illegally crossing are being deported back to Iran.

Despite assurances, reports of illegal border crossings have sparked criticism of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for their inability to stop the incoming migrants. Some, like the leader of the opposition Republican People's Party, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, are using a strong anti-immigrant policy approach to gain political points for the 2023 election.

If we become the government in power, we will say our farewells to our Syrian guests. This is one of our five goals. We have our plans and programmes ready. I wanted this video to be here as a proof.

Meanwhile, President Erdoğan has been talking with President Biden since June about Turkey's plans to take over Kabul's international airport, after US troops withdraw from Afghanistan. President Erdoğan reiterated Turkey's readiness to continue its presence in Kabul, while speaking to journalists from Northern Cyprus on July 20, dismissing the Taliban's opposition to the plan.

Turkey has been providing security at the Kabul airport since 2015 and currently has 500 troops deployed in non-combat missions in Afghanistan as part of NATO efforts. But the Taliban made it clear that it would regard any foreign troops as invaders come September. “Turkey is like a brother: we have a long history. Unfortunately, Turkey's actions in the last 20 years do not fit with our views, because they are situated in Afghanistan as a NATO member. Having foreign powers in Afghanistan is not desirable, because it means they might interfere with Afghanistan's domestic policy,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mücahid.

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