As America Shuts Its Doors, Afghan Refugees Are Stuck in Turkey
The Trump administration has made it nearly impossible for Afghans who aided U.S. troops to claim asylum in the United States. Instead, thousands who aided Americans on the battlefield are stranded in a country that doesn't want them.
VAN, Turkey—It’s been two years since Qadir fled Kabul, but the fear that someone will kill him for having worked with U.S. troops still haunts him in the Turkish city where his family has been allowed to stay and wait in hopes of reaching the United States. He doesn’t take the same way home from the odd jobs he can find and hasn’t called his relatives in Afghanistan since leaving. “I am afraid someone there will get my phone number in Turkey. Even my mother doesn’t know if I am alive or dead,” Qadir said.
Slim and clean-shaven, Qadir—a pseudonym, given his concerns for his safety—cradles his right arm as he talks, switching between English, Urdu, and Dari. In his back are metal plates, a reminder of a bombing he survived at Camp Eggers nine years ago, when it served as the headquarters for U.S. forces in Kabul. He can’t lift his arm above his shoulders.
He sits on a raggedy carpet in the city of Van near the Iranian border, offering a plate of Kabuli pulao—fragrant rice and meat with raisons and carrots—cooked by his wife. The city is home to thousands of Afghan families, some new arrivals like Qadir, others who have been waiting for up to a decade to find a permanent place to live. The official number of Afghans waiting for resettlement has hovered at around 170,000 for years, while nearly half a million other Afghans who entered the country illegally, authorities say, were detained between 2015 and 2019.
The ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, now entering its fifth decade, is one of the world’s longest, and it shows no sign of ending soon. More than 2,563 civilians, including 892 women and children, were killed between January and September 2019 in Afghanistan, according to the United Nations, continuing the previous year’s trend of violence. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans flee the country each year, hoping to build stable lives in Europe and other Western countries.
For most of them, including Qadir, the relative stability of Turkey is the first resting point in a long journey they hope will lead to a new life in Europe or the United States. But finding a country to build a new life in is nearly impossible. Neither the bloodletting in Afghanistan nor the droves of refugees showing up on Western doorsteps have prompted sympathy from the world’s wealthiest nations. Afghanistan is a conflict the West would rather forget.
Even those who worked with the U.S. Army like Qadir have a slim chance of settling down in a safe country. The extreme vetting of immigrants now enforced by the Trump administration—which has capped annual asylum visas at just 18,000—means it takes several years for people like Qadir to benefit from a special visa program for Afghans who worked alongside U.S. troops.
Turkey does not grant asylum to Afghans, only temporary protection, just as it does for Syrians, Iraqis, and others who make up the country’s refugee population of nearly 4 million. Afghans are expected to register with Turkey’s immigration authorities, which have been delegated the task of sifting through applications for resettlement in a third country by the United Nations. But the Turkish public is increasingly hostile toward the refugees, and Afghans have turned out to be the most politically expedient demographic that authorities can target for deportation.
Turks themselves are largely unaware of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. Turkish authorities, meanwhile, have cited a precedent set by Europe, which in 2016 said Afghan asylum-seekers would need to prove personal danger to avoid deportation to the country, reversing decades of policy that granted blanket protection to Afghans on account of the ongoing war there.
Turkey detained 201,000 Afghans living illegally in the country in 2019—twice the number in 2018 and four times the number in 2017. Hundreds are detained in the country each day and then put on flights back to Kabul. Many of those being deported are never given a chance to even make a case for temporary protection, and the lucky few who do manage to register, like Qadir, will languish as they wait for the distant possibility of a Western country ready to take them in. Under the temporary protection status granted to Qadir by Turkey, he and other Afghans cannot leave the city they are registered in nor can they legally work.
Along with death and destruction, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan also brought opportunity for Afghans like Qadir. When the United States invaded in 2001, he lived, like millions of others, as a refugee in Pakistan. In Peshawar, he ran a jewelry business, cutting and polishing precious stones like the famed blue lapis. He became friends with the staff at the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar and was granted permission to sell his wares on military bases in Kabul.
It was too dangerous to bring the documents with him when he fled Kabul, but Qadir has copies of some them on his phone. There is a business visa to the United States, from his days as a leader in a merchant’s association in Kabul. There are security badges collected over the last decade from his time working on U.S. bases in Kabul. There is a photo of him with an American officer, a colonel whom Qadir taught to speak Dari. He wonders if the colonel remembers him.
“We were not poor or anything in Kabul,” Qadir said of his family. “We had a good business, and I only left because I thought my life was in danger. Anyone who works with foreigners, especially Americans, the Taliban and ISIS do not leave you alive. They keep asking why you are working with them.”
After several years of going back and forth, by 2008 he had decided to move his family to Kabul. “It was not a good situation in Afghanistan at the time. There were bomb blasts happening all over,” he said. “But I had this [International Security Assistance Force] card, and I could sell inside the U.S. bases, so my business was doing well.”
His presence on the bases brought new opportunities, too, as Washington attempted to turn the tide in the war, deploying 30,000 additional troops to the country by 2010. Along with the surge in personnel, Gen. Stanley McChrystal pushed for a deeper integration between U.S. officers and Afghan officials, training hundreds of soldiers who were called “Afghan Hands.” The goal, said Col. Steven Heffington, one of the first batch of Americans to take part, was to “create people who were better at understanding Afghanistan and had some language capacity and training on culture and history.”
Around two dozen interpreters, including Qadir, were involved in teaching him and the other Afghan Hands to speak Dari.
The Afghan Hands program went on to train around 1,000 officers but was largely unsuccessful at turning the tide of the war and is scheduled to be completely wrapped up this year. The U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan fell over the years, but for Afghans like Qadir, being able to do business on U.S. bases was still a lucrative opportunity, albeit a deadly one. Each day he showed his coveted security badge to enter the base in Kabul, bringing along jewelry he would sell from a stand near the entrance.
At one point, a suicide bomber struck Camp Eggers, a blast that killed dozens of people and left Qadir with shrapnel in his body and one arm that no longer worked. In 2015, he left for Pakistan for a few months after the Taliban began calling and threatening to kill him.
The final straw came in 2018, he said. He was picking up his wares as the camp was shutting down for the day when he noticed two men outside waiting for him. “Everyone wears a shawl in Afghanistan in the cold, but these men, I could clearly see the shape of a Kalashnikov under theirs. My only thought was to get away from them. I left everything there, maybe $6,000 in stones, and I ran, my shoes came off, and I kept running through the streets for hours,” he said.
He took his family first to the western Afghan city of Herat, hoping as in the past that the danger would pass, but it did not. In Kabul, someone burned down his house. His relatives there told him they received threats, including phone calls and hand-delivered letters telling them the Taliban were looking for Qadir and that they wanted to kill him.
Believing that his presence in the country was putting his whole family at risk, Qadir took his wife and six daughters and left for Turkey, following a well-worn route through Iran for Afghans looking to build a new life.
As the snows begin to melt each spring in the mountains along the Turkey-Iran border, local shepherds are greeted by a familiar sight: the bodies of migrants who had frozen to death trying to reach Europe.
In the border district of Baskale, 25 migrants’ corpses were found in the space of a month last spring. Some were missing body parts—their hands, legs, or faces gnawed off by wild animals. One had been shot.
Few carried any documents that could identify them, but local officials say the bulk of those crossing the border are Afghans. Authorities conduct an autopsy, collect a DNA sample in case they need to match it in the future, and then bury the dead in paupers’ cemeteries strung along the border.
At one cemetery just outside Van, nearly 100 are buried, with freshly dug graves ready to receive more. Most tombstones only have a number on them, the sequence the body was found in. Scores are marked “Kunduz”—the best guess by Turkish authorities about where they might have come from, based on information from other migrants who survived the trip.
Surrounded by blast walls, and under the shadow of a freshly constructed concrete watch tower, a Turkish military base overlooking the no man’s land between Turkey and Iran stands guard for new arrivals. Visitors to the base are stopped by soldiers who come barreling down the hillside.
“Our job is to fight against terrorist groups here, but lately we keep seeing refugees coming through here, and we end up detaining them as well,” said a soldier clambering out of an armored car to block the path to the base entrance. “We don’t know why they are coming, fleeing a war or whatever, but for us our job is to stop the flow because we don’t know who they are. Maybe they are terrorists, maybe they are wanted criminals in their own countries.”
The soldiers stationed here were initially meant to check the movement of Kurdish fighters across the border, but today they are the front line in the Western effort to keep refugees from Afghanistan out.
Alarmed by the influx of nearly a million migrants and asylum-seekers, in 2016 the European Union made an agreement with Turkey: In exchange for visa-free travel for Turks to Europe and 6 billion euros, Ankara would put an end to the westward flow. The deal has largely worked to stem the flow into Europe from Turkey: In 2019, only 82,564 people illegally crossed the Eastern Mediterranean into Europe. The largest group among them was Afghans, 28,565 of whom European authorities detained last year.
The deal coincided with the declaration by European governments that Afghanistan was now a so-called safe country to which asylum-seekers could be legally returned. Afghans who now seek asylum in Europe must prove individual danger and cannot claim a general threat to their lives simply because they are Afghan.
In 2018, Ankara and Kabul reached an agreement to expedite the return of Afghans as well. “Our brothers who have come to Turkey through legal ways are more than welcome here,” then-Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah on a visit to Kabul that April. “But those who come via illegal ways are causing trouble.”
Entering Turkey legally for Afghans is a formidable task though, one that includes providing proof of income and proper documents. In 2018, only about 39,000 Afghans were residing in the country with proper residence permits, according to Turkish immigration authorities, while some 100,000 were detained for illegally entering Turkey that year, a figure that went up to more than 200,000 in 2019.
Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regularly threatens to unleash a wave of migrants on Europe if more of the promised 6 billion euros—only half of which has been transferred, according to Ankara—is not turned over. Part of the money goes to the Turkish Red Crescent, which distributes it as cash to refugee families who are properly registered in Turkey: around $20 a month for each child.
Hundreds of millions of euros, meanwhile, are spent on border security. Along the Syrian border, Turkey has built a 566-mile-long, 10-foot wall to keep Syrians out. Turkey has already begun work to build a similar wall along parts of the Iranian border, and in the meantime it has stepped up the presence of soldiers in the region to stop the migrants.
At least 80 million euros ($88 million) was spent on armored vehicles: locally made armored trucks with machine guns mounted on top—the same vehicle the soldiers at the base at the Iranian border use. In November, the EU said it was earmarking an additional 50 million euros ($55 million) for the Turkish coast guard and facilities inside the country to deal with the migrants.
Those facilities are meant to process asylum-seekers. Officially, the 28 centers across Turkey can hold a total of 20,000 migrants—a fraction of the 454,662 authorities say they detained in 2019. Tens of thousands of Afghans are thought to be kept in makeshift, unlisted locations: military bases along the Iranian border, hastily built camps surrounded by barbed wire in thick forests along the border with Greece, even a stadium in the eastern city of Erzurum.
In Van, for instance, two facilities were built with EU funding, one meant to house asylum-seekers waiting for a decision and the other to house individuals waiting to be deported. But both now function as deportation centers, said Mahmut Kacan, a human rights lawyer in Van who handles cases on behalf of Afghan families searching for relatives in Turkey.
Afghans being kept in the detention centers, he said, are forced to sign documents saying they are voluntarily returning to their country. “They don’t understand what they are signing,” he said. “If you go to the deportation centers, you see posters making propaganda for voluntary return, encouraging them to fly back to their country, but there are no posters telling them what their rights are, nothing telling them they can apply for asylum and how to do so.” The facilities are run by Turkey but financed by the EU.
In September 2018, the U.N. handed over its authority to register resettlement applications to Turkish immigration authorities, which, human rights groups say, have instituted an illegal practice of not accepting new applications from Afghans. Qadir, for instance, said he took his family to register for resettlement in Van soon after he arrived. “They interviewed each one of us, and I showed them all these documents. I told them how we are in danger in Afghanistan,” he said. “But it’s been two years now, and every time I go back, they tell me they are not taking Afghans now, to just wait.”
The sheer scale of the detentions and deportations, Kacan said, is proof that Afghans are not being given a chance to make their case, neither for staying in Turkey nor for applying to be resettled elsewhere.
“Afghan refugees and asylum-seekers are living in limbo in Turkey,” Kacan said. “They cannot go forward, and they cannot go back home.”
European money is not the only factor driving the dismal situation for Afghans in Turkey. The United States was the principle place Afghan asylum-seekers could be resettled from countries like Turkey, at least until a few years ago, when Washington began enforcing strict vetting of asylum applications. In 2018, only 170 Afghans in Turkey were granted resettlement in a third country, 117 of them to the United States, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Afghans who worked with U.S. forces like Qadir can apply for a special visa meant to help them relocate to the United States. But that process takes an average of two and a half years, said Jason S. Gorey of No One Left Behind, an organization started by veterans to help Afghans and Iraqis who worked with U.S. forces bring their families to the United States. “There have been numerous issues that have hit the program. The most recent has been the Trump administration’s implementation of extreme vetting.”
The program was set to be eliminated altogether last year, if it hadn’t been for lobbying by Gorey and others in Congress, which set aside around 4,000 slots for applications for the upcoming year. With a general ban on Iraqi immigration in place, Gorey said almost all of those will be open to Afghans like Qadir.
But the processing for the program has hit a massive backlog, with more than 20,000 applications from Afghanistan now in the pipeline. “We strongly believe the U.S. government must take on the responsibility and make sure our allies are brought to protection, from both a moral and American national security standpoint, because we are going to be judged on how we treat our current wartime allies by future wartime allies,” Gorey said.
Of the applicants he helps, Gorey said, almost every person has “taken on an arduous journey across many countries, along with other Afghans seeking refugee status in European countries.” Reaching a country like Turkey no longer guarantees safety for Afghans, Gorey argued, even if they manage to apply for the U.S. visa program, and many are deported back to Afghanistan. Others have died in Iraq and Afghanistan while waiting to be brought to the United States.
There are few options left for Qadir. Under Turkish law, he is not allowed to leave the provincial backwater of Van and is technically not even allowed to work, leaving him to take odd jobs to feed his family. Lately, he has been washing dishes at a local restaurant, but his bad arm makes that a difficult job as well.
When he left Kabul, Qadir entrusted a stack of documents, many of which he would need to apply for the special visa to the United States, to a friend. In September 2019, he said, that friend was killed, along with 19 other civilians, by a Taliban bombing at their residential compound in Kabul.