The image of a family stranded at Istanbul airport last week brought home the building crisis of Afghan refugees. The family of 16 found itself trapped in the transit zone of the airport after its members failed to produce visas for Turkey or to an onward destination. But they also refused to return to Afghanistan, where a surging Taliban has swiftly taken over vast swathes of the country after the rapid withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces.
Their predicament is only tiniest tip of a massive iceberg on a collision course with Turkey and the EU. Afghans are fleeing their nation in massive numbers. It is reported that as many as 1,000 a day are now crossing into Turkey. The situation echoes what happened in 2015, when millions of refugees, mostly fleeing the Syrian civil war, fled to Turkey with hopes of reaching Europe. Since then, the world has failed to prepare for the next wave of asylum seekers, which experts warned would be coming. And again, it is less well endowed nations like Turkey which are left to shoulder the burden.
Adnan R. Khan: Why is Turkey such an attractive destination for migrants?
Ilter Turan: There are several reasons. Firstly, the smuggling routes from Asia via Turkey to Europe are well-established. Refugees from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan have been using this route for a very long time. People can easily go to established smugglers, pay them, and be reasonably assured that they will be able, at some point, to enter Turkey.
That also means that when they arrive here, they already have a support network in place that can help them find jobs or provide temporary shelter. In addition, Turkey is the staging ground for subsequent smuggling trips further west, so there is also an established smuggling network here that work to transport refugees to their final destinations in Europe.
This is one aspect of it. Then there is the humanitarian side. Despite its shortcomings on many fronts, Turkey seems to treat refugees in as humanitarian a way as possible. This means that going to Turkey is a reasonably safe bet from the perspective of refugees.
Adnan R. Khan: What are the consequences for Turkey?
Ilter Turan: The numbers have been going up, and when numbers go up, a country’s ability to cope with the challenge is reduced. Over time, anti-immigrant sentiments with unpleasant political manifestations are likely to develop, even in Turkey. The increasing number of immigrants has already had destabilizing consequences for Turkish society. So, the question is: As Turkey becomes more destabilized and even less able to implement a working immigration policy, is this to the advantage of neighboring countries where most refugees in Turkey would like to move?
Adnan R. Khan: Under the UN Refugee convention, Turkey is subject to the geographical limitation clause which stipulates that it is only required to accept asylum seekers from Europe. Refugees coming from Asia, like Afghans, receive temporary protection but ultimately need to be resettled elsewhere, often in EU countries. What is the EU doing to manage the migration crisis and reduce Turkey’s burden?
Ilter Turan: If we look back to what happened in 2015, apart from Germany and Sweden, European nations do not really want to take in refugees. Some EU member governments like those in Eastern Europe want almost none, others display considerable reluctance. This has created tensions within the EU, as was the case with migrants from Libya coming to Italy. Neighboring countries entertained closing their borders to Italy, undermining the open border policy within the EU.
What we see is an increasing unwillingness on the part of the EU to accept immigrants. In fact, looking back to 2015, one could say, without too much exaggeration, that the EU has done almost nothing. Some funds have been promised, some agreements about exchanging illegal migrants with legitimate asylum seekers, but the system is not working. Refugees are still trying to leave Turkey illegally and they are receiving exceptionally inhuman treatment at the hands of officers from the EU’s Frontex border control authority. The irony is that in the EU, we have presumably a large international actor characterized by material prosperity and in need of immigrants to meet labor shortages, a self-declared defender of humanitarian values that has chosen to ignore this massive refugee problem.
Adnan R. Khan: Considering how critical this issue has become, with another wave of migrants expected from Afghanistan, and many more in the future as climate change takes its toll, why do you think Europe continues to ignore it?
Ilter Turan: I think there are exaggerated fears that some mythical “way of life” is being threatened. There is also a growing but unrealistic perception of a highly homogeneous national way of life, a perception that has never really been true in a collection of diverse countries like the EU, to which the immigrant is a threat. And if the immigrant is of a different skin color or religion, it is even more of a threat.
Adnan R. Khan: What you’re describing here are basically far-right views.
Ilter Turan: I am not sure that they are any longer far-right views. They have come to prevail widely among European publics. And given these views, it seems unlikely that Turkey will be able to count on the EU as a partner in solving the looming migrant crisis from Afghanistan.