Written by: Stephen Starr
The Turkish government has spent more than US$3 billion (Dh11bn) over the past three years in support of the 1.7 million Syrians fleeing the conflict on its border. About 220,000 are living in 23 government-run camps and in late December, Turkish authorities confirmed that the growing diaspora would be given national identity cards and those living in cities would be given access to basic healthcare and education services.
But as the Syrian crisis escalates, there are about 40,000 Afghan refugees and asylum seekers living in Turkey’s cities who have been forgotten by the authorities and aid community, ancillary victims of the latest regional war. There are no camps for them and, unlike Syrians, those who are unregistered run the risk of being deported. And while Syrians are able to quit the country and return, Afghans are not allowed to leave their designated cities without permission from local authorities.
Since the 1990s, Afghans in Turkey applying for third-country asylum, mostly for Europe, North America and Australia, did so through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Ankara, Turkey’s capital. The application process was stringent: once an application was made they couldn’t work nor, crucially, apply for asylum elsewhere. All hope fell on a single plan.
Difficult as that was, the killer blow came in June 2013 when the UNHCR announced it would stop accepting new asylum applications and freeze those already being processed because of the growing backlog. After consulting with the Turkish authorities and UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, UNHCR Ankara felt that the recent rapid increase in the number of asylum applications led to “waiting periods for registration and for refugee status determination that are unbearable for the asylum seekers”.
The impasse has left tens of thousands of Afghans with an equally unbearable choice: continue to live and work illegally in Turkey or return to Afghanistan where war still rages. One of the people facing an impossible future is Sohra Jafferi, whose husband died three years ago in Iran. A Turkish aid agency comes to her shared apartment in Kayseri, central Turkey, once a month with food and rent money. A sympathetic local pharmacist gives her free medication for her 10-year-old son who suffers from epilepsy. He makes paper airplanes on the floor while she fights back tears.
“For two-and-a-half years I’ve been waiting for the UN. They just said wait for the call,” she says. The 48-year-old produces an application for asylum with headed UNHCR paper dated December 18, 2012. The phone never rings, she says.
Jafferi’s and other stories have led to rising anger among the Afghan community in Turkey. Last May, dozens of people sewed their lips together at a demonstration outside the UNHCR headquarters in Ankara in protest at the long waiting times.
Metin Corabatir, who resigned as the spokesman for the UNHCR after 18 years in 2013, says only the most vulnerable – minors unaccompanied by parents or guardians, or single-parent families – could expect to be offered help. “There is no support system for the others,” he says.
The UNHCR estimates that 10,000 Afghans will arrive in Turkey seeking asylum this year. The government says it is responding to the surge in arrivals of non-Syrian refugees by building seven reception centres (financed by €90 million [Dh375m] from the European Union). However, not one is ready 13 months after the planned opening date.
Though the majority live in Turkish cities, Syrians have been assisted by the building of 23 camps in Turkey, the latest opening two weeks ago to house 35,000 people fleeing Kobani. Some of the Afghans I interviewed said Turkey’s major aid agencies have stopped helping them because of the demand for help with Syrians.
A UNHCR spokeswoman in Ankara says: “UNHCR identifies the most vulnerable refugees in need of resettlement, but it is the receiving states that offer permanent places of residence in their countries and which determine who and how many they will accept every year.”
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