VAN, Turkey -- A tipoff from Afghan army acquaintances prompted Ahmad* and his wife Fatima* to flee the capital Kabul hours before it fell to the Taliban. It marked the start of a perilous journey of more than 4,000 kms with their young daughter -- and a destination, the eastern Turkish city of Van, that is hardly the sanctuary they hoped.
The family does not regret their decision to leave Afghanistan. They say they had to go because of military connections that make them Taliban targets. But now they face a different set of hardships, in a country where government and public opinion has been turning against refugees after years of hosting millions of them.
"We were right to escape Afghanistan -- we know that we are now on a death-list now due to my family's military past," Fatima said, showing a photo of her late father in an army officer's uniform. "If our lives were not in danger, we would not have escaped Afghanistan after seeing all the hardships through our journey, including our current hide-away in Van, where authorities are searching irregular migrants like us for deportation."
The family's troubles are a sign of the growing regional shockwaves triggered by the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban rule of the country. They are also part of a wider story of how the plight of refugees globally is getting worse. Global forced displacement, including internal displacement, rose 4% in 2020 -- despite the pandemic -- from the previous year, reaching 82.4 million, according to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR,
But even as refugee numbers grow because of conflict, poverty and global heating, the places where they can expect a compassionate welcome are dwindling.
"COVID-19 and an economic slump with increasing unemployment is making the reception of refugees even harder, and now the issue is the achilles heel of the Turkish government ahead of 2023 elections," Metin Corabatir, president of The Research Centre on Asylum and Migration, told Nikkei Asia.
"We cannot say it has reached the level of xenophobia, but anti refugee sentiment [in Turkey] is now at the highest level seen so far,"Corabatir said. "Refugees became scapegoats as they are used to attack the government for mostly political reasons. They are adding fire to the flames for political reasons."
Afghans are already the world's third largest refugee source country, after Syria and Venezuela, according to the UNHCR. About 2.6 million Afghans are displaced abroad, with 2.2 million registered in neighboring Iran and Pakistan alone. It is a decades old problem: some fled as early as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
In addition, more than 3.5 million Afghans are estimated to be internally displaced. More than half a million of those were forced from their homes this year, in the run-up to the exit of U.S.-led international forces and the Taliban's takeover of Kabul in August.
For Fatima, this is her second unwelcome refugee experience. She fled to Pakistan for five years when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. She said members of the Islamist militant group were trying to force her into a marriage with one of their fighters.
This time, she and Ahmad paid $1,000 per person to smugglers in Kabul to take them across Turkey's frontier, stopping at several "safe-houses" on the way. Iran has stepped up security measures at its border with Afghanistan's Nimroz province, so the family went through Pakistan instead. They found their way by car and bus from the southern Iranian city of Shiraz to Tehran and finally to Maku close to Turkey.
Ahmad says they saw thousands of other migrants in Maku preparing to enter Turkey. A group including his family were taken to a place close to the frontier where smugglers initially told them it would take only half an hour to walk across. It turned out to be a tough 12-hour trek, during which Ahmad had at times to carry his 7-year-old daughter on his back. They finally crossed at a place the border wall had not reached yet, using climbing ropes to scramble in and out of a deep ditch.
The expanding frontier defenses are a sign of Turkey's hardening stance to refugees, including those from other Muslim-majority countries. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says his country is the world's largest refugee hosting nation, having taken in more than 4 million people. Most of those are Syrians, fleeing a civil war that has lasted more than ten years. Erdogan says there are already 300,000 Afghans in Turkey -- and the country won't take any more who come by irregular means.
A lot has changed in Turkey since the first wave of Syrian refugees arrived a decade ago. While many Turkish people welcomed them at first as temporary guests, frustration has grown as it has become clear they won't be returning to their war-wrecked country anytime soon. Turks have also suffered hard economic times because of the meltdown of the lira, inflation of almost 20% and soaring unemployment caused by the pandemic. More than three quarters of the public opposes the admission of Afghan refugees in Turkey "under any circumstances," according to local pollster Istanbul Economy Research in September.
Opposition parties sense government vulnerability and have pledged to return refugees home should they came to power. In August, an ultra-nationalist MP, Umit Ozdag, established the Victory Party, which has vowed to send back both Syrians and Afghans. "Syrians and Afghans...We have no bad feelings about you. However, we do not want to share our homeland with you," he said in August. "Please return to your homes as friends of Turkish nation and build back your home country."
The opposition claims of the number of refugees are higher than the announced figures, and Ozdag has claimed without evidence that the real number is double what the government is reporting. He has made unsupported allegations that Afghan and Syrian mafia groups are poisoning Turkish youth with drugs and driving rents and food prices up. He went to Van in mid-September and flourished a placard reading "Border is honor."
Public attention on Van has grown since the start of the summer. Turkish media and some social media accounts started to report on groups of predominantly Afghan men journeying through remote valleys and main roads, and hiding in makeshift shelters. The coverage stoked public anger and prompted a law enforcement crackdown on irregular migrants in Van. Both the interior and defense ministers recently visited the border to highlight security measures taken to stop migrants.
The governor of Van, Mehmet Emin Bilmez, has proclaimed the growing barriers to irregular arrivals in Turkey. At the beginning of September, security officials showed a group of visiting foreign journalists, including Nikkei Asia, the range of measures in place. These included a 3m-high modular concrete wall, watch towers with thermal cameras and sensors, razor wires and ditches. Additional troops on the border were further reinforced by a second line of defense comprising gendarmerie check points and patrols. Coastguard patrols were started in August at the lake of Van, where more than 60 migrants died when their boat sank last year. The coast guard caught 60 Afghan irregular migrants on Sept. 21 at the lake on a dinghy boat.
"By taking such tough measures at the border, our aim is to discourage migrants not to head here," Governor Bilmez said.
Turkey and Iran share a border of more than 500kms. Van has jurisdiction over 295 km of this and wants to seal the entire length with a concrete wall, Bilmez said. He said 64 km of wall is expected to be built this year, with a further 100 km next year.
The wall building site in the area of Soguksu shows the complexity of tackling irregular migration. Security officials accompanying reporters into the high hills overlooking Iran insisted their heavy weaponry and equipment are not for tackling unarmed migrants. They were prepared instead for the threat of Kurdish separatist militants -- three of whom died in an incident at Soguksu in August. Officials say they fear terrorists including Islamic State (ISIS) or Al Qaeda could infiltrate Turkey, posing as irregular migrants.
Bilmez said authorities had this year caught more than 10,000 irregular migrants in Van alone and stopped 80,000 irregular entries of the country. About 40,000 Afghans have been detained inside Turkey this year so far, according to the Turkish government.
Bilmez said authorities in Van caught more than 1,000 migrant smugglers this year alone. While most were Turks, some were Iranians and Afghans. Authorities had also detected and destroyed more than 110 so-called "shock-houses," where smugglers hid migrants until they had the chance to take them to Western Turkey -- or even Europe.
Captured smugglers in Van said they were offering migrants three attempts to enter Turkey for the price of one, Bilmez said, explaining that if they are caught and sent back to Iran, their smuggler will help them enter Turkey from another location.
"There has been smuggling here throughout history but unfortunately, in recent times, we see smugglers are now more inclined to human trafficking as it does not necessitate any capital "investment" by them," the governor said. "This is unlike the alcohol, gun, drug smuggling they had been doing -- as those "investments" would be seized if we caught them."
Ahmad and his family paid an additional $400 per person to be smuggled from Van to Istanbul. While they waited, they paid 50 Turkish lira (Around $6) per head per night for two weeks in safe-houses. In one place, they hid with almost 70 other people in a property of only around 60 square meters.
Their plans were thwarted when police raided two safe houses run by their Afghan smuggler, who was from the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. The man fled back to Afghanistan. The family say they were then tricked by another smuggler who promised to take them to a new hide-away, but left them in a park instead. Another migrant already settled in Van found them and gave them shelter out of pity.
Ahmad and his family are still relatively fortunate. Many migrants perish during the harsh journey from the country. More than 100 are buried under tombstones, in a corner of the Seyrantepe cemetery, allocated as a burial ground for the unidentified. Governor Bilmez said most of the migrant deaths are due to freezing, drowning in Van lake or traffic accidents.
The headstones often contain only the scantest personal information. This is because migrants often destroy any identification before the start of their journeys, so they won't be sent home again if caught. Some grave markers note countries of origin, such as Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan. Others simply have first names, such as "Zeynab" or "Sadigheh", or a possible place of origin like "Kunduz", an Afghan city. Most just carry numbers.
Muslum Timucin, a builder who lives close to the cemetery, said most of the unidentified graves have appeared in the last two or three years. Timucin says he barely makes a living on construction site jobs for a daily fee for 70-100 lira. Afghans will work for less than half that, he added.
"Whom would you pick if you are an employer?" he asked rhetorically. "Afghans are dignified, hardworking people. They are our brothers and we are very sorry for them. But we are not even capable of feeding our own citizens -- how can we feed them as well? It is time for Afghans and Syrians to return to their homes. We have done enough for them."
New irregular migrant arrivals have flowed steadily to Van since the Taliban takeover, even as authorities argue Afghan refugee flow is decreasing compared to the previous two years. At the repatriation center in the city one September morning, a group of 26 had been brought in earlier that day. The number brought in for repatriation had increased by around 50% in the past two months, due to stepped up security measures, according to an official requesting anonymity.
Turkey stopped repatriating migrants after the Taliban takeover. Their interim government has not yet been recognized by international community and no airline has restarted scheduled flights to the country. According to AFP, Pakistan International Airlines, Iran's Mahan Air and Afghanistan's Kam Air have run a limited number of special flights.
The Taliban's spokesman for the ministry of foreign affairs, Abdul Qahar Balkhi tweeted on Sept. 26 that problems at Kabul International Airport "have been resolved and the airport is fully operational for domestic and international flights, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan assures all airlines of its full cooperation and expects all airlines and countries" to resume their flights as before.
Qatar, Turkey and United Arab Emirates have provided technical help for restoring services at the airport.
One of the migrants at the repatriation center was Seyd Ahmad, a young Afghan from Kandahar. He worked as a cleaner at a state-run facility and was caught by Turkish law enforcement after a 1.5-monthlong journey via Pakistan and Iran.
He left before the fall of Kabul because the security situation was deteriorating as Taliban forces battled the government around Kandahar. He says his cousins were killed during clashes with the Taliban and he was also threatened. He paid $1,500 to smugglers to reach Turkey and wants to go to France, which he sees as more receptive to refugees.
Another young Afghan from Kandahar, Nezir, said he was beaten by smugglers to extract more money from him. If he were to be repatriated, he said he would try to take the same journey again with the hope of eventually reaching Canada.
Many irregular migrants are escaping poverty rather than imminent threats to their lives, Turkish officials say. They insist they will honor international agreements and allow those in immediate physical danger, or with strong cases for family reunion, to stay. One such possible case in Van is a 75-year-old Afghan woman who claimed she was smuggled in to be reunited with her three daughters and one son already living in Turkey. She said her other son in Iran could not look after her any more.
Refugees like Ahmad hide in the shadows, hoping not to get caught.
All he wants now is to discreetly find a job in Van to look after his family. But employers generally don't want the hassle of dealing with the bureaucracy around work permit applications for refugees, says Mahmut Kacan, a member of the Van Bar Association. This means many Afghans don't register with authorities and instead settle for doing difficult jobs that Turks don't want.
Ayhan Isik, chairman of the Van Businessmen's Association, told Nikkei Asia that many Afghans work secretly in Van. Unregistered, they are typically paid around 1,000 lira per month, less than one-third of the official minimum wage in Turkey, hence employers also don't pay for their social security premiums.
It is a far cry from the picture painted by the smugglers. Ahmad says many of them are now distributing business cards around Kabul and even uploading Facebook and Instagram advertorial videos. They depict "satisfied customers" who describe "pleasant journeys." These fake testimonials say that travel was easy and safe, with comfortable lodging and transportation.
Ahmad says the family could stay in Turkey if they have no other choice. But they would rather travel on to Europe for a better future for their daughter, who wants to become a doctor. He insists he would only do this via legitimate route, given what they have suffered so far.
Both he and Fatima are sure of one thing: they cannot go back to Afghanistan. They, like many others, do not trust the Taliban's proclaimed amnesty and promises of change. The memories of the harsh repression of the Islamist movement's first spell in power are too raw.
"They promised the exact same things 25 years ago and did not deliver," says Fatima. "I will never believe in their words,"
Additional reporting by Tala Taslimi in Tehran
* Names of Afghan family members have been changed for their protection.