Afghan refugees in Turkey have entered their seventh week of protests, demanding equal and fair treatment in their application procedure, as they struggle to make their voices heard amid indifference and growing pressure from authorities.
Some 100 Afghans – half of them women and children – are camping day and night in front of the headquarters of the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) in Ankara, braving threats from the police, including six refugees who have been engaged in a hunger strike for one week, sewing their mouths and refusing water, as well as food.
One of the Afghan protesters, Farzad Shafahi, said U.N. officials have suspended all their asylum applications on the grounds that third-countries did not want to accept refugees from Afghanistan.
“They told us that even if we die, nothing is going to change. And they would particularly not do anything as long as we continue our hunger strike; that it will be allowing a gap of authority and everybody would start to do the same. So we asked, ‘If we leave tonight, would you answer our plea?’ They didn’t respond,” Shafahi told Hürriyet Daily News.
Shafahi, 24, has been waiting for over two years for an answer to his application, but says there are Afghan refugees who have waited for five and even eight years – while the procedure only takes an average of a year for other asylum-seekers.
“The last time I called, the person asked if I was an Afghan, then said ‘your applications have been suspended’ and hung up,” Shafahi said.
“They say the host countries’ quotas are full and they don’t want Afghans, preferring refugees from other countries. One official even said there has been a refugee inflow from Afghanistan for 40 years, while Syrians were now ‘more attractive.’ We told them that we knew all that, and we were precisely here to change it,” said Shafahi, adding that in the three meetings they held, U.N. officials did not even admit them inside the main building. He also explained that host countries were shifting responsibility to the UNHCR.
“We wrote to some of those countries. They told us that they were not committing discrimination, but the UNHCR was not sending the Afghans’ applications,” he said.
Shafahi also denounced the attitudes of the UNHCR officials who told police to prevent them from camping in front of the building, did not call ambulances when hunger strikers fainted and even suggested them to take illegal roads to reach Europe.
Video: Afghan refugees on hunger strike with mouths sewn, at U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) in Ankara. via Seyr-i Sokak Facebook Page
Risk of deportation
Around 30,000 Afghan asylum-seekers are granted a temporary protection status in Turkey during the review of their asylum applications to the UNHCR, a situation that condemns them to precarity, as they are not allowed to work according to Turkish legislation. Most of them are sent to “satellite towns” far from the big cities and are required to sign a paper at the police post three times a week.
Due to geographic restrictions in its legislation, Turkey does not give asylum to refugees entering from its eastern borders. The confusion regarding the share of competence between a recently established immigration administration, connected to the Interior Ministry, and the UNHCR adds more uncertainty to the future of Afghan refugees.
Shafahi said refugees were not only taking big risk, as they can legally be deported if they miss checking in at the police post of their host cities for five weeks, but they have also been openly threatened to be deported.
“A chief at the foreigners’ department said if we continued camping there, he would pay for two flights from his own pockets to send us directly to Kabul. He said Turkey is ‘not a state that would not be able to handle 200-400 Afghans,’” he said.
Shafahi said police had already stormed the camp nearby the UNHCR headquarters at the end of April, beating women and children alike, as they were forming human chains.
“Some had broken noses, one person had a dislocated shoulder,” said Shafahi, adding they were then sent back to satellite towns – however, to the wrong ones. A person living in Kayseri was sent to Konya, while one in the Central Anatolian town of Nevşehir ended up over 1,000 kilometers further east in Mardin.
Shafahi said the protests were neither organized nor had a leader, with families coming and going as they wish or “feel the need to take a shower,” and new refugees launching new hunger strikes were taking over from others, who were force-fed when brought to the hospital. He warns that many now only want to die.
“Our demands are not illogical. I am not asking to be sent to the U.S. on the first flight available. I just expect the same treatment other migrants receive,” Shafahi said.
Although their most important support has been the locals at the Ankara neighborhood of Sancak, their resources are becoming scarce. Solidarity groups have appealed to send food and blankets, while an online petition campaign has been launched on change.org to spread their demands.
According to claims, one of the reasons for the reluctance of officials to give Afghans asylum status is the presence of 2 million Afghan refugees in Iran. Some think hastening the asylum procedures would open the way for refugees in Iran to seek asylum via Turkey.
But Shafahi says Afghans do not accept being the forgotten refugees of Turkey and the disdained asylum-seekers of the world.
“Are we going to stay refugees forever?” he asked.
“Sometimes a ship full of Afghan asylum seekers are eaten by sea, sometimes they are strangled inside the closed containers, sometimes they are caught in the trap of human trafficking along their route, and sometimes they commit suicide in the immigration camps,” they wrote, addressing UNHCR.
‘We left Afghanistan because of war and had no choice.’
“But we, Afghan asylum seekers in Turkey, have chosen the right path. We have recoursed to UNHCR the savior and provider of human rights. We have not tried the dangerous trip through the mountains, seas and oceans,” the group wrote. “So, why don’t you do anything for us? Does this not indicate that you somehow indirectly support the network of human trafficking with your discriminatory and slow performance?”
The group estimates that about 26,000 Afghans are awaiting asylum hearings in Turkey. Protesters complained that their applications take an average of seven to eight years to review, while those of refugees from other countries are usually processed within two to three years.
This is not a new issue for Afghan refugees. In 2011 refugees sent an open letter to UNHCR in Ankara, Turkey.
An excerpt reads “Afghan refugees are victims of the Afghan government’s propaganda, which makes the UNHCR think that Afghanistan has become safe and its refugees need little assistance. This mindset from your organization toward Afghan refugees confirms what people say about the UNHCR – that it is an institution that doesn’t truly respect human rights. Because of this approach by the UNHCR, a large number of Afghan refugees have lost their lives as they have chosen to independently and illegalty smuggle themselves to EU member countries.
When it comes to Afghan refugees in Turkey, we believe that UNHCR chooses not to uphold the rights of these refugees, and refuses to comply with its own mandate. Refugee applications take far too long to process, and living conditions for refugees are untenable.
Day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, we live with lies and broken promises of change, and when change comes, it is for the worse and not for the better. Nothing improves despite all the negotiations.”
“for our children, the situation is very bad. They feel excluded and discriminated against. They are ashamed because they live in refugee housing and therefore they do not bring their friends from school to their apartments. The children have no room and space for themselves. They have little possibilities to learn from school. They ask their parents for help with their school lessons, but their parents don’t know the new language. The futures of our children are being destroyed in the collective refugee buildings. They become adults earlier than other children, because they live among other refugees, most of whom are adults, under harsh conditions. Through the control of the janitors and their presence, they feel in their young life like they are in prison.”