In a café in Istanbul last week I listened as a man settling his bill complained loudly to the chef and owner about a nearby district that is now ‘full of Afghans’ who have fled the Taliban. He said the area was already crowded with Syrians, everyone speaks Arabic, you don’t see any Turks on the streets. The same evening, a far-right mob rioted in Altındağ, a low-income suburb of Ankara, targeting Syrian businesses and homes. They were angry because a Turkish teenager had been killed in a fight with Syrian refugees.
To impede the refugees who are crossing in rising numbers, Turkey is building a concrete wall along its border with Iran. Since the start of the year, some 27,000 asylum seekers, not all of them from Afghanistan, have entered Turkey’s eastern provinces. In June, sixty refugees died when a boat sank during an attempted crossing of Lake Van.
With the Taliban’s rapid retaking of the country, people are trying to leave Afghanistan in large numbers. The media are full of images of the ‘desperate crowds’ at Kabul airport. The UK has previously rejected asylum applications from interpreters who worked for the British Army. The Home Office says it is reluctant to grant asylum to those fleeing the Taliban in case it encourages other refugees to apply. There were already 2.5 million registered refugees from Afghanistan before the US withdrawal. ‘They comprise the largest protracted refugee population in Asia,’ the UNCHR reported in 2018, ‘and the second largest refugee population in the world.’ Most of them are in Pakistan and Iran.
Since the US unilaterally reinstated sanctions on Iran in 2018, Iranians have been among the most numerous refugees entering Europe. Half of all those who attempted to cross the Channel to the UK in 2020 were from Iran. The ‘maximum pressure’ campaign, designed by Donald Trump and pursued by Joe Biden, has had the desired effect of devastating the Iranian economy. The first victims of the downturn have often been Afghan, Iran’s largest unsettled minority group, with a refugee population of close to a million.
The Turkish wall may slow but won’t stop the movement of refugees across the border. It is, however, another concrete monument to the failure of US policy across the Middle East and Central Asia. Turkey now has walls along its Syrian and Iranian borders, and there is talk of building one on the frontier with Iraq too. They stand out rigidly against the landscape of rolling Anatolian hills and bright flowing grasses. As in the desert between the US and Mexico, there is an ecological as well as a human cost, with animal trails and habitats disrupted by the concrete edifice.
Turkish politics continues to change around its refugee populations. The AKP and Erdoğan have reiterated that no Syrian will be sent back while Bashar al-Assad remains in power in Damascus. A CHP politician in the western city of Bolu, meanwhile, recently announced that Syrians were not welcome, and proposed increasing the amount they have to pay for water to ten times the price paid by Turks. An investigation into his remarks is underway, but it seems ever more likely that the Turkish opposition – a semi-formal alliance of disparate parties from nationalists to Kurds, but under the stewardship of the CHP – will run its next election campaign connecting the refugee population to the economic anxieties of Turkish voters.
According to the terms of a deal made between Brussels and Ankara in 2016, Turkey was promised not only money but also various benefits in exchange for preventing refugees from continuing to the EU. These commitments, including visa liberalisation, have never been fulfilled. The AKP feels it doesn’t get enough international credit for its refugee policies, despite shedding political support at home for its refusal to repatriate. Turkey also maintains a fraught military presence beyond its own frontiers: one protecting the internally displaced population of north-west Syria; another, unwelcomed, in the Kurdish-majority north-east.
Faced now with few good options, it was always a grim counterfactual to consider how much worse the humanitarian costs of the Syrian war would have been had Turkey closed its borders in the way the EU eventually did along the Evros River and the Mytilini Strait.
Ordinary Turks believe they have gained little in return for hosting the world’s largest refugee population – nearly four million people – and paid plenty. The CHP is only too aware of this sentiment. Consensus is limited, but all parties seem to agree only that there won’t be a repeat of what happened at the height of the Syrian war. Turkey will not play EU border guard again.