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Turkey Thwarts Afghans’ European Dreams

FILE: Afghan and Syrian refugees struggle to swim from a dinghy with a broken engine that drifts out of control to a rocky beach on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing a part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey in September 2015

Mohammad Qaseem Sarwary and his family of three are in limbo after being deported from Turkey earlier this month.

The car mechanic once ran a successful business in the eastern Afghan province of Laghman. His biggest customer was the local Afghan police force, whose U.S.-donated Ford Ranger he frequently repaired to earn nearly $800 a month.

But while he made a handsome living in Laghman’s mountainous Alishing district, he became a target for the Taliban, who were keen to deny the Afghan police access to local services.

"They [the Taliban] warned me to stop fixing their [police] Ranger vehicles,” he said.

Sarwary says that even after he stopped working for the police the insurgents continued harassing him.

“They [the Taliban] warned me day and night. I escaped after gunmen came to my house," he added.

By last summer, Sarwary had had enough. He paid human smugglers nearly $1,500 to trek to Iran, from where he continued to the eastern Turkish province of Van in an arduous 3,000-kilometer journey over four months. His now eight-month-old daughter was born while the family was in transit.

Once in Van, Sarwary attempted to build a new life. He saved part of his meager income as a day laborer in the hopes of eventually crossing into Europe and seeking asylum in Germany.

"There were a lot of problems. I first stayed at a friend’s place for two weeks. Then I rented a house for $300 a month,” he said.

Mohammad Qaseem Sarwary and his family of three are in limbo after being deported from Turkey earlier this month.
Mohammad Qaseem Sarwary and his family of three are in limbo after being deported from Turkey earlier this month.

But in early April, his dream of building a new life in Europe was shattered when Turkish authorities forced him to join some 230 Afghans being deported back to Kabul. They were declared illegal migrants and were the first to be sent home in what global rights watchdog Amnesty International (AI) has dubbed a “ruthless deportation drive.”

The authorities in the city of Erzurum are set to deport all of the 3,000 Afghan migrants currently living there.

They are part of what the Turkish officials say is a major influx of migrants from Afghanistan. Media reports say more than 18,000 Afghans have entered Turkey in the first three months of this year.

Unlike previous years in which tens of thousands of Afghans easily crossed into Europe from Turkey, Ankara now seems determined to stop the flow of Afghans seeking asylum or better economic opportunities in European Union nations.

“Our brothers who have come to Turkey through legal ways are more than welcome here. But those who come via illegal ways are causing trouble,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on April 8.

He added that the Turkish Interior Ministry is “conducting very efficient work” by “voluntarily sending them back.”

But AI says the scale of this crackdown is extraordinary.

“In recent weeks, the Turkish authorities have escalated a ruthless deportation drive which has seen thousands of Afghans rounded up, packed onto planes, and returned to a warzone,” said AI’s researcher on refugee and migrant rights, Anna Shea. “Thousands more are in detention, being treated more like criminals than people fleeing conflict and persecution.”

She noted that while Ankara was under pressure because it has hosted large numbers of refugees from neighboring countries, “Afghans in Turkey have made hazardous journeys to escape even greater dangers at home, and forcing them back is both unconscionable and unlawful.”

AI wants Ankara to "immediately release all Afghans who are being arbitrarily detained; ensure Afghans have access to national asylum procedures; and halt all returns to Afghanistan, until they can take place in safety and dignity."

In Kabul, Hafiz Ahmad Miakheil, an adviser to Refugees and Repatriations Ministry, said the Afghan authorities weren’t consulted or informed about the deportations.

“The matter should’ve been discussed with us prior to the deportations,” he said. “Our ministry has signed agreements with 10 European countries on immigration, but we have no such agreement with Turkey.”

Miakhel was referring to an October 2016 agreement between Kabul and the EU. Under the Joint Way Forward arrangement, Kabul is obliged to receive all Afghan migrants whose asylum claims are rejected in EU nations. These migrants can be deported on a voluntary or nonvoluntary basis.

Nader Farhad, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, says the number of Afghan migrants and asylum seekers is nearly 170,000.

"We received reports that the Turkish officials have detained some 27,000 Afghans who have recently entered the country through its eastern border [with Iran],” he said.

Under a 2016 agreement with the EU, Ankara agreed to accept migrants deported from neighboring Greece and also pledged to prevent new migrants reaching Europe through its territory. Turkey received more than $3 billion as part of the agreement, which was promoted by the influx of hundreds of thousands of migrants to Europe through Turkey in 2015.

Afghans who crossed into Greece from Turkey have also seen their dreams thwarted.

Zohrah Husseini, 21, left Afghanistan in 2016. She now lives in the Moria camp on Greece's Lesbos Island. She left her police job after unidentified armed men warned her against working for the Afghan government.

Her family of 11 is now barely surviving. "We live in a tent; our food is unpleasant. There is no bathroom, there is no shower, and there is no toilet,” she said. “It's not good enough in terms of security, either.”

Back in Kabul, Sarwary is not deterred by stories of such misery and intends to return to Turkey and Europe.

"Even if I die trying, my wife and our children will have a good life,” he said.