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Life In Limbo For Afghan Migrants In Turkey

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 (file photo).
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 (file photo).

ISTANBUL -- Since sneaking into Turkey four years ago, Mostafa has built a life many of his fellow migrants envy. He has learned to speak English and Turkish, obtained a room in a trendy neighborhood, and found work as a waiter.

But the idea that he is living the dream life is mistaken, says the 23-year-old, who asked that only his first name be used. Born in Iran to Afghan refugees fleeing war, Mostafa said he jumped into a smuggler's car in 2012 hoping to reach Europe and enroll in a university, but things didn't work out that way. He cannot legally leave Turkey and cannot afford a smuggler's escape; instead he does low-paying, undocumented jobs while waiting for better options to open up.

"I cannot make any plan," he says in English over breakfast at a Cihangir neighborhood cafe. "It's like the time is going by. I don't really know what is my right."

An Afghan Problem

The EU-Turkey deal passed in March provides a path for some Syrians fleeing war to gain refugee status in Europe, and Ankara has passed measures to allow the 2.7 million Syrians living in Turkey to gain work permits and other social benefits. But only about half the migrants trying to reach Europe are Syrian. Afghans make up the second-largest group, followed by Iraqis, Pakistanis, and Iranians -- and all are excluded from the deal.

"Afghans are really problematic here," says Behlul Ozkan, an associate professor of international relations at Marmara University in Istanbul. He says Turkey accepted several thousand Afghans in the 1980s owing to the Soviet-Afghan war, and resettled them in a small city in eastern Anatolia. The current round of migration from Afghanistan is different, he said. "No one knows what will happen to them."

Afghan migrants who have no permission to cross the border between Greece and Macedonia stand behind a fence near Gevgelija.
Afghan migrants who have no permission to cross the border between Greece and Macedonia stand behind a fence near Gevgelija.

Estimates of the undocumented Afghan population in Turkey vary widely. According to the United Nations, there some 103,221 Afghans there, of whom 3,472 have been awarded refugee status. Afghans make up more than a third of all non-Syrian migrants in Turkey. Ali Hekmat, an Afghan refugee and activist, says most of those Afghans have left Turkey with smugglers; he estimates that only about 15,000 remain.

On March 23, the rights watchdog Amnesty International reported that Turkey had forcibly returned 30 Afghan asylum seekers to Kabul; several had been part of a group attempting to reach Greece by boat and were stopped by Turkish authorities.

Turkish authorities did not respond to questions from RFE/RL. They told Amnesty that none of the Afghans had requested asylum and that they were returned voluntarily.

Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, a fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a U.S.- and Brussels-based think-tank, says Turkey's treatment of migrants could torpedo the newly signed refugee deal signed with Europe.

"One of main potential stumbling blocs for the EU-Turkey deal is whether or not Turkey can legitimately be considered a safe third country," she says. "If Turkey cannot be considered a safe third country then the EU cannot return people to a place where they don't have full access to claiming asylum."

Exporting Refugees

Prior to the Syrian civil war, Afghanistan produced the most refugees of any country in the world. In the last year Syria assumed the top spot, but Afghanistan's problems persist. The withdrawal of foreign troops has left a security and power vacuum in many areas of the country, with Taliban attacks on the rise and a government unable to restore public safety or economic growth. More than 2 million Afghans are refugees under UN protection.

"They are tired of Afghan refugees," Hekmat says of the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR. "We are refugees for 35 years and now they are working for the new refugees like Syrians and Iraqis."

Hekmat, 30, says he left Ghazni Province for Turkey in 2009 because he feared for his life after working for a company that had ties to the U.S. military. He is getting a master's degree in architecture at a university in central Turkey, while working in an undocumented job drawing blueprints.

"I work with other [Turkish] colleagues," he says. "Their salary is five times bigger than mine. It's the same work and the same time."

Hekmat says that in Turkey employers are responsible for obtaining permits for their workers, but they have little incentive to do so when they can pay lower wages to undocumented employees.

Facing the prospect of lower wages and ambiguous rights in Turkey, Afghans have looked toward Europe. About a quarter of the migrants arriving in Greece in 2016 were Afghan, according to the UNHCR. A secret EU document circulated in March outlined plans to return some 80,000 Afghans.

Challenging Road

Mostafa's story stands out because he would seem to have the gumption to succeed in exile. He was 18 when he sneaked out of Iran, where as a refugee he had limited rights and prospects, and called his parents from Turkey to ask them to wire money to his smugglers. He says he did not tell his parents in advance because he was desperate to get a chance to study and "they would never let me go."

In Turkey, he says, he got a job packaging napkins in a factory in Istanbul for a few months, then lied to UN interviewers in Ankara, telling them he was 17 and an orphan, which allowed him to stay in a camp for children. While at the camp, Mostafa unsuccessfully tried to sneak across the land border with Bulgaria. Turkish police apprehended him and held him in deplorable conditions for three months, he says.

Mostafa advises other Afghan refugees in Iran to stay where they are.
Mostafa advises other Afghan refugees in Iran to stay where they are.

When Mostafa reached his false 18th birthday he had to leave the camp and search for work. He spent a rainy day wandering around Istanbul looking for restaurant jobs, before reaching the modest cafe where he later spoke with RFE/RL. The owner sent him to work for his son, where Mostafa baked traditional pastries and cleaned for 12 hours a day, then slept in the eatery at night. For that he earned 600 liras ($211) a month.

"I was there for three months inside the restaurant," he says. "I asked for more salary, 150 or 200 liras more per month, and he didn't accept.... So then I was thinking I move to another place."

Mostafa says he worked as a waiter at numerous restaurants in Istanbul and the coastal city of Izmir before ultimately finding a job at a two-story cafe near his Istanbul apartment. There his income of 1,500 lira more than covered his share of the rent at the apartment he shares with a German roommate.

Mostafa faces a challenge unique to migrants in Turkey: the best jobs are in Istanbul, but he has been assigned to live in the town of Yalova, 100 kilometers to the south. Every two weeks he must sign in with police in Yalova, and he lives in fear of immigration authorities, who could arrest him for working out of his assigned city.

Days after he spoke to RFE/RL, Mostafa quit his job. He declined to explain why, but vaguely referred in a WhatsApp message to "Being persecuted. I don't know if it's a good word to use. Being treated unfair."

A week later, he had another job, waiting tables at another Istanbul restaurant.

Asked if he regrets leaving Iran, Mostafa is torn. On one hand, he has seen the world and learned two languages. "I've learned a lot. I've become a man," he says.

But on the other hand, he says, he has no legal way as an Afghan to reenter Iran. And he has barely any family in Afghanistan, a country he has never seen. He spoke to RFE/RL on the last day of Norouz, the Iranian New Year, and Mostafa noted with some relief that it was cold in Iran.

"When the weather is nice, they go out in nature with the family, they all know each other and go out and make food. I miss it," he said. Other Afghans, he added, "should stay there with their parents and find anther way."