As the sun sets over a dusty ravine outside the eastern Turkish city of Van, Muhammdullah Sangeen and scores of other Afghans prepare for another night by sleeping in the open.
The 22-year-old, who has a bruised left eye and fresh cuts on all his arms, arrived from Iran a few days earlier with the help of smugglers. “I’m not okay,” Sangeen said, her legs shaking. “I don’t feel human.”
Sangeen, who fought the Taliban for five years as a soldier in the Afghan national army, says he crossed the Turkey-Iran border, about 50 miles east of Van, last month on three other occasions. Each time, the Turkish border forces captured him and deported him back to Iran, he says. He claims that he was often tortured in the process.
Violent “rejections” against refugees have emerged in eastern Turkey in the months since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, according to a Guardian investigation that includes interviews with several victims of the rejection, human rights lawyers who they work in the region and independent observers.
the International migration organization said, in recent months, between 20,000 and 30,000 refugees were fleeing Afghanistan every week. According to Orhan Deniz, a migration professor at Van Yüzüncü Yıl University, many are attempting 1,400-mile trips through Iran and the Zagros Mountains to the Turkish border and into cities such as Başkale, Çaldıran, Saray and Özalp.
But Mahmut Kaçan, a Van-based Turkish lawyer who specializes in refugee and asylum cases, claims that the rejections, which violate the 1951 UN refugee convention, are occurring “systematically.” “This is happening 100%,” Kaçan said. “What the Turkish authorities are doing is illegal.”
Kaçan added that the Provincial Directorate of Migration Management (PDMM) in Van is no longer accepting new asylum applications, including one of its clients: an Afghan nurse and her family who were forced to flee the Taliban. “They came with passports, but even they were rejected,” he said. “Afghans are in great danger right now. We all saw the thousands at the Kabul airport and we must support them. “
The Turkish government’s efforts to keep refugees from Afghanistan away intensified in August when construction began on a 183 mile concrete wall in Van province. Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said the eastern border had been reinforced with thermal and night vision cameras and more troops, including 750 special operations officers.
Metin Çorabatir, President of Istanbul Headquarters Research Center on Asylum and Migration (IGAM), said the refusal to allow many Afghan refugees to enter Turkey legally was forcing them to go on deadly journeys, citing a incident where up to 60 Afghan refugees drowned crossing Lake Van. “We have seen their conditions, they are very tired and exploited by smugglers,” he said. “They get injured on long walks, hungry, without water. They are forced to risk their lives unnecessarily. “
Sangeen, who fled Kabul two days after he fell to the Taliban in August, said the mountains were strewn with corpses when he crossed into Turkey. He said thieves stole $ 150 from him and Turkish border forces smashed the phone over his head, burned his clothes and repeatedly kicked him in the face. “We were in great danger,” he said.
Another refugee claimed that a Turkish soldier had broken his hand with a metal helmet, causing his fingers to swell and become infected. Others spoke of beatings and destruction of their possessions by the Turkish army.
Karolína Augustová, fellow at the Istanbul Policy Center of Sabanci University who published in September a report on setbacks in eastern TurkeyHe said the European Union’s refusal to play a bigger role in the crisis has been a key factor. “The rejections did not come just because Turkey decided to toughen up on its eastern border,” he said. “It is because of the EU policy towards refugees.”
Retaliation against refugees is believed to have started in Greece, the first port of call in the EU for many migrants. In August 2020, UNHCR said it was “deeply concerned by an increasing number of credible reports ”from the Greek authorities carrying out returns in the Aegean. But these new findings suggest that the policy is now being adopted further, including in Turkey, which is home to roughly 4 millions refugees, more than any other country.
A UNHCR statement said it is “closely monitoring the situation” and had recently issued a notice of no return for Afghanistan, calling for a ban on the forced returns of Afghan nationals, including those who have had their requests for permission to be rejected. asylum. “It is important to note that states have obligations, including under customary international law, to preserve cross-border access for civilians fleeing conflict and not to return refugees by force,” he added.
The Van Directorate, the PDMM and the Turkish government spokesman Ömer Çelik did not respond to requests for comment.
But for Sangeen, trapped in a desolate corner of Turkey, efforts to seek asylum have affected his physical and mental well-being. “They are violent against us to prevent us from entering,” he said. “What they are doing is illegal. They shouldn’t do this to us. I can’t go back to Afghanistan. There is no future there. It’s over. “