Turkey has stepped up deportations to Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover there in August 2021, according to a 73-page report, “‘No One Asked Me Why I Left Afghanistan,’ from Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch also found that that Afghans inside Turkey are being blocked from registering for international protection and that those facing imminent deportation are often given no opportunity to make refugee claims.
Turkey is routinely pushing tens of thousands of Afghans back at its eastern land border with Iran—where the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been building a wall—or deporting them directly to Afghanistan with little or no examination of their claims for international protection, said Human Rights Watch in the report released today.
“Although Turkey has rightly earned international acclaim and support for hosting the largest number of refugees of any country in the world, it is simultaneously pushing many Afghans back at its borders or deporting them to Afghanistan with little or no examination of their claims for international protection,” said Bill Frelick, refugee and migrant rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Turkey should immediately halt these routine pushbacks of Afghans from its borders and give all Afghans facing removal the opportunity to make refugee claims.”
As of October 20, 2022, the Presidency of Migration Management in Turkey’s Interior Ministry reported 238,448 “irregular migrants whose entrance to our country has been prevented” in 2022, most of them Afghans.
Turkey reported deporting 44,768 Afghans by air to Kabul in the first eight months of 2022, a 150 percent increase over the first eight months of 2021.
Turkey officially hosts some 3.9 million refugees, 15 percent of all externally displaced people worldwide.
Some 3.6 million Syrians are maintained under a temporary protection regime and about 320,000 are non-Syrians, mostly Afghans, who are either asylum seekers or hosted under a uniquely Turkish “conditional refugee” status reserved for non-Europeans in need of international protection.
Although Turkey has rightly earned international acclaim for hosting the largest number of refugees of any country in the world, it is routinely deporting many refugees to Afghanistan with little to no examination of their claims for international protection.
Illegal pushbacks at its borders have come as risks to Afghans have increased dramatically with the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021.
Since taking power, the Taliban have imposed severe restrictions across the population, carried out revenge killings and enforced disappearances of former government officials and security force personnel, detained and beaten journalists, summarily executed alleged Islamic State fighters, and failed to protect groups targeted for attack by the Islamic State, such as ethnic Hazaras.
Turkish authorities are now preventing recently arriving Afghans from making legal claims for protection under international or domestic law or accessing procedures to assess their status. This is especially the case with men traveling without female family members.
Many of the Afghans interviewed by Human Rights Watch for this report made multiple attempts to cross the Turkish border from Iran, but Turkish authorities pushed them back at least once, if not multiple times, usually with little to no formal processing and no opportunity to lodge asylum claims.
Turkey’s Minister of Interior Süleyman Soylu told a press briefing on June 11, 2022 that Turkey had prevented 2.6 million people from crossing its borders, but did not provide a precise time frame.
As of October 20, 2022, the Presidency of Migration Management (PMM) in Turkey’s Ministry of Interior reported 238,448 “irregular migrants whose entrance to our country has been prevented” in 2022.
Given the summary nature of many of the pushbacks documented in this report, the official number may be an undercount.
Pushbacks violate multiple human rights norms, including the prohibition of collective expulsion under the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to due process in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the principle of nonrefoulement under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which prohibits the return of refugees to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened.
Refoulement —forcible return of refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they are liable to be subjected to persecution—is also prohibited in Turkish law.
Because Turkish authorities block access to asylum, refoule people who appear to be refugees, and commit other abuses against migrants and people seeking international protection, the United States, European Union, its member states, and other countries should not regard Turkey as a safe third country for Afghan and other refugees and asylum seekers.
All the “single” men and boys whom Human Rights Watch interviewed who encountered Turkish officials at the border with Iran either directly experienced or witnessed Turkish authorities beating or otherwise abusing them and others who were with them. Many also reported Turkish border authorities shooting at them as they approached or attempted to cross the Turkish border with Iran.
“I told them I was a journalist, that my life is at risk, and that I wanted to go to Europe not stay in Turkey, but they didn’t listen to me,” said Bedar, a 25-year-old man from Paktia Province, recalling his pushback experience that began after crossing the border from Iran into Turkey on August 30, 2021, shortly after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. “They beat us with batons, and with the kind of iron stick that is used for construction. They beat me on my hands and arms and legs. I had open wounds that were bleeding. At one point they ordered Afghans and Pakistanis to beat each other.” Bedar recalled the Turkish border guards waiting to see when there were no Iranian guards on the other side and then pushing him and 29 others back across the border.
In addition to pushbacks at the land border with Iran, Turkey is also actively deporting tens of thousands of Afghans by plane to Afghanistan. Turkey’s deportations of Afghan nationals dramatically increased from 2021 to 2022. The 44,768 Afghan nationals Turkey deported in the first eight months of 2022 represent a 150 percent increase over the number of Afghan nationals deported in the first eight months of 2021.
Despite repeatedly telling Turkish officials that he feared return to Afghanistan and wanted to seek asylum, Abdul Sami, a 27-year-old from Ghazni, was deported to Afghanistan on May 7, 2022. When Turkish officials at the Tuzla Removal Center told him to sign a voluntary return paper, “I said I had problems in Afghanistan and could not sign it. Then, they cursed me and one of the men standing beat me on my head, back, and legs with a rubber or plastic baton and the other one who was standing hit me with his hand. He hit me in the face and made my nose bleed.”
The next day, Abdul Sami and about 200 other men were brought to the yard of the removal center and told to put their fingerprints on the voluntary return paper. “At first we all refused,” said Abdul Sami. “One man tore the paper, and they took him to a room; when they brought him back, his face was bloody.” The following day, they were all handcuffed and taken to the Istanbul airport. “They read our names one by one, stamped our travel documents, and put us on the Ariana Airlines plane to Kabul.” We spoke to Abdul Sami by phone in Tehran, Iran, because he immediately fled Afghanistan upon his return. “My father told me the Taliban was looking for me, and not to come home, so I directly left Afghanistan again.”
Although these removals are clearly, overwhelmingly involuntary, the Turkish government insists on maintaining the fiction they are voluntary returns. Human Rights Watch’s interviews with Afghans deported to Afghanistan indicate, however, that despite pro forma “voluntary return” documents routinely being used, many Afghans facing imminent deportation are given no opportunity to make refugee claims or otherwise challenge their deportation, and their signatures or fingerprints on voluntary return forms are often forced, obtained through deception, or forged.
The dramatic increase in deportations from 2021 to 2022 is likely attributable, at least in part, to Turkish public opinion running against refugees and immigrants, as shown in a 2021 survey conducted by Avrasya Research Company to gauge Turkish public opinion on Afghans, Syrian, Iraqi and other irregular migrants and asylum seekers, in which 76 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “the entrance of these people to Turkey must be prevented and they have to be deported urgently.”
General elections in Turkey are expected in Spring 2023 and leading opposition parties are campaigning on platforms calling for the return of refugees to their home countries. In the same 2021 public opinion poll, seven of ten respondents said they would vote for the political party that “commits to deport these people.” Citing the Turkish public’s growing “unease” with hosting large numbers of refugees, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued a warning to Europe, saying, “Turkey has no duty, responsibility or obligation to be Europe’s refugee warehouse.”
In February 2022, Deputy Interior Minister Ismail Çataklı said registrations for international protection would not be accepted in 16 provinces: Ankara, Antalya, Aydın, Bursa, Çanakkale, Düzce, Edirne, Hatay, Istanbul, Izmir, Kırklareli, Kocaeli, Muğla, Sakarya, Tekirdağ, and Yalova. He also said residency permit registrations would not be accepted by foreigners for any neighborhood in which 25 percent or more of the population was comprised of foreigners. Çataklı reported that registration had already been closed in 781 neighborhoods throughout Turkey because foreigners in those locations exceeded 25 percent of the population. In June, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu announced that from July 1, 2022, the proportion would be brought down to 20 percent and the number of neighborhoods closed to registration of foreigners increased to 1,200.
Registrations for international protection dropped by 74 percent from 2018 to 2021: from 114,537 to 29,256. Afghans represented 75 percent of the applicants in 2021.
None of the Afghan men interviewed by Human Rights Watch who have arrived in Turkey without their families since the Taliban takeover have been able to lodge applications for international protection at Provincial Directorate of Migration Management (PDMM) offices. Men who did not present themselves as part of a family group including women or children (referred to in this report as “single men,” which for purposes of this report does not refer to their marital status) were routinely told the PDMM office they were seeking to enter was closed, that the office was not taking applications from Afghan men, or they were given appointments months later. When they returned, they were still not able to lodge applications. In the meanwhile, police and gendarmes (jandarma in Turkish) were arresting significant numbers of undocumented Afghans, detaining them and often coercing or deceiving them to sign voluntary repatriation forms, then deporting them to Afghanistan.
In September 2018, the Turkish government excluded the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) from its role in Turkey’s asylum system, so it no longer conducts refugee status determinations, which until then it had done in tandem with the Turkish authorities. The impact of UNHCR’s exclusion from the asylum procedure is evident from the drop in grants of international protection from 72,961 in 2018, when UNHCR was engaged in refugee status determinations, to 5,449 in 2019, when the procedure was exclusively the hands of Turkey’s Presidency of Migration Management (PMM). UNHCR’s access to asylum seekers in detention has also been greatly reduced since it no longer plays a role in determining refugee status claims.
This report calls on the government of Turkey to halt all pushbacks from Turkish territory and at Turkey’s borders immediately, to stop shootings at the border, and to hold any officer engaged in illegal acts, as well as their commanding officers, to disciplinary sanctions and, if applicable, criminal prosecution. It calls on Provincial Directorate of Migration Management offices to provide access to international protection procedures for all who request it, including single men, to enact a vulnerability screening mechanism to identify people with special needs, and to accommodate those needs throughout asylum and migration procedures.
It calls on the European Union and its member states to determine that Turkey does not meet the “safe third country” standard in EU law. It calls on these and other states and funding entities to ensure that their financial support to the Presidency of Migration Management and all coastal and border enforcement entities in Turkey is not used to deny the right of anyone to seek asylum or to return them to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened or where they would face torture or other serious harms. It calls on all governments to increase refugee resettlement places for Afghan and other refugees in Turkey.
Finally, this report calls on the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to assess whether it has been fulfilling its protection mandate in Turkey since its withdrawal from Turkey’s asylum procedure in September 2018, to report on that assessment, and to engage more robustly with the Turkish authorities on behalf of asylum seekers and refugees.