Afghan refugees stuck in limbo at Turkish border need EU protection

As EU interior ministers meet today to discuss the situation in Afghanistan and of Afghan displaced people, there is an urgent need to provide Afghanis with immediate protection and help in transit and EU countries. Instead, they are stuck in a limbo at the Turkish border.

Since June 2021, hundreds of refugees, including Afghanis, trying to cross to Turkey’s Van region at the border with Iran, have been detained by Turkey’s security forces. Dangerous smuggling routes from the Van region to Istanbul, across the Lake Van and the Tatvan highway, have been reactivated, resulting in deadly incidents, drownings and increased risks of sexual violence. Turkey has accelerated the construction of a wall at the Iran-Turkey border that will cover the entire 295-km border and will be equipped with security measures, such as watchtowers, thermal cameras, radars and sensors. Turkey’s Interior Minister has sent 35 special operations teams and 50 armed vehicles to assist soldiers patrolling the border and preventing refugees access to the territory. In a single operation in July 2021, more than 1,400 Afghans were pushed back to Iran by Turkish border guards and military police. On 19 August 2021, Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdogan, said that Turkey will not become “Europe’s migrant storage unit”.

Afghan refugees have serious protection issues in Turkey, as they are not entitled neither to a protection under the Geneva Convention 1951 nor to a “temporary protection” as Syrians do. According to international reports, between 2018 and 2019, at least 53,000 Afghan nationals were reportedly deported from Turkey. In addition, tensions within hosting communities and racist attacks and hate crimes against refugees have intensified. The recent declaration by Greek Migration Minister, Notis Mitarachi, to consider Turkey as a “safe” country for asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Somalia is extremely worrying and it will speed up forced returns from the Greek islands to Turkey of Afghanis in need of protection.

Greece and Bulgaria reinforce border controls too

Greece has also recently completed the construction of a 40-km wall at the border with Turkey and put in place a new surveillance system to prevent potential asylum seekers from trying to reach Europe. Greece has adopted infamous migration and asylum policies resulting in massive detention, returns, deplorable reception conditions on the Greek islands and criminalisation of NGOs working with migrants and refugees. At the other EU border with Turkey, Bulgaria is also reinforcing border controls to stop migrants from crossing into its territory – 14,000 migrants have been stopped since the beginning of 2021 – by sending 400 soldiers at the borders with Turkey and Greece.

Other Member States and the EU itself are developing a narrative that reinforces such an approach. As French President, Emmanuel Macron, put it “We must protect ourselves against major irregular migratory flows,” while European Council President, Charles Michel, declared that the EU was determined to keep “the EU’s borders protected”.

Against this background, the European Union and its Member States should instead urgently trigger the Temporary Protection Directive – as High Representative Josep Borrell mentioned – to provide immediate protection to Afghan refugees, and harmonise the degree of protection recognised to Afghan refugees, as the recognition rates vary significantly across Europe. EU Member States should increase resettlement pledges, facilitate family reunification procedures and step up legal pathways to provide all refugees, including those most at risk such as women and LGBTIQ+ people, with adequate reception, access to asylum and fundamental rights.