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Turkey puts its migrant security system on display for Europe

VAN, Turkey — A squad of fully armed Turkish officers is gathered outside an old abandoned house on a recent night in November. They’ve called in reporters to document what’s about to happen — a raid on a “shock house” where it’s believed Afghans are squatting after crossing into the country illegally. 

The neighbors are watching the scene unfold, peering out through windows, standing on balconies. The whole procedure appears familiar to them. 

With a crash, the operation begins. The officers break down the main entrance with a battering ram and stream into the building. Inside, dozens of Afghans — many of them children — are kneeling with their hands behind their heads in preemptive surrender. The smell of human waste and garbage is strong. 

The occupants are taken out to a bus. From there, they will be transferred to a nearby detention center 45 minutes outside Van, a city anchoring the province in eastern Turkey that butts up against the Iranian border. Turkish officials say this area is the front line of a migration crisis requiring a Herculean effort to manage. 

It’s an effort they’re eager to put on display.

So on this day in November, the Turkish government has invited reporters to come and see the entire process. The day started hours before the raid, with Mehmet Emin Bilmez, governor of the Van province, hosting journalists near the border. 

Lean and bespectacled, Bilmez arrived accompanied by a small army for safety. He pointed out all the equipment Turkey had deployed in the area: drone killers, drone jammers, 103 watchtowers equipped with thermal cameras and radar systems to identify movement. Along the actual border, a concrete wall was going up in chunks — part of a barrier intended to cover the whole 295-kilometer border with Iran. 

Mehmet Emin Bilmez, governor of the Van province, hosts journalists near the border Turkish border | Nektaria Stamouli for POLITICO

The show and tell — letting journalists document migrant raids, detailing specifics about the exhaustive border security measures — is not just meant to raise awareness of Turkey’s plight. Turkish officials want Europe to see what they’re doing. 

“European officials visit Van from time to time and I tell them: Europe’s security problem doesn’t start with Greece and Bulgaria, it starts from here,” Bilmez said. 

In their eyes, Turkey is protecting all of Europe from a repeat of the migrant surges that have fractured EU unity, fueled a rise in nationalism and sent leaders scrambling for ways to ensure fewer migrants land on their shores. In their eyes, Turkey is handling an issue Europe wants to be handled. Turkey will help, they say, but the country can’t do it alone — nor should it. 

“The EU lives in the comfort zone,” said Faruk Kaymakçı, who oversees EU affairs as Turkey’s deputy foreign minister. “It doesn’t work like this. We have to intervene together and now.”

Turkey does, indeed, host some 4 million asylum seekers, more than any other country in the world. And the vast majority of those people want to go to the EU. Recognizing this, the EU has in recent years funneled €6 billion to Turkey to support housing, health care and education for asylum seekers, and also for security projects. The 103 watchtowers, for example, were co-funded by the EU.

But many see ulterior motives at play. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is confronted with a number of acute challenges domestically — runaway inflation for even basic items like medicine and bread, a teetering economy — and foregrounding migration can be useful. It brings EU aid. It brings international attention. It gives Erdoğan an effective domestic political message.

Therefore, as winter sets in, Turkey is simultaneously conveying both migrant chaos and migrant competence, warning of a fresh migration wave about to crest, dammed up only by Turkey’s expanding security apparatus.   

“The EU’s fear of migration is a very good tool that Erdoğan uses to obtain various financial and political incentives from the EU to strengthen its border architecture in the East, where Turkey has its own national security issues, such as terrorism,” said Karolína Augustová, a postdoctoral fellow at Aston University and Istanbul Policy Centre.

Erecting the system

Turkey has one of the world’s largest migration-related detention systems. 

First, there’s the formal network of 27 “pre-removal” centers that can collectively hold nearly 16,000 people awaiting deportation. Then there’s an ad hoc network scattered along the border: detention sites, airport transit zones and police stations used as temporary lock-up facilities. 

The system has grown, in part, at the EU’s behest. The bloc signed a deal with Turkey in 2016 to help expand the country’s migrant detention capacity. The pact came about following a refugee spike in 2015, when over 1.3 million people applied for asylum in the EU — double the previous record. About half of those came from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Today, Turkey hosts about 3.5 million Syrians and 300,000 Afghans, more than any other country. But after the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in August, it’s the possibility of more Afghans that has Turkish officials making public appeals for more security assistance.

Asylum doesn’t exist in Turkey as it does in Europe, where anyone — at least in theory — has the right to apply. Turkey only recognizes people fleeing Europe as refugees. The country did make an exception in 2013 for Syrians, but that exception has not been extended to Afghans — apart from some specific cases — who are largely meant to be either resettled to another country (a difficult prospect) or deported.

That has fueled the cat-and-mouse game between Afghans and the Turkish security apparatus that officials are putting on display — the border walls, the surveillance drones, the raids, the document checks and arrests.

Within the country, recently arrived Afghans often hide in abandoned houses or a smuggler’s residence, places known as “shock houses.” Some find off-the-books work within the country. Others end up in detention facilities.

Shamsurahman Noorullah, 42, has experienced several parts of this cycle. He was one of the Afghans pulled from the shock house during the raid in Van, before being taken to the pre-removal center outside the city.

Speaking the day after the raid, Noorullah recounted the perilous journey that had brought him to this point. In Afghanistan, he worked for the government as a national security director, a job he said put him on the Taliban’s black list after the takeover.

Refugees from Afghanistan are seen waiting to be processed by Turkish officials | Chris McGrath/Getty Images

So he fled the country with his wife and five children, aged between about a year and a half to 13 years old. They traveled 83 days to get to Turkey, walking for hours during the day and spending nights in different smugglers’ houses.

“I just want to know if they plan to send us back,” he said. “I just want a place to live safely and my children to study.”

According to Rtdvan Caliskan, director of the pre-removal center, the last deportations of Afghans took place about 10 days before Kabul fell to the Taliban. Officially, however, there has been no policy change, meaning deportations could begin again at any moment. Caliskan said Iran is considered a safe country for Afghans, so they may be sent back there.

“Apart from Afghans,” he added. “The rest are deported within a short period.”

A scene within the system

The pre-removal center near Van is designed to hold 750 people, although that number can informally stretch up to 1,500. Detainees are allowed out into the facility’s backyard one hour per day, with families given extra time.

Journalists are allowed inside, but they are barred from where the migrants live. Instead, they get shown around the common area where people spend their free time.

The scene is carefully set up. Two rooms serve as playgrounds, another as a barbershop. There’s a room where students are painting and another where migrants are being taught Turkish in a classroom, even though they are soon to be deported.

Nearby, there’s a library full of books in Turkish and English. One young Afghan boy appears halfway through Charles Dickens’ classic “Great Expectations,” a challenge for any non-native English speaker. But when approached, the boy doesn’t appear to understand much English. 

It’s a tour that conveys serene control, a contrast to the thunderous evening raid the night before and the army-protected security display at the border that morning. However, journalists are only allowed in this small corridor where everything is carefully set up. 

One element that’s missing, though, is reliable data on how many Afghans are actually coming to the country, and if that figure is climbing following the Taliban takeover.

Turkish authorities both in Van and Ankara refuse to give any official figures. They insist the situation is under control — for now.

“We can’t give you numbers,” says Caliskan.

The Turkish government does provide data on apprehensions of Afghans within the country. Those figures show a precipitous decline in recent years — from 201,000 in 2019 to 50,000 in 2020 and 28,000 in 2021.

Those who study and work on migration in Turkey are split on whether arrivals are significantly rising. Natalie Gruber, a spokesperson for the NGO Josoor, which supports migrants and monitors border violence at the EU’s external borders with Turkey, said there has been a “sharp increase in arrivals since the Taliban were expanding through Afghanistan, even before they took over Kabul.”

Conversely, Augustová, the fellow at the Istanbul Policy Centre, argued: “There is no significant rise in numbers of Afghans trying to enter Turkey.”

Treatment within the system

What does appear to be changing, however, is how migrants are being treated, and the dangers they face — both at the border and within the country.

In Van, the second-poorest of Turkey’s 81 provinces, humans have become the most profitable commodity to smuggle, replacing the longtime standards: drugs, gasoline, sugar, tea.

“In other types of smuggling you have to pay in advance,” said Bilmez, the province governor. “If you are caught for heroin smuggling, you lose the money you’ve spent, but in the case of human smuggling there is no loss.” In 2021, he added, 1,400 of the Turks arrested for human trafficking were from his province, which has a population of just over 1 million.

The country’s response to this has been more security. More concrete walls, more barbed wire, more weapons, more checkpoints.

The checkpoints start after leaving the city of Van, after passing several small stone houses. From there, the mountains rise up, climbing toward Turkey’s border with Iran. Dotted along the mountainside are large, prefabricated, three-meter high wall chunks, ready to fill the gaps in the existing border wall. Eventually, Turkish authorities said, barbed wire will rim the top of the entire structure.

Gravestones of unidentified migrants who have died crossing the Turkish-Iran border | Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

For the moment, the serpentine wall covers only a relatively small part of the land border that extends as far as the eye can see. Much of the mountainous area will be difficult to wall off. In those passages, nature already serves as a deterrent — wild animal attacks are common and some migrants freeze to death crossing the border. In a nearby cemetery, several of these casualties are buried, marked by nameless headstones.

“The wall itself does not really have any impact”, said Josoor’s Gruber. “Walls, in general, don’t have a particular impact. They just make crossings even more dangerous, but do not reduce the arrivals.”

Migrants have also testified that guards on both sides of the border are openly hostile.

Josoor and the Istanbul Policy Centre are just two of several NGOs that have reported on a surge in the illegal practice known as “pushbacks,” in which asylum seekers are aggressively turned away without being given a chance to apply for protection. 

“Many Afghan refugees whom I talked to also said that they had been physically attacked or witnessed killings of other refugees by the Iranian army,” said the Istanbul Policy Centre’s Augustová, who issued a report on pushbacks at Turkey’s eastern border.

Once in the country, the cultural climate can be similarly stormy. There have been reports of Turks attacking migrants, calling them cowards and urging them to go back and fight for their countries. Anti-migrant riots broke out in August targeting Syrian houses, shops and cars in Ankara, Turkey’s capital. Some in the Turkish opposition have jumped on this discontent, criticizing the government for its handling of migration and promising to evict more migrants.

Afghan and Syrian migrants, said a prominent member of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party, are “Turkey’s No. 1 national survival problem.” 

“The Afghan arrivals are the pretext to kick out all the migrants from the country,” argued Josoor’s Gruber.

Supporting the system

For Turkish officials like Faruk Kaymakçı, the deputy foreign minister, the arrivals are also a pretext to make renewed appeals to the EU, for sending messages through the media. That message: Turkey is bearing the brunt of migration for Europe. It’s bearing the brunt for the NATO military alliance.

“The borders of Europe and NATO are the south and southeastern borders of Turkey,” Kaymakçı said.

The situation has challenged Turkish society, he argued, just as it has elsewhere.

“There are reactions within the Turkish society,” Kaymakçı said. “In some western countries, it goes up to the level of discrimination and Islamophobia. In Turkey, it is the fear by locals of losing their jobs.”

If Europe wants to avoid the same fate, he argued, it must work with Turkey.

“We are not asking for money, but there are more than 4 million people and if you don’t help them, there is not much we can do to prevent them from going to the rest of Europe,” Kaymakçı said. “Their final destination is not Turkey, but Northern and Western European countries.”

To NGO workers and others working on migration, Kaymakçı is simply employing “migration diplomacy,” as Augustová termed it. She pointed out that Turkey is also angling to retain a presence in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

“It wishes to show it can play a role as the ‘middle negotiator’ between the Taliban and the West and upgrade its importance for NATO, the EU and the U.S.” Augustová said.

Expectedly, Kaymakçı rejects the characterization.

“We are not instrumentalizing migrants, we do not politicize it, but when we remind you of your obligations don’t call it instrumentalization,” Kaymakçı said. “If we had instrumentalized it, we would not be the country hosting the largest migrant population.”

Those truly stuck in the middle are the Afghans themselves — scared to stay in their home country, not welcome in Turkey, and without a clear path to Europe or elsewhere, despite western vows to help those fleeing the Taliban.

“It took us 83 days to come here, but I would still do it,” said Noorullah. “There are lots of people that want to leave Afghanistan.”

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