Officials allege 55 migrants were forced into a river by Iran’s border guards, with some of them beaten and tortured.
Every Sunday, Hamdi Mohseni, his wife Serda, and their five remaining children, walk the 15km from their apartment to the paupers’ cemetery where their daughter Zahra is buried. Mohseni brings a ballpoint pen with him to trace the letters of her name in the concrete tombstone, to make sure it does not disappear among the hundreds of knee-high concrete slabs in this cemetery in Van, in the east of Turkey near the Iranian border.
Most of the gravestones have no names at all. One might note where the body was found; another might have a number signifying where in a year’s sequence of burials that one took place; another might include the name of a place – the authorities’ best guess at where the deceased came from.
Mohseni, who speaks softly with a distant look in his eyes, says in the last two years he has seen no other visitors here, except for the gravediggers who show up to inter the dead. According to Turkish officials, the vast majority of graves have been filled with Afghans, who for four decades have been fleeing the chaos wrought in Afghanistan by one of the world’s longest ongoing conflicts.
Two years ago, Mohseni – an ethnic Hazara from Jaghori, in Afghanistan’s central Ghazni province – simply wanted to take his daughter Faisa, who was 12, to a nearby city to get medical treatment for her seizures. But with each trip to Ghazni city, the former-farmer-turned-welder says, the Taliban fighters running a checkpoint on the road grew more suspicious of him, turning him back around.
“I told them we were poor, and we are only going to get medication for my child, but they detained me. They took out all my fingernails with pliers,” he says. They threatened to kill him if they saw him again.
Relocating to another part of Afghanistan offered no guarantee of work or safety or the promise of medical treatment for Faisa, so the family decided to leave the country and try to reach Europe. They paid smugglers to cross into Iran from Afghanistan’s Herat province, then spent another month and a half being passed from one smuggler to the next, westward through Iran.
A half-hour drive west of the Iranian city of Urmia, Mohseni says, he and hundreds of other Afghans were brought to the foothills of the mountains straddling the Turkish border. He was told either to pay to hire a horse or to leave his children and wife behind because they would slow the group down. He turned over the rest of his money for the horse to carry his wife and five of their children, while he carried one daughter on his back.
At the top of the ridge, the smuggler left them. “On this side of the mountain was Iran, and on the other Turkey … he showed me the Turkish police and Iranian police,” Mohseni says. “They told me how to pass to not be arrested by either.”
Mohseni and his family are among the millions of Afghans who have fled their country. For most of the last half-century, Afghans have been the largest group of refugees in the world. By 1989, within a decade of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, more than six million Afghans were living in Pakistan and Iran, with thousands more in dozens of other countries around the world, according to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. Millions returned home after the Soviets withdrew, only to flee again during the subsequent civil war and rise of the Taliban after 1996.
After the US invaded the country in 2001, millions of Afghans again returned, but the optimism that accompanied the fall of the Taliban has long since disappeared. The last few years, according to the UN, have been the deadliest in Afghanistan for more than a decade, with more than 10,000 civilians killed or injured every year since 2014. Once more, Afghans are on the move, except this time Pakistan and Iran are shutting their doors on them. Left with nowhere close to home to take refuge, many are trying for Europe, a journey that takes them west through Iran and Turkey.
Turkey hosts some four million refugees and asylum seekers, according to the UNHCR, making it the largest refugee-hosting country in the world. Hundreds of Afghans crossed the Turkey-Iran border each day in 2019. Those who were caught were deported by Turkish authorities. In 2019, 200,000 Afghans were deported, double the number in 2018 and four times the number in 2017, according to Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought a temporary decline in those figures: Just 44,327 Afghans were apprehended in Turkey between January and November 2020, probably as a result of lockdowns in Turkey and Europe, as well as asylum application processing being suspended in European countries. But the migrants, Afghans among them, continue to come. At least 54 migrants died in June when the boat they were in sank as they attempted to avoid checkpoints along the roads in eastern Turkey by crossing Lake Van, near the Iranian border.
In the Turkish village of Sariciman, at the Iranian border, some 96km (60 miles) northeast of Van, the fresh-faced mayor, Saban Ulgen, says he cannot remember a time when Afghans were not coming down the nearby mountains that mark the frontier. “They have been coming through here since the Soviet invasion,” he told Al Jazeera, “but in the last three years it’s become a constant flow of refugees, and we wish they did not come.”
There are few schools in Sariciman, and little work beyond farming and raising sheep. In the winter, snow makes the roads impassable. For many, smuggling people is the most profitable business in the area – a badly kept secret the villagers are happy to explain over lunch.
“There is no advantage of being near the border, except the smuggling, but that brings its own problems,” says Ulgen. Nearly every family here has someone in prison on charges of smuggling, he says. Their foreign “guests,” as the locals refer to the people crossing the frontier, are kept in village homes with curtains drawn to keep out prying eyes. The women take turns cooking food for them while the men scout ahead on the roads to check for police before moving them west, towards Istanbul, and towards Europe.
“Do you want to meet an Afghan?” one villager asks, and minutes later Nek Muhammad shuffles into the room. Dressed in a dark shalwar kameez, he speaks warily as he shares his story under the watchful gaze of a villager guarding him with a stick. Muhammad has spent his entire life as a refugee, shuttling between his homeland and neighbouring countries in what he says has been a search for a stable life.
Born in Pakistan, his family are ethnic Pashtuns from near the city of Jalalabad, in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar. In the 1980s, as the war between the Mujahideen and the Soviet Union erupted around them, they decided to head for Pakistan, already home to a sizeable population of Pashtuns. Muhammad and other Afghan refugees who fled the Soviet invasion made Pakistan the world’s largest host country for refugees for more than two decades.
Muhammad’s family returned to Nangarhar in 2005, only to find it was still a contested prize in the war between the government and the Taliban, so they went back to Pakistan. Over the years, things only seemed to become messier in Nangarhar. By 2015, the province was a battlefield for a three-way war between ISIL (ISIS), the Taliban, and the government. Schools were hit especially hard, becoming the target of attacks by ISIL. According to the UN, attacks on schools in Afghanistan tripled after 2017, nearly half of them taking place in Nangarhar province. “People are in a constant state of fear, they are not living normal lives,” Muhammad says.
So Muhammad and his family remained in Pakistan, among the 2.5 million Afghans there, half of whom are not registered with Pakistani authorities and all of whom are made increasingly unwelcome by the country’s laws. Pakistani law grants birthright citizenship, but as a matter of policy, Islamabad has not applied it to Afghans like Muhammad. Those who do register with the authorities, like Muhammad, are given “Proof of Registration” cards, and each year Islamabad threatens to revoke those, blaming the Afghans for Taliban attacks in the country.
With Afghanistan still suffering from war and with few prospects of a stable future in Pakistan, Muhammad – who used to work informally at a vegetable market or transporting goods in wheelbarrows – says he decided to try for Europe.
In early 2019, he paid thousands of dollars to smugglers in Pakistan who led him, his 11-year-old son, and two relatives to the Pakistan-Iran border, then across Iran to the Turkish border. There, he says, Iranian border guards robbed them of all they had. They hiked through the mountains along the border, and in the winter snow, he says nine of the other Afghans travelling with him died. The two relatives turned back, but he continued with his son. “The group was a kilometre or two ahead of us, and the guide beat us with a stick to keep pace with them,” he says. “So I had to pick up my son and put him on my back to move fast.”
Stuck now in Sariciman, Muhammad is kept along with dozens of other Afghans in a house with cardboard and tin foil covering the windows, one of several safe houses in the village that locals use to hide migrants until they are ready to be moved. Some days, the smugglers demand more money, other days they say they must wait for the Turkish police along the roads to let their guard down.
“We don’t come here for fun,” Muhammad says. The constant war has meant there is no stable life in places like Jalalabad. “That is why people became refugees,” he says.
“Some took refuge in Pakistan, some in Iran, some here, some there. They are helpless; the situation in Afghanistan is not fine. People are helpless, that’s why they are leaving Afghanistan.”
Afghans in Iran have not fared much better.
Sprawled on cushions in an apartment in Van, an ailing Khodadad Yakoubi, 76, carefully traces his fingers over the lines in his Quran, proudly reciting. The volume, kept wrapped in layers of colourful cloth and bound by a yellow sash, is the only possession the Yacoubi family has managed to hold on to in the 38 years since they left Afghanistan.
He struggles to find an answer when asked what he misses about his native Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. “I remember Nowruz,” he finally says with a grin, casting a glance at his wife Gulchaman, 65, seated nearby. “I remember how people from all over the country came to the north to see the red tulips. They grew all over the ground where we lived.”
Yakoubi, his wife, and their infant son fled to Iran in 1981, not expecting the war to last long. “The Russians had occupied my country, and there was a lot of fighting,” he recalls with effort when asked why they left Afghanistan.
“The fighting was especially bad in Mazar-i-Sharif. The local forces put a lot of pressure on people, they sent us to the front to fight when the Russians came,” he says. “My cousins got involved in the war, and they killed my uncle. I had a family, we hoped that soon enough peace would come back and we could return. It didn’t happen. It was our destiny. It only became worse.”
Life in Iran seemed promising at first, Yakoubi says. He worked in construction, on dairy farms, as a stone cutter, in a factory processing beans – the handful of blue-collar jobs Iranian law allows Afghans to work. But, like the estimated three million other Afghans in Iran, Yakoubi worked with no guarantee employers would keep their promise to pay wages, and he had no one to turn to when he got injured on the job.
For the Yakoubi children, three daughters and a son, growing up in Iran brought the realisation that despite being born there, most Iranians were not ready to accept them. “I grew up with a big question in my mind,” says Kubra Yakoubi in fluent English, “what’s the difference between us, what is a refugee, what is an Afghan girl, what are these things?”
Wiry and animated, the 28-year-old graduated from a university in Tehran and dreams of becoming a professional athlete. Despite being born in Iran and speaking Farsi like a local, she says her hopes were dashed by a litany of laws meant to keep Afghans from settling down.
“I covered as an Iranian girl and I spoke Farsi, not Dari, because I was born in Iran and I didn’t know how to speak as my father or mother speak Dari,” Kubra says. “But I felt big differences all the time between us, and every place I went in the streets, Iranian people would bother me, tell me terrible words, like cursing because you are Afghan, because you are lower than us, and I didn’t know why, because I was born there.”
Simple things like enrolling in university, or using public gyms, or joining a high school indoor football team, she says, became nearly impossible.
In 2003, Iran began requiring all Afghan refugees to register for a protected status in exchange for restrictions on where they could work, live and attend school, or face deportation. In 2015, Tehran began offering universal free education and health care, even for un-registered Afghan refugees. But a host of restrictions still apply even if an Afghan is properly registered. Nearly half of Iran’s provinces have barred foreigners from living there altogether, a policy rights advocates say is aimed at keeping Afghans out. Travelling outside of one’s designated district requires permission. Buying real estate, obtaining permits to work, even getting a SIM card are among a long list of activities that Afghans can only do through the help of Iranian nationals.
The pressure on Afghans in Iran only intensified with the imposition of US sanctions on the country over its nuclear programme in 2018. Already forced to work at the bottom of the Iranian economy, Afghan families like the Yakoubis became the target of ire from Iranians who claim they are taking their jobs. Some 477,000 Afghans returned home from Iran in 2019, 770,000 in 2018, 462,000 in 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration. In each year, more than half of those returning to Afghanistan were deported by Iran. Staying close to their country is not as possible as it once was for Afghans.
More than 1.2 million people applied for asylum in Europe in 2015 and another 1.2 million in 2016; approximately 15 percent of those applicants were Afghans, according to the European Union.
Consequently, the EU imposed rules making it much more difficult for refugees to make the journey, signing a deal with Turkey which agreed to accept the people Europe returns. As a result, the number of asylum applications in Europe fell to around half a million annually.
But even those Afghans who arrived in Europe before the restrictions were put in place did not have an easy time being granted asylum.
When Arezao Naiby and her family had to leave Kabul in 2015, they did not intend to go too far. “We wanted to stay in Iran, to not go far from Afghanistan, and everything happened so fast we had no choice,” says Naiby, 23, who now lives in Cologne, Germany.
Before leaving Afghanistan, Naiby’s mother worked as the top official overseeing women’s prisons in Kabul. When she appeared in a documentary about Kabul’s largest prison for women – a rare all-access look at the lives of female prisoners accused of sex crimes – that drew the ire of the Taliban. So Naiby, her parents, brother and sister, left for Iran.
Her father and brother went out one day and did not return. Iranian police stopped them and asked for their documents. When they said they did not have any proper immigration papers, Naiby’s father and brother, like hundreds of thousands of other Afghans in Iran that year, were swiftly deported. It soon became clear that none of them would be able to stay in Iran, so Naiby, her mother and sister headed to Turkey and, by December 2015, had reached Germany.
Naiby recalls living in any available building, in cities like Bonn and Cologne. For nearly a year, they were moved from city to city in Germany, between makeshift camps in school gymnasiums and hospitals. By the time they were finally interviewed by German asylum officials about their case, Germany and the EU had made it far more difficult for Afghans to be granted asylum.
The EU signed an agreement with Afghanistan in 2016, essentially tying aid for the country to assurances it would streamline the return of Afghans whose asylum claims were rejected in Europe. Germany followed up by officially declaring there were “internal protection alternatives,” in Afghanistan – that Afghan cities like Kabul were safe to deport most Afghans to. No longer could an Afghan in Europe say they needed asylum because their country was at war.
For an Afghan to be granted asylum, they now needed to show they, personally, were being threatened in their country. The change in policy immediately put more than 11,000 Afghans in Germany on a list for deportation and called into question hundreds of thousands of other pending applications by Afghans in the country. Even well-documented and publicly known asylum cases of Afghans fleeing the Taliban – like that of the Naiby family – now faced rejection.
Naiby assumed that because the whole family was at risk because of their mother, asylum would be extended to her as well. But by the time her asylum application process took off, she was over 18, and no longer part of her parents’ case. Her interview took less than one hour. The officer, she says “was just checking off yes or no on a list of questions.” A week after the interview, in early 2016, Naiby got a letter saying her claim had been rejected because, as German law now required, she had failed to explain why she, personally, was in danger. Her mother was granted asylum, but Naiby was not. German authorities said she had to return to Afghanistan on her own, signalling, she said, that they had little understanding of the situation in the country.
“Is it possible to go and live in Afghanistan as a young woman, alone?” Naiby says. The asylum officer, she says, “couldn’t even search on the internet for two minutes to know even where Afghanistan is, and why we left.”
Naiby’s father and brother in Kabul, meanwhile, applied with the German embassy there to be reunited with her mother in Germany. But soon after they had submitted all their documents to the embassy, a car bomb exploded there in May 2017, killing 150 people, and prompting Berlin to shut down all diplomatic missions in the country. German staff were pulled out of the country, and have not returned to this day.
It took two more years for the Naiby family to be reunited in Germany, and a lengthy court battle for Naiby herself to get another chance to make her case for asylum.
Most other Afghans in the country have not been so lucky. Measures taken by the EU and Turkey to stem the flow of people to Europe have sharply reduced asylum applications in Europe. In 2015 and 2016, at the height of the flow, nearly half a million Afghans in total were able to apply for asylum in Europe. In 2017 and 2018, this dropped to less than 50,000 Afghans a year – largely because of mass deportations of Afghans crossing through Turkey. Fewer and fewer applications are being approved as well. Today, a Syrian applying for asylum in Germany has a 99.8-percent chance of being accepted; more than half of Afghans, though, will have their asylum claim rejected, according to the EU’s official statistics.
To drive the point home, German authorities have bought billboards in Kabul and plastered ads in trains in Europe warning Afghans that they will not receive asylum. Every month, chartered planes carry scores of Afghans who have been denied asylum in Germany back to Kabul. Most are shackled in their seats and guarded by German police officers hired as private security to accompany them on the flights. The deportations were halted temporarily due to the pandemic, but in June Germany restarted deportations of asylum seekers to other European countries, and is expected to begin deportations to Afghanistan as well.
Challenging deportation has become more difficult as well. In the last few years, German lawmakers have made it easier for police to detain Afghans scheduled for deportation to make sure they are put on a flight. And German authorities floated the idea of following a trend in other European countries of prosecuting refugee rights activists for simple actions like publicising the time and location of a deportation flight. The law was eventually enacted but with penalties only for civil servants who help those scheduled for deportation.
Some Afghans facing deportation are so distraught at the idea of being forced to return that they try to take their own lives, but even that does not halt action against them, says Jürgen Soyer, a psychiatrist who has treated refugees and torture survivors for decades.
According to German law, asylum seekers suffering from mental illness should not be deported, as they are considered highly vulnerable, but Soyer says it is becoming increasingly difficult to prove that an asylum seeker falls into this category.
Soyer is managing director of the Munich Counseling and Treatment Centre for Refugees and Torture Victims, where hundreds of Afghans are referred each year for treatment. More than 10 percent of Afghan patients have attempted suicide, and more than 60 percent of them have clear suicidal tendencies, but few are able to obtain the proper documentation to prevent deportation. “Even reports from hospitals where someone has been admitted for a suicide attempt may no longer comply with these new regulations,” Soyer says.
The centre treats asylum seekers from a host of countries, including Syria, but the constant threat of deportation has taken the heaviest toll on the Afghans. “Syria, before the war, unless you were politically involved in opposition groups, you had a stable life, and that has not been the case for Afghanistan,” Stoyer says.
“In therapy, you need something to build on. Afghans do not have a foundation of stability in their youth, even their youth was marked with persecution or displacement. You cannot go back and build a stable life on that past experience.”
In Turkey, Mohseni and the others spent weeks being moved around by more smugglers, driven in the dead of night from one place to the next as they moved west. Their goal was to reach the capital, Ankara, where they would register for temporary protection with the UN.
Finally, in early 2019, one night in the city of Van – “when the smuggler figured he couldn’t get any more money out of us,” Mohseni says – they were put in a minivan and told they would be taken west to the city of Tatvan, and then on to Ankara.
The only seat was for the driver, everything else was taken out to make room for the people the smugglers would pack inside, nearly 60 of them, Mohseni says, by the time they set off for what they were told was a half-hour journey. But they kept driving late into the night, as they took unpaved roads through the mountains to evade police.
Mohseni was holding four-year-old Zahra in his lap, when, somewhere near the town of Bitlis, the minivan flipped off the road.
“My daughter’s stomach was torn apart… her stomach was out of her body,” Mohseni says. “I was so focused on her stomach I did not notice her head injury.”
Instead of calling an ambulance, the driver called other smugglers, who dropped the family off outside a hospital where Zahra was admitted for treatment. Mohseni and his family members were arrested by Turkish police. Each day they were allowed two hours out to visit the hospital, where Zahra had slipped into a coma.
One evening, 10 days after the accident, as Mohseni was being brought back to prison, he was told Zahra had died.
Back in Van, the Mohseni family now lives surrounded by reminders of their journey. Above and below them in their apartment building are other Afghan families whose journey to Europe has also been cut short. They rely on the kindness of locals and other Afghans. “None of these things you see, even the glass you are drinking tea from, belong to me,” says Mohseni.
Outside are the fruit stand and the street corner where they boarded the minibus for the journey that would kill Zahra.
Serda keeps the clothes her daughter wore in a plastic bag in a closet. She takes them out, gently pressing Zahra’s pretty, blood-stained, dress to her cheeks. The rest of the family sits in the next room, quietly waiting for the now routine ritual of mourning to end.