As the president of Afghanistan fled the country and the Taliban raised its flag in Kabul, it quickly became apparent to Turkish, Greek, and European Union officials that there is a potentially looming Afghan influx to neighboring and European countries. In such a political climate, taking lessons from recent history, state officials have begun calling each other to discuss the possible avenues of managing migratory movements.
After the fall of Kabul, the fear of facing another wave of migration, after 2015’s refugee and migrant crisis, has terrified EU officials. In addition to an initial surge, most countries expect that the condition will likely worsen in the upcoming months, particularly if Afghanistan’s economy faces strong challenges or the Taliban imposes Draconian laws. Most Western donors are determined to mitigate the impact[i] of this humanitarian crisis before it has the opportunity to deepen further. UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, reported that there are some 570,000 newly internally displaced people in Afghanistan as a result of the recent conflict since January 2021.[ii] While many more Afghans are expected to be internally displaced, those fleeing from the country will largely remain in neighboring countries, such as Iran and Pakistan, but also Central Asian republics. Others, who want to seek asylum in the West, are on the other hand expected to follow a migration route that follows through Iran and on to Turkey, with the final destination being Europe. Realizing the imminent challenge on its doorstep, the European Union is eager to cooperate with Turkey in managing potential migratory flows. However, as opposed to the predictions of academic commentators,[iii] political developments in Turkey will most likely limit the scope of this cooperation.
Although Turkey and the EU are not laying in a bed of roses as far as their foreign relations are concerned at large, migration remains one of the few areas that both sides consider as an avenue for continued cooperation. In 2016, to respond to the Syrian humanitarian crisis, Turkey and the EU signed a joint action plan whereby Turkey would seal its borders to prevent irregular migratory movements to the EU. In exchange, Turkey would receive financial support from the Union, as well as have a chance to resume negotiations to eventually become a member of the multinational organization. Today, in accordance with the agreement, Turkey hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian and 100,000 Afghan refugees. The EU on the other hand provided Turkey with a relatively moderate €6 billion in funding, accounting for less than 20% of Turkey’s $40 billion spending[iv] to host Syrian refugees. In addition to the lack of aid, the EU has failed to realize promises such as visa-free travel for Turkish citizens and accelerated membership negotiations about membership in the Union.
In recent years, various factors have contributed to the deterioration of EU-Turkey relations, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bolstering of authoritarianism, Turkey’s operations in the Mediterranean Sea, and the country’s military presence in Northern Syrian territories and Libya. Although cooperation in migration-related issues continue to a certain degree, at tense times in foreign relations, Turkey uses migration as its ace card. In early 2020; Turkey encouraged Syrian refugees to cross its border with Greece[v] by ordering border control officials to temporarily overlook migrant smuggler activities. Although Turkish-European diplomatic cooperation remains cumbersome, both parties have an interest in preventing another largescale influx of refugees from occurring, which would most likely worsen what are already difficult economic and political climates within both EU countries and Turkey in a semi-post-coronavirus world.
The general discontent of the Turkish public with the government’s support of an increased number of Syrian refugees is growing. Turkey has been struggling to cope with increasing rates of inflation and unemployment, and the value of the Turkish Lira has hit the record low,[vi] being extremely volatile and vulnerable. In addition to Turkey’s problems in the financial markets, the coronavirus pandemic had a multiplier effect[vii] on Turkey’s tourism-dependent economy. These are among the reasons why in 2021 anti-refugee sentiments are getting ever-stronger in Turkey. At the same time, political developments in the country signify a shifting trend in Turkish politics: support for Erdogan is at a record low[viii] for the first time since his party’s victory in 2002.
Alongside grim economic parameters, the presence of Syrian refugees in Turkey has recently become the topic of one of the most important political debates in the country. In addition to the logistical challenges that have arisen from the presence of an unprecedented number of refugees, their status also creates a complex situation. Since Turkey maintains certain geographical designations—which constituted the main framework of the global refugee regime in the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees—neither Syrians nor Afghans enjoy the legal rights of refugees but are kept in Turkey under temporary protection. This limbo creates further problems in Turkey, as public policies remain insufficient to resolve the challenges faced by de-facto refugees.
Refugees have legal restrictions on joining the formal economy, and they work in inhumane conditions for subsistence-level wages[ix]. Nevertheless, with a large sector for the informal economy,[x] thanks to various populist and clientelistic strategies, the market has managed to absorb the costs of hosting high numbers of refugees in the country. However, as overall economic well-being depreciated, the reaction against Syrians increased in turn to a point where around 80% of Turkish voters want to send Syrians back to their country.[xi]
The Turkish public also remains in a reactionary position against Afghan refugees. The opinion of Afghans is much less favourable than their view of Syrians as online footage has displayed Afghans as primarily young and healthy males who are simply unwilling to fight for their country. Videos[xii] showing Afghan refugees crossing over to Turkey from Iran have been widely disseminated in Turkish social media. The possibility of Afghanistan being home to millions more has translated into public unrest. Main opposition party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu further fueled this debate[xiii] by hypothesizing that Erdogan has struck a deal with the United States and that the two governments have a secret agenda to adopt a policy of open doors towards Afghan refugees. Although American and Turkish authorities deny these claims,[xiv] the public – including Erdogan’s voter base – maintains its skeptical position towards Erdogan’s foreign policy strategy.
In response to developing public sentiments and in order to make moves towards victory in the upcoming 2023 General and Presidential Elections, the main opposition party shifted its discourse[xv] to win the support of swing voters. Anti-refugee discourse and policy suggestions are widespread among all opposition parties regardless of their position on the political spectrum. The anti-refugee stance does not stop at the level of individual politicians’ rhetoric but is reflected in policy-making as well. A series of draft policies are explicitly meant to disadvantage refugees both in the short and longer terms with the most recent example being higher public service tax fees for refugees[xvi] put forth in Turkey’s northwestern Bolu province.
Seeing an opportunity in the current political climate, Umit Ozdag, a former Iyi Parti MP, even founded a new political party established solely on an anti-refugee discourse. Once a champion of an open-door policy, President Erdogan has vowed that Turkey will not serve as Europe’s warehouse for refugees.[xvii] He also pointed out that the country has reinforced its border with Iran by deploying thousands of gendarmerie and police officials, and a wall would soon be erected.
While there are ongoing discussions between the European Union and Turkey about cooperating on this issue, Turkish opposition parties strictly reject any possibility of hosting Afghan refugees as well as a deal with the Union. In Kilicdaroglu’s view, the West has been trying to turn Turkey into an “open prison for refugees.”[xviii] Declarations[xix] from EU officials that Turkey and other countries in the region are more suitable for Afghans than Austria, Germany, or Sweden only add fuel to the controversial nature of the matter in the eyes of the Turkish public.
Surrounded by such a political environment, President Erdogan finds himself facing a conundrum. On the one hand, he desires to leverage a new wave of refugees in opening up negotiations for new deals with the EU that can stimulate the Turkish economy and secure his position against his domestic rivals. On the other hand, the anti-refugee discourse that resonates with his own voter base and that of the AKP’s ally, the MHP (Nationalist Movement Party), renders such an option problematic.[xx] Partly due to these sentiments, it arguably remains unlikely that a renewal of the EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan will take place. Furthermore, median voters in Turkey take a critical stance against EU membership[xxi] as they see it as an unlikely prospect.
If the EU wishes to manage the movement of refugees it should assist Turkey with its border patrolling activities through capacity-building projects. In addition to this, Turkey and the EU should also cooperate on increasing their humanitarian aid to Afghanistan in order to mitigate people’s incentive to leave the country—although this might have the inadvertent effect of indirectly sponsoring the Taliban too. Additionally, beside improving its cooperation with the EU, Turkey may also want to consider liaising with Iran and Tajikistan by striking a deal that resembles the 2016 EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan. In each scenario, Turkish foreign policy opportunities vis-à-vis Afghanistan will continue to be shaped by Turkish citizens’ ever-developing sentiments towards Afghans and refugees in general.
[ii] Afghanistan Situation Emergency Update 1 September 2021.pdf (unhcr.org)
[xiv] https://twitter.com/USEmbassyTurkey/status/1427875499318071297?s=20[xv] https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/07/afghan-refugee-influx-stokes-tensions-turkey