The fate of Turkey’s Afghan refugees in the earthquake zone
According to Human Rights Watch, Turkey is home to the world’s largest number of refugees with 400,000 within its borders. A considerable number of Turkey’s refugees also lived in the provinces that were hardest hit by the February 6 earthquakes.
In her article in the Telegraph, Stefanie Glinski sheds light on the anxieities felt by Afghan refugees who suffered through the earthquake last month. Ovakent, fondly named “little Afghanistan” by its residents, is a small town in Hatay which had received an influx of Afghan refugees more than 40 years ago. With the onset of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Turkish government had evacuated ethnic Uzbeks and Turkmens, who were resettled in this town and who acquired citizenship in subsequent years.
Glinski writes, “Over the years, Ovakent has indeed turned distinctly Afghan: on the streets, you can hear people speak Persian or Uzbek, and – before the quake – the scent of warm bread fresh out of the tandoor was always in the air and men were sitting outside in traditional Afghan dress, gulping cup after cup of green cardamon tea.”
Even after the Soviet invasion, Ovakent continued to receive waves of refugees as Afghans fled civil war, the Taliban regime of 1996-2001, the US invasion of their country, and the fall of the republic. A majority of the newer refugees are undocumented and are uncertain about their future in Turkey especially following the earthquake’s damage.
Prior to the disaster, refugees like Samina Durman, who is undocumented, often depended on friends and family for shelter and other needs. Durman, who is unwilling to return to Afghanistan where she and her daughters could be deprived of basic rights, admits that life in Turkey is not without challenges: “Without official documents my children can’t even go to school. We want Turkey to be our home, but it’s impossible to integrate without legal documents to stay here.”
The same fate is shared by the other Afghan residents of Ovakent, who in the aftermath of the earthquake live in tents that line the sole highway leading into the Hatay province.
Turkey is currently home to 400,000 Afghan refugees. Of this number, 130,000 are registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and an additional 51,800 hold visas or residence permits. The remaining individuals, who constitute the vast majority of the Afghan population in Turkey, lack documentation.
According to Glinski, the Afghan refugees who had found a new home for themselves in Ovakent are determined to remain in the town, despite the precarious nature of life without documentation after the earthquake.