Twenty-eight days into their journey out of Afghanistan, a woman and her five children are sitting in the shade near a bus station in Tatvan, a town on the shore of Lake Van in eastern Turkey.
She is waiting for a smuggler, who was paid in advance, to take the family to Istanbul. Tired and dirty, the younger children are playing in the dust and laughing; the youngest boy wants a piggyback. The smuggler is two days late.
“My husband died fighting the Taliban in Ghazni,” she said. “There are fierce battles there now. We used the mountain road [to Iran] and got stopped by Turkish soldiers at the border, but they let us go. We have walked for days... My children are getting sick. It’s a very difficult situation.”
Chaos has quickly engulfed Afghanistan following the withdrawal of US and NATO troops after 20 years fighting against the militant movement; the Taliban claims to be in control of 85 percent of the country, kindling fears of renewed civil war.
While it is too early to tell whether the militants’ advance will spark a fresh exodus of Afghan refugees outside the country’s borders, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has said that about 270,000 people have fled their homes since January and are internally displaced, bringing the total uprooted population within Afghanistan to more than 3.5 million people.
At least some are already trying to get out. A family of 16 from Herat who left Afghanistan after a relative was killed by the Taliban and were then trapped for nearly three weeks at Istanbul’s airport have been moved to a repatriation center.
A relative in the US has been unable to reach them frequently, as their mobile phones have been confiscated, and it was unclear whether the family’s application for international protection was being processed.
Larger numbers of people are also making their way overland to Iran and then Turkey: Reporters saw at least 1,900 people crossing the border, most of whom appeared to be Afghan, traveling into Van Province over two nights this week.
Breaking up into smaller groups of about 30 people, the refugees and migrants from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Bangladesh waited for a flashlight signal from Yukaritulgali village 800m away on the Turkish side — a sign that the path was free of border guards — before hurrying through the darkness.
Those with enough money would try to reach Europe; others, such as the Ghazni family waiting in Tatvan, aim to find work in Turkey’s cities.
“There is a spike in people crossing from Iran to Van every summer. A lot of the time the Afghans who come are already living undocumented in Pakistan or Iran, but we are watching for a possible new influx thanks to the US troops leaving,” said Mahmut Kacan, a Van-based lawyer specializing in immigration and asylum cases.
Turkey is the world’s biggest host of refugees and is home to about 4 million: The majority are Syrian, at 3.7 million, but Afghans make up the second-biggest group. Last year, 23,000 Afghans applied for international protection in Turkey, according to the Turkish Directorate General of Migration Management’s Web site.
Earlier this week, Turkish Ministry of the Interior spokesman Ismail Catakli sought to downplay reports of a fresh wave of refugees, saying video and photographs of long lines of people walking in single file along roads in Iran, just 700m from the Turkish border, did not mean they would be able to enter Turkey.
Ongoing work to put up security walls, observation towers, floodlights and wireless sensors along Turkey’s borders with Iran and Iraq were 90 percent complete, he said, adding that “when the project is completed, terrorism, illegal crossing, smuggling, cross-border crimes will be prevented.”
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