‘We Don’t Have Space for You All’: The Struggles Afghan Refugees Face in Turkey

In November 2018, a Refugees International team sat in Ali Hekmat’s office in Kayseri, Turkey, as he told us about the harsh realities Afghan refugees face living there. Originally from Afghanistan, Ali and his wife Dr. Zakira Hekmat are co-founders of Afghan Refugees Solidarity and Aid Association. Together, they lead one of the few relief organizations working for Afghan refugees in Turkey, which is the second largest refugee population in the country at more than 170,000 people (the first being Syrians, at more than 3.6 million).

Following a change in asylum procedures in September 2018, when the sole responsibility for registering non-Syrian asylum seekers was transferred from UNHCR to the Turkish authorities, Refugees International conducted a fact-finding mission to Turkey and published a report, ‘You Cannot Exist in this Place’: Lack of Registration Denies Afghan Refugees Protection in Turkey. The organization is alarmed by Afghan refugees’ difficulty in obtaining Turkish identity cards needed to access legal work and basic services such as healthcare, housing, and education—or, as many may see it, documentation needed to legally exist.

Dozens of single Afghan men, in particular, told us about the major obstacles they faced during the asylum registration process, often hearing “we don’t register single men” as the answer to their attempts. Families seemed to have better access, but even they faced delays receiving their registration documents, directly affecting their ability to access services.InApril 2019, Refugees International reconnected with the Hekmats’ Association, this time with Dr. Hekmat. It was disheartening to hear that, six months later, Dr. Hekmat’s concerns echoed her husband’s: “Unfortunately, Afghans are forgotten.”

I interviewed Dr. Hekmat in Farsi and translated the interview. It has been edited for clarity.

Has the attitude towards Afghan refugees worsened since Refugees International last visited in November 2018?

Yes. When Syrian refugees arrived, a lot of help was cut. The Turkish government would say ‘Syrians need a lot of help, so we can only help Syrian refugees.’ Afghans became distressed. There was no help for them.

What challenges do Afghan refugees face in Turkey?

When they come into Turkey, there are a lot of difficulties. First, they don’t know the language … translation is really hard. Aside from the Farsi translators at the Ministry of Interior Directorate General of Migration Management, there are no other Farsi translation services. In hospitals, or other places providing basic services, there is no access to translators.

The second challenge is that refugees don’t have work permissions in Turkey... Until now, they face problems receiving kimliks [Turkish identity cards] in all cities. People who don’t have a family and are here alone, especially men, don’t receive kimliks. [Even] people who come to Turkey legally complete the application, are told by the government, ‘We don’t have space for you all.’ There are Afghans who have been waiting for kimliks for 10 months.

If they get sick, they can’t go to the doctor—they don’t have kimliks. If they want to study, they can’t study—they don’t have kimliks. You have to have an identity card, can’t go to a hospital, can’t go to another city, can’t visit your family in another city.

After Syrians, [the most numerous refugees in Turkey] are Afghans, but unfortunately, Afghans are forgotten. ... There is no motivation to help Afghan refugees.

Where do refugees stay when they first arrive in Turkey and how is their housing?

As soon as Afghans arrive, the burden to find housing is on Afghans themselves. Afghans help one another with information or contacts, sometimes even upon just meeting one another at the park or store. But there is no help from the government.

Rent is extremely expensive. One of the other difficulties is landlords often require kimliks. If cities are helpful, landlords do give houses, but many landlords have issues renting to people who do not have kimliks.... Often, people ask someone with a kimlik to put the house under their name, but who would do that?

Sometimes, two to three families or eight to nine people will live in one house. … Afghans who come to Turkey aren’t stable enough to help one another, but … Afghans who were able to rent a house will help other Afghans, … sometimes for one month, two weeks—until they find a place.

What upsets you the most?

Afghans don’t have a good ending. ‘What is our ending?’ they ask. ‘Will we be in Turkey?’ The Turkish government says, ‘We don’t have space for you all.’ Afghan refugees don’t have hope for a life in Turkey.