Under a small bridge more than 100 kilometers from the Turkish border with Iran, a small group of boys and young men waits quietly for a smuggler.
They are unwashed, exhausted and hungry. Most of them are under 18, and they are all from Afghanistan. When the Taliban began taking over their towns and villages, they fled their homes with almost nothing. Currently, after more than two months of travel, they have even less.
“I brought shampoo, soap, money, my phone and a watch,” says Saboon Afghan, 24, the oldest in the group and its de facto leader. “I used up some and the rest was stolen. Now, I just have these clothes and an empty bag.”
The young men and boys are hiding because they fear they will be arrested and sent back across the border to Iran if they are caught. A few say this trip is their second attempt and only the youngest among them — at 12 years old — is likely to be seen as a true refugee — at least this is what they expect.
At a deportation center in Van the day before, officials conducted a tour of the facility for journalists, demonstrating efforts to provide humane treatment, even as they worked to reduce the number of refugees in Turkey.
They are not currently deporting refugees to Afghanistan for humanitarian and logistical reasons, says Cuma Omurcu, the general director of the refugee office for Van Province. He also states unequivocally they are not deporting people to Iran.
But under the bridge, the young men and boys are doubtful, saying if they are caught, they expect to be arrested and held in a deportation center, or sent back to Iran, regardless of any official policy.
“We were walking openly on the streets for an hour when the police arrested us last time,” says Zaki Wassim, 17, from Kabul, explaining what happened when he tried to enter Turkey from Iran about a month ago. “The next evening, they took us in a bus to the border and shouted, ‘Don’t come back to Turkey.'”
Influx angers some Turks
Earlier this month, the Taliban swept into Kabul after taking over vast swaths of Afghanistan in a matter of days. Since then, mass evacuations have left the Kabul airport in chaos, and Islamic State suicide bombers have killed at least 170 people and 13 U.S. service members.
The country is on edge, waiting to find out what will happen now that the United States has met its self-declared August 31 deadline to pull out of Afghanistan completely.
Turkish officials also are waiting to see what happens next, saying it may be weeks or months before they can resume deportations. Turkey currently has 25 deportation centers, all filled to capacity with mostly Afghan refugees, and it plans to build eight more.
“We cannot send them back because of human rights issues,” says Omurcu. “But if things go well, we will resume normal deportations.”
Many Turkish people are angered by the influx of Afghan refugees, saying their country is being damaged economically and socially by the crisis. Turkey already hosts more than 4 million refugees and asylum-seekers, more than any other country in the world, including 3.6 million Syrian refugees.
During the tour, officials express sympathy for the detainees, showing playrooms for children, Turkish language classes, and a line of young men picking up what appears to be a healthy meal. They also express sympathy for the angered Turkish nationals, who want refugees out of their country.
“Illegal entries are out of control in Turkey,” Omurcu continues. “It is too much.”
The process for becoming a legal refugee in Turkey involves applying for asylum via government officials. In most countries, the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, processes the claims, but Turkey relieved the agency of that responsibility in 2018.
Under the bridge, the boys do not seem to know much about the process, saying first they were driven from their homes by crushing poverty. Later, they explain the poverty was a result of war and violence. Both the United Nations and Turkey are clear: fleeing violence and danger can make you eligible for refugee status. Fleeing poverty does not, even if the two are intertwined.
At the deportation center, some refugees point out that no one plans to become a refugee, so it is reasonable that some people do not know how to organize their tragic stories in order to fit into a legal definition.
Soraya, 19, was in her third semester at a university when she ran from her home in western Afghanistan. She was studying physics and chemistry, hoping one day to become a doctor.
When the Taliban took over her town, she and her sister fled with her nieces and nephews. Besides the violence of the war, they feared they would be in danger, just for being educated women.
And while she hopes Turkey will help her find a safe place to live, outside of the detention camp, she doesn’t see it as Turkey’s responsibility.
“This is my request for the whole world,” she says. “Please pave the way for us. We escaped the battles ourselves. Now we need help.”
Mohammad Mahdi Sultani contributed to this report.