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Afghans Face Deportation From Turkey After Trying To Flee Taliban Occupation


As U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan and Taliban fighters occupy more and more territory, frightened Afghans are fleeing in search of a safe haven. Many head to Turkey, where they've gone for years and where they often face deportation back to their home country. NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul reports on one group of Afghans still awaiting word of their fate.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: I spoke by phone with one member of the Afghan group who told me he used to work with Western and U.S. agencies in a village in Herat province. He said he grew increasingly anxious as Taliban fighters began to take control of more and more territory. He says he and the 15 others in the group were jolted into flight after a relative was shot.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And they have killed him. And we were shocked. We did not know what to think, how it happened. And we got the opportunity, and we escaped.

KENYON: The escape didn't take them very far, however. They reached the Istanbul Airport, where they applied for asylum. Rather than voluntarily return to Afghanistan to await the answer, they spent more than two weeks in the airport, at first hiding out in small groups and later taken to two holding areas - one for men and one for women and children. The group member I spoke with asked that his age and identity not be disclosed as he's afraid of retribution for speaking to the media.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Nobody really cared about us. For 17 days, none of the group take shower (ph), no hygiene. We got nothing. We got nothing. We are just like - worse than a prison.

KENYON: This isn't a new issue for Turkey. In 2018, for example, the state news agency quoted the Interior Ministry as saying more than 7,000 Afghans had been deported in a matter of weeks. And that threat appears to be continuing. Thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C., artist Rahela Majidi has been trying to get someone to pay attention to the plight of this group of stranded Afghans. She's related to some of them and says in her own time in Afghanistan, she'd been doing things likely to anger conservatives, things like teaching young girls to read. She says her family members still in Herat found the threats escalating, especially her sisters, who were also educating girls.

RAHELA MAJIDI: They was (ph) really scared of even going to school and attending any programs. And they eventually asked my brother to escort them to school and back to home. And at some point, they just stopped going out altogether.

KENYON: She says they sold everything to escape Afghanistan and have nothing to return to. The Istanbul governor's office posted a statement on its website confirming that the Afghans had requested asylum and that their applications were being considered. Rahela Majidi says being deported back to Afghanistan now could be extremely dangerous.

MAJIDI: Basically, the whole city is surrounded by Taliban. We don't even have a home to go back. We sold everything we had to get where we are, and we can't go back

KENYON: Now, she says, the group's passports and phones were taken, and she was told they were moved to a repatriation center and don't know what will happen next. Analyst Soli Ozel at Istanbul's Kadir Has University says Turkey will be wary about a new wave of migrants. He says public anger was already growing in Turkish cities and towns over the 3.5 - 4 million Syrians, Iraqis and others still living in Turkey years after Ankara agreed to shelter them.

SOLI OZEL: That's 5% of Turkey's entire population. That's quite a lot of people. And if Afghans in really high numbers are going to be added to this, this is likely to create an explosive situation.

KENYON: Ozel says he understands why President Joe Biden doesn't want Afghanistan to be an endless American war, but he says the way it's being handled is simply creating fresh disasters.

OZEL: It was incumbent on the Americans who invaded the country, fought for 20 years, couldn't really put anything together to actually think of what the consequences of their withdrawal was going to be. But as usual, though, the Americans leave. They leave behind a mess, and everybody will have to pick up the pieces of that.

KENYON: For now, desperate Afghans continue to pour into Turkey, perhaps believing that whatever awaits them, it can't be worse than what they're leaving behind.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELODIUM'S "LACRYMAE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.