The accompanying passages from regional sources provide local insight into the flow of Afghan refugees through Iran into Turkey as the Taliban consolidates its total control of Afghanistan. The sources suggest a transnational human smuggling network with cells in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and Greece. According to the first passage from TGRThaber, a pro-Turkish government news source, there are two main routes that the refugees take. The first route starts in Afghanistan’s Nimruz Province, continues to Zabul in Iran’s Sistan Province, and then onward to Turkey. The second route is from Afghanistan to Pakistan, where the refugees then pass to Zaranj on the border with Iran. Another important insight is that the refugees are mostly males between the ages of 15 and 30. Apparently, women, children, and elderly people are not accepted by the smugglers. Upon arrival in Turkey, some of them continue on to Greece, depending on their financial resources and preferences. This source claims that Iranian intelligence and border security are complicit in the smuggling, allowing the refugees to evade the security checkpoints from Iran into Turkey.
As the second passage from an independent Turkish news platform discusses, the Turkish government has taken some measures against this situation, including building modular walls and digging trenches along its border with Iran. These measures have decreased the numbers (from 1000-1500 per day to about 400-500 a day), but the smugglers have adjusted by changing their routes and methods to avoid detection. The source also suggests that the three main reasons Afghan refugees prefer Turkey are that they see Turkey as the gateway to the West, it is a country where Turkmens or Uzbeks will feel relatively at home, and they have relatives or acquaintances in Turkey already.
The irregular migrants departing Afghanistan without any ID or passport, and crossing two thirds of Iran to arrive in Turkey, are assisted by Iranian intelligence and border patrol.
Source: “Türkiye’ye çok uluslu komplo: Merdiven İran’dan rehberlik PKK’dan (Multinational conspiracy against Turkey: Iran provides the ladder, PKK provides the guidance),” Tgrthaber.com (a Turkish pro-government news website), 13 August 2021. https://www.tgrthaber.com.tr/dunya/turkiyeye-karsi-cok-uluslu-komplo-2791330
The Türkiye newspaper did an investigative analysis on the unknowns of the route that the refugees take. Witnesses discussed the refugee traffic along the route. An international relations expert from Kabul, Muhammed Ali Ashna, discussed that the smuggling network has an international scope, and a network that reaches all of Afghanistan’s villages. Ali Ashha, who conveyed that this network entails Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, Greece and Europe, also noted that the PKK terror network is another partner to the smugglers.
Ali Ashha said: While still in Afghanistan, the illicit refugee candidates are split into groups of 80-100 and they move mostly from Afghanistan’s Nimruz province to Zabul in Iran’s Sistan province. Another route they take is the Pakistan corridor. The illicit refugees that are first passed from Afghanistan to Pakistan are then passed on to Zaranj, on the border with Iran. There is no border control on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border or on the Afghanistan-Iran border, so they have no trouble moving to these regions.
Payments are [made] at the Target Location
The refugees that depart from Afghanistan are guaranteed to arrive within four-five days. They are in the 15-30 age range. Women, elderly and small children are not accepted. This is due to the route and conditions. These people cover over 3000 km (~2000 miles) and they pass through many points on foot. For each person departing Afghanistan, a sponsor is required. The smuggling networks require these people to bring nothing with them. They take no ID, passport, phone with them. Per the agreement, once they arrive at their target location, the refugees are allowed to use the phone of the smuggling network’s Turkey branch, to call their family and their sponsor [in Afghanistan]; and the payment is made to the network’s Afghanistan contact. The refugees taken to Turkey are held hostage by the network until the payment is made. According to their agreement, once in Turkey, some of these people are taken to the Aegean and Marmara regions of Turkey, to then be passed on to Greece.
Iranian Intelligence Assistance
Muhammed Ali Asha, who expressed that Iran using the Afghan refugee ‘card’ against Turkey said, “The irregular migrants departing Afghanistan without any ID or passport, and crossing two thirds of Iran to arrive in Turkey, are assisted by Iranian intelligence and border patrol. In fact, Iranian intelligence is mixing unknown individuals into these groups. If they are caught, they say they are “refugees.” The illicit migrants departing Afghanistan to Turkey are 80% Pashtun, Hazara and Tajik. But if they are caught, they say they are Turkmens.
Tehran Carries them to the Border
Iranian researcher Babek Shahit also confirmed that Iranian security forces are openly supporting the migrants at the Afghanistan-Iran border and in their arrival to the Turkish border. “These migrants cover a distance of 2500 km inside Iran. They face no obstacles and arrive at the border of [the Turkish town of] Van.” Babek said. He also explained: Each group that departs Afghanistan uses designated vehicles and passes numerous cities, and dozens of check points to arrive at the Van border. We should ask, “How are these people, who have no ID or passport, not caught or sent back to their country?”
Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Iranian Intelligence and Border Patrol officers are all working in cooperation on this. These illegals, taken from the Afghan border, pass through important cities with high security such as Kerman, Qom, Zanjan to arrive at the Turkish border. Once they get to the border, [Iranian] officials provide them with ladders so they can climb over the security wall that Turkey has built. The Iranian intelligence helps these people evade Turkey’s security measures by directing them to the mountainous region of Kotur. Even though the terrain is difficult to cross here, they cooperate with the PKK to make the passage.
Source: Fırat Fıstık, “Türkiye-İran sınırından izlenimler: Güvenlik önlemleri yeterli değil, geniş bir kaçakçılık ağı var (Observations from the Turkey-Iran border: Security measures are insufficient, there is a broad smuggling network),” Medyascope.tv (an independent Turkish news platform), 26 July 2021. https://medyascope.tv/2021/07/26/turkiye-iran-sinirindan-izlenimler-guvenlik-onlemleri-yeterli-degil-genis-birkacakcilik-agi-var/
Scenes of hundreds of Afghan refugees crossing the Turkey-Iran border became the main agenda of Turkey while politicians and others started taking about the [Afghan] refugees into Turkey and irregular migration. As Medyascope, we went to Van to see the situation on the ground, and to the Turkey-Iran border to speak to the refugees about their experiences, as well as to speak to the officials and the people of the region.
The arrival of Afghan refugees into Turkey can be understood in three dimensions. The first is the measures that the [Turkish] government is taking or not taking; the second is the smuggling activity and the problems it creates; the third is the experience of the refugees, why they prefer Turkey and how long this situation will last.
One week ago, the Van Governorate and security forces declared that 456 Afghan refugees and 11 smugglers were apprehended. Six were arrested. Another security measure the government has taken is the modular wall effort. This modular wall is planned across 63 kilometers. In addition, in an effort to secure the border [with Iran], 110 kilometers of trenches have been dug, 76 monoblocks and [watch] towers have been built. Despite these measures, the Afghan refugees are still arriving, though in smaller numbers. Instead the measures lead them to change their route and method.
The second place to look to understand the refugee flow is the smuggling activity. An intense and global smuggling network has been established. Those that have contact with the smugglers in Iran obtain an average of 400-500 Turkish Lira from each refugee. Once the refugees are picked up from the border, they are taken to shantytowns in Van, or central places and bus stations in Van, Tatvan and Diyarbakir. The refugees stay here for a few days and then, depending on their financial resources and preference, they can go to different cities in Turkey. Bus stations are places where refugees congregate. …The smugglers keep the refugees in closed and isolated places to avoid capture. For example, sanctuaries, barns, buildings under construction, or places under bridges.
…All Afghan refugees point to the war in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s increasing control as the reason for their arrival. At first, it was just young or middle-aged males coming, but now families are coming too.
Three reasons why Turkey is preferred
There are three main reasons why Afghan refugees prefer Turkey. First, they see Turkey as the gateway to the West. Second, it is a country where Turkmens or Uzbeks will feel relatively at home. Third, they have relatives or acquaintances in Turkey already… Finally, the Afghan refugee flow to Turkey doesn’t look like it will be over anytime soon. While the number has decreased from 1000-1500 per day a few weeks ago to about 400-500 a day now, it has not been prevented entirely.