CESME, Turkey (Reuters) - As the European Union and Turkey focus on stemming the flow of Syrian refugees attempting perilous journeys across the Aegean sea to Greece, another migrant community whose numbers are also swelling says it is being overlooked.
Largely denied the chance for legal resettlement in Europe and struggling to find work or support in Turkey, Afghans account for around a quarter of the migrants risking their lives in the small boats leaving Turkey’s shore.
Ahead of an emergency European Union summit with Turkey on Monday, the EU executive has announced the first payouts from a 3 billion euro ($3.3 billion) fund meant to help Turkey cope with an influx of more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees and encourage them to stay put.
But while Afghans are unlikely to be prevented from using services such as medical centers and education facilities set up with European funds in Turkey, the fact they speak Pashto and Dari, rather than Arabic, risks excluding them from projects designed for Syrian refugees, aid workers warn.
“The EU is not even discussing these issues and is exclusively focused on Syria,” Kati Piri, the European Parliament’s rapporteur for Turkey, told Reuters last month.
“Even if the Syrian crisis would be solved tomorrow, there would still be a serious refugee crisis, with a large number of refugees in Turkey who don’t have access to their rights.”
Afghan migrants in Turkey interviewed by Reuters said that over the past few years they had been denied interviews with U.N. refugee agency UNHCR that would formally determine their refugee status, a key step in the journey to being resettled.
Polat Kizildag, program coordinator at ASAM, an organization which registers asylum seekers in Turkey, said they were generally told they were ineligible because Turkey was the third country on their journey and the expectation was that they apply for refugee status in their second, in many cases Iran.
Human rights groups have said Iranian forces deport thousands of Afghans without giving them a chance to prove their asylum status and that they are pressured to leave the country.
“We want to stay (in Turkey) but ... there is no support here. It’s too expensive,” said Najebullah, 45, a father of four originally from Kabul waiting in Cesme, on Turkey’s Aegean coast, to make an illegal crossing to the Greek Island of Chios.
“In Europe we will get work and they will help us,” he said, echoing a commonly-held belief among the migrants flooding to Turkey’s shore that once they arrive in Europe they will be more easily able to build a new life.
Selin Unal, UNHCR spokeswoman in Turkey, said the most vulnerable, including Afghans, still received interviews, adding that close to 500 Afghans had been interviewed last year. She said the sheer numbers meant those most at risk were prioritized among UNHCR’s active case load of some 254,000 non-Syrians.
More than 63,000 Afghans came to Turkey last year, a sharp rise from 15,652 in 2014, according to ASAM, counting only those who registered. Some came directly from Afghanistan, others from Iran, where they had tried unsuccessfully to settle.
Kirikkale, near Turkey’s capital Ankara, is one of several satellite towns where registered Afghans are allowed to reside.
Hakima Rezai, in her late thirties, said she was trying to get to Europe to be reunited with her four children, taken to Europe by sea by her brother-in-law almost a year ago. She said UNHCR - which declined to comment on individual cases - had told her they could not help.
Rezai lives in a single room with a coal-burning stove and relies on the charity of neighbors. She does not receive the cash cards given to some Syrian refugees by international NGOs and their local partners to help meet basic living costs because there is no such scheme specifically set up for Afghans.
“I cry every day,” she said, showing the identity documents of her absent children.
The exodus from Afghanistan has been prompted by an increasingly precarious security situation, with 11,000 civilians killed or injured in 2015, as well as widespread corruption undermining faith in the future and a war-ruined economy that cannot provide enough work for its population.
Kabul and other Afghan cities have seen a spate of suicide bombings and other attacks as the Taliban has stepped up its insurgency following the withdrawal of international troops from most combat operations in 2014.
The insurgents, driven from power by a U.S-led campaign in 2001, are seeking to reimpose hardline Islamist rule and are now in control or threatening around a third of the country.
According to the European Commission, 64,109 asylum requests were registered in Turkey in 2015, more than 11,000 of them from Afghan citizens, but only 459 were concluded, either by granting or rejecting refugee status.
Some are still waiting in Turkey, but others are among the thousands to have crossed illegally to Europe.
Under a law passed two years ago, Afghans and other refugees have access to healthcare in Turkey and Unal said the most vulnerable could also benefit from social security schemes.
In January, Turkey also passed a new law to give refugees access to legal employment, a move praised by the European Union, although the program has not yet been rolled out.
But many of the Afghan refugees, hampered in part by language difficulties, are unaware of their rights and rely on illegal labor such as fruit picking to survive.
Birnur Esen, a psychologist who works for IMECE, an organization which collects and distributes clothes and other supplies to migrants rescued at sea, said convincing migrants to stay in Turkey meant improving their lives there and making them realize conditions in Europe would be just as difficult.
That, she said, should be the focus of European efforts.
“We are trying to change their mind,” she said. “Europe must stand behind Turkey. It must say that if you stay in Turkey, we will improve your conditions.”
Additional reporting by James Mackenzie in Kabul, Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul and Tom Miles in Geneva; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Janet McBride