Lost in translation: How four Afghan refugees headed to Europe ended up stranded in Syria
Last year, shortly after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, Nasratullah decided to set out for Europe. The 22-year-old had hoped to make it at least to Greece, instead he, along with three other Afghans ended up stranded in Syria.
The young men, all in their late teens and early 20s come from three separate provinces, Nangarhar, Laghman and Balkh, but ended up becoming friends at different points during the month-long journey from Afghanistan to Iran.
"They were not told of the difficulties that would await them in Turkey"
Like tens of thousands of Afghan refugees before them, the young men were at the mercy of the smugglers who charged them $1,100 each to get them to Turkey, but they were not told of the difficulties that would await them in Turkey.
In 2018, Ankara announced that they would be deporting undocumented Afghan refugees who enter the country through the Iranian border. The former Western-backed government in Kabul showed little hesitation at the time and immediately, hundreds of Afghan refugees were being deported from Turkey each month.
By July 2021, when the Taliban were taking control of districts across Afghanistan, the Turkish government began construction on a 295-kilometre wall along the border with Iran, meant in large part to keep undocumented Afghans out.
None of this was known to the four men, who were trying to flee the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate, but they came face-to-face with its realities. Nasratullah says the first time he tried to Turkey last winter, he was immediately sent back to Iran.
By July 2021 the Turkish government began construction on a 295-kilometre wall along the border with Iran meant in large part to keep undocumented Afghans out
“I had to try a different game,” Nasratullah said, referring to the term smugglers use for their schemes to get refugees across borders. Within weeks, he was back on a bus to Turkey. It was on that bus that he met the other boys – 23-year-old Safiallah, 18-year-old Khiyali Gul, and 25-year-old Attaallah – and where they were handed documents saying they were Syrian.
The boys accepted the documents as the bus headed towards Ankara. Just before reaching the capital, though, the bus was stopped by the Gendarmerie, a unit of the Interior Ministry that has a notable presence in the areas near the borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria.
They tried to explain to the Turkish authorities that they were Afghans hoping to reach Greece, but Nasratullah said it was to no avail.
“They threw us in a minibus and just started driving, eventually we arrived at a gate that said ‘Syria’ and we were handed over to the Mujahideen,” Nastratullah said. The Mujahideen he is referring to is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) an Islamist militant group that governs Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib.
The boys were then taken to an HTS detention centre. It took nearly a week for a translator, a Persian-speaking fighter from Tajikistan, to arrive. The boys pled their case, “We’re Afghan, we don’t know Arabic. Why are we being detained, what crime did we commit?”
The translator told them they must be thoroughly investigated until it can be proven they were not sent by Iran, claiming that Shia Afghans were being sent to fight for Damascus for nearly eight years now. The boys made it clear that they were Sunni and had no allegiance to the government of President Bashar al-Assad. After a month, they were freed and provided with a smuggler to try and get them back into Turkey.
However, the Syrian-Turkish border was much more well-guarded than the crossing from Iran. They made several attempts, even trying to scale the three-metre-high concrete slabs that make up the world’s third-longest wall. They also came under fire from the hundreds of Turkish border guards stationed near the wall, a phenomenon that has been documented by rights groups since at least 2016.
"The Syrian-Turkish border was much more well-guarded than the crossing from Iran. They made several attempts, even trying to scale the three-metre-high concrete slabs that make up the world’s third-longest wall"
By February, the smuggler gave up and said the boys are free to live among the people and that no harm will come to them.
But with no relatives in Syria and only a minimal understanding of basic Arabic, the young men had no way to make money or find a place to live.
At first, they would spend the nights on the streets and in local mosques. They eventually found a local shopkeeper and asked him for some money for bread. Looking at them, the shopkeeper knew there was more to their story, and the youngsters eventually found a way, through their basic language skills and translation apps, to tell the shopkeeper their story.
The shopkeeper asked them to provide him with any information or documents and quickly took their pictures, which he posted to Facebook. Three of them printed out copies of their Tazkiras, Afghan national IDs and one, held out a copy of his refugee registration card from Pakistan, which clearly states his family is from the Eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar.
The post quickly got picked up on Twitter, TikTok and Instagram.
"With no relatives in Syria and only a minimal understanding of basic Arabic, the young men had no way to make money or find a place to live"
Baz Muhammad Achekzai, an Afghan student currently living in Istanbul, saw the post and was driven to action. He took to his social media and asked if anyone could help them monetarily, especially during the holy month of Ramadan.
But sending assistance to Syria is not so easy, given the shaky relationship between Ankara and Damascus as well as Idlib’s status as a rebel-held area. One Afghan in Turkey spent three days, trying to speak to hawala agents in three different neighbourhoods of Istanbul before he could successfully send them money.
“I felt so bad for these boys, someone must help them,” Achekzai immediately started asking family and friends back in Afghanistan about the boys and eventually realised that his family was connected to the two from Nangarhar.
Achekzai spoke to their families. He says they are currently in the process of compiling documents to petition the Taliban government to make a formal request for Ankara to send their boys back to at least Turkey.
Achekzai said even if the Islamic Emirate can intervene, it will take time and require attention from the highest levels of government, “Neither the embassy nor the consulate knew about their situation, and to be honest, I doubt either one has the capacity to address their cause all the way in Syria.”
"How can you take the money from stranded people?"
Mahmut Kaçan, a lawyer who specialises in Human Rights and Refugee issues says it will be equally difficult to get Ankara to step in. He says this is the first case he has heard of Afghans being sent to Syria, and that if, “Turkey has deported them in this manner, I don't think they will be admitted to Turkey again, at least through legal means.”
If they do manage to make it back to Turkey, Kaçan said they are likely to be deported back to the Taliban-controlled Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Kaçan said since January, there have been cases of Afghans being deported back to Afghanistan via the state-run national carrier, Ariana Afghan Airlines.
“It seems that Turkey has established direct diplomatic relations with the Taliban. Currently, no country is deporting people directly to Afghanistan, but Turkey does,” Kaçan said.
European nations have paused deportations to Afghanistan in early August, when the Taliban were starting to take control of the provinces, but Turkey has continued doing so.
The boys have tried to speak to another smuggler, but they said he took $300 and 1,350 Turkish lira ($91) from them and just ran off with it. They say he is currently back in Istanbul and has done nothing to help them re-enter Turkey.
“I still don’t know why he would do that, how can you take the money from stranded people,” Nasratullah asks.
Ali M Latifi is a Kabul-based freelance journalist. He has reported from Afghanistan, Qatar, Turkey, Greece and Washington, DC.
Follow him on Twitter: @alibomaye