Undocumented Afghan migrants who fled to Turkey to escape the Taliban say they are unable to get treatment and vaccines for the coronavirus.
While officially registered refugees qualify for health care in Turkey, it is believed that thousands of undocumented Afghan migrants are in the country.
The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in August 2021 following the withdrawal of Western forces prompted thousands to flee to neighboring countries. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan nationals had already left their home country for security reasons or to escape poverty.
VOA spoke to several refugees in the central Turkish city of Erzurum, which lies on a major route for migrants heading west to Europe and is a stopover for many refugees. Some settle and find work in the region.
According to the United Nations, Turkey is hosting around 183,000 Afghan asylum-seekers, while 300,000 Afghans are permanently settled there. However, unofficial estimates suggest thousands more Afghan migrants are undocumented, living and working in Turkey under the radar and unable to access basic services such as health care.
“I am from Badakhshan province in Afghanistan. I came to Turkey two months ago. I am 18 years old. We have no ID cards, so the hospitals don’t treat us,” Afghan migrant Muhammed told VOA.
Lack of ID card a concern
Muhammed works for a local dairy company in Erzurum along with several other Afghan migrants, including his friend Islam. They live in a small, run-down apartment in the city.
“There are eight or nine people living in this room. Five people have ID cards, and the rest don’t have ID cards,” Islam said. “If any of those who don’t have an ID card catches coronavirus, the hospitals don’t treat them. Those who have no ID card cannot have a vaccine. If they catch coronavirus, we all will catch coronavirus.”
Several Afghan migrants told VOA they chose not to register as official refugees, fearing arrest and deportation. Many said the status of Afghan refugees remains unclear, and they want clarification from the government.
Ramped up border security
In recent months, Turkey has ramped up border security and detained hundreds of Afghan migrants in deportation centers. It’s not clear if Ankara intends to deport the migrants back to Afghanistan. Some migrants report being detained for several weeks before being issued with official refugee status and set free.
The Turkish government did not respond to VOA questions on the number of undocumented Afghan migrants or on the lack of access to health care. Erzurum officials said any unregistered refugees would be arrested.
The United Nations said Turkey is hosting about 4 million refugees, 3.7 million of whom are Syrians fleeing conflict.
Refugees are a shared problem
In an email to VOA, Selin Unal, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Turkey, said that other countries must help share the burden of caring for Afghan refugees.
“UNHCR is calling on neighboring countries to keep their borders open for those forced to flee and are now seeking protection. Since August, UNHCR has received increasing numbers of Afghans in neighboring countries who have approached our office and partners, indicating their intention to seek asylum. Others still in Afghanistan report hoping to reach neighboring countries to access international protection,” Unal said.
“Turkey has been hosting the largest refugee population in the world since 2014 and its comprehensive legal framework provides the necessary tools to address the needs of the various categories of Afghan citizens currently living on its territory and seeking its protection. This is a challenging time, effective access to registration remains crucial by Afghan nationals seeking international protection in Turkey and UNHCR is working with national authorities to support effective, fair and fast asylum procedures,” the email said.
The UNHCR did not provide an estimate for the number of undocumented Afghan refugees who are living in Turkey and unable to access health care.
Memet Aksakal contributed to this report.