Monday marks the one-year anniversary of the three billion euro agreement between Turkey and the European Union, which was meant to stem the flow of refugees into mainland Europe.
In Afghanistan — where the second-largest global refugee population comes from — the March 20, 2016, implementation of the deal coincided with the arrival of the 1395 Persian calendar year.
Now, as we prepare to celebrate another Nowroz, it has become increasingly clear that the EU-Turkey deal has done little for Afghan refugees, whose difficulties in Europe far pre-date the so-called “refugee crisis” of 2015.
The accord was of course meant mostly for Syrian refugees. Under the deal, for every Syrian asylum seeker returned to Turkey from Greece, one in Turkey would be resettled in the EU. Other than vague references to other refugees and migrants, it made no direct mention of the tens of thousands of Afghans stuck in Turkey, Greece and several EU states.
But 1395 was still a particularly difficult year for Afghan refugees.
The last year has seen Afghan refugees faced with the dual blows of the EU-Turkey deal and an agreement that allowed EU countries to deport an unlimited number of Afghan refugees.
The “Joint Way Forward,” as the October 2016 deal is known, has already contributed to the deportation of 580 Afghan refugees in 2016.
By all accounts, the new year will see a significant increase in the deportation of Afghan refugees from the EU.
Already, Belgium has announced that they may deport up to 500 Afghan asylum seekers in 2017. Sources familiar with the situation have also said that The Netherlands is looking to deport more than 1,000 Afghan refugees this year.
According to news reports, the number of Afghans deported to Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan could reach up to one million in 2017.
The deportations come at a time when the United Nations reported that civilian casualties hit an “all-time high” and the top US watchdog in the country found that 9.2 million Afghans (28.7 percent of the population) live in areas whose control is contested between the government and the armed opposition.
For the tens of thousands of documented Afghan refugees who are currently stuck in Greece (14,250) and Turkey (118,000), the situation has gone from bad to worse.
Though Brussels has provided Greece with more than 198 million euro in aid to improve living conditions for refugees, Afghans say that money has led to little more than the proliferation of refugee camps on the outskirts of Athens and on the Greek isles.
Over the last two years I have visited three refugee camps outside Athens.
Of those — Shcisto, Eleonas and Elliniko — the 700 families currently living in tents in the international departures hall of the now defunct Elliniko Airport best embody how little the EU-Turkey deal has done for Afghan refugees.
Last month, a group of refugees, mainly Afghans, residing in what was once Athens’ main airport, started a hunger strike in protest against their living conditions.
When I went to the airport, shortly after the hunger strike, the Afghan refugees in Elliniko complained of a lack of proper shower facilities — there were five stalls for more than 700 families — no hot water, power failures, an absence of laundry facilities, translators and baby care goods.
With the camp located 90 minutes from central Athens, obtaining basic goods — diapers and formula for their babies, clothing and personal hygiene products — often meant long bus and metro rides into the city.
Several of the camp’s residents said on several occasions they had waited for ambulances that simply would not come.
Ahmad Arash Hemati, who has worked with Afghan refugees for more than eight years, said each camp faces its own set of problems.
“Some of them are not fit for living. I’ve seen Afghans in Greece living in areas with open sewers, it reminds you of the IDP camps in Kabul,” Hemati said.
He also describes the Schisto camp, a military-run facility 15kms from the Port of Piraeus, where new arrivals from the islands are forced to sleep in crowded halls until a container can be found for them.
“People have to put up blankets and clothing lines for privacy, but it’s of little use, because you have families with children living within a few meters of people clearly dealing with the mental trauma of their journey,” Hemati said.
The EU-Turkey deal has done little to transition Afghan refugees from these camps, which were meant to be temporary solutions, into proper housing facilities. In fact, many of the Afghans at Elliniko and Schisto say they have spent the entire year since the deal was signed in the camps.
In Turkey itself, the situation for Afghan refugees in even worse.
Only a few years ago, Turkey, and Istanbul in particular, was seen as a rare comfort zone for Afghan refugees (before heading into the limbo of life in Greece). In the last year, however, an ongoing economic downturn, last year’s attempted coup and the burden placed on the nation by the deal with the EU have pushed Afghans further into the sidelines in Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan often refers to the more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees currently in the country, but has made little mention of the more than 100,000 documented Afghan refugees.
Afghans on the Asian and European sides of Istanbul say over the last year, Turkish employers at automobile factories, tailor shops and leather works, are increasingly refusing to pay them for their work.
“One month they pay you, the other they don’t,” said one refugee who has been waiting for more than three years for third country resettlement by the United Nations.
But he isn’t alone, in Istanbul, I met several Afghan refugees who had been waiting three, four or even five years for resettlement, an issue which was meant to be addressed as part of the EU’s agreements with Ankara and Athens.
In Greece, the wait for resettlement means more time in crowded refugee camps, mainly of them often lacking basic necessities.
In a damning statement, calling the EU-Turkey deal “a stain on the collective conscience of Europe,” Amnesty International described the endless wait for resettlement as “a dangerous, desperate and seemingly endless limbo” for thousands of asylum seekers.
In Turkey, the wait for resettlement means a desperate search for reliable employment. Saddled with thousands of dollars of debt, more and more Afghan refugees are left with little choice than to turn to trash collection as a source of income.
The streets of Istanbul are now full of young Afghan men from Paktia, Nangarhar, Laghman, Maidan Wardak and other provinces, traversing the city with canvas sacs full of refuse that can weigh up to 150kgs on their backs.
With Istanbul having faced several high-profile attacks in the last year, the humiliation of wandering the city to collect trash (a job often relegated to children from impoverished families in Afghanistan) also leaves Afghans susceptible to such attacks.
This lack of assistance, including access to proper medical care (several Afghan refugees said they planned to go to Iran for medical treatment), comes despite Ankara spending more than $6.5 billion USD itself on their response to hosting the largest population of refugees in the world.
Now, as we enter 1396, there is little hope of the situation of Afghan refugees improving.
The European Union refuses to acknowledge that the Turkey deal was not only a flop, but a “horror story,” as the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres has dubbed it.
For Afghan refugees in particular, the pact has done little more than relegate them to what Amnesty called “de facto holding pens” in Greece. In Turkey, where so much of the focus is on Syrian refugees (including the deal itself), the agreement has helped push Afghans further into the margins of an already troubled Turkish society.
On top of that, more and more EU nations are looking to deport Afghan refugees, who have rarely been acknowledged in the global discourse around refugees.
Sadly, it looks as if 1395’s mistakes will not only be repeated, but exacerbated in 1396. Once again, Afghans will be the ones made to suffer due to the political decisions of foreign nations, nearly all of whom have provided either military or financial assistance to the country.
Ali M Latifi is a Kabul-born, California-raised journalist, currently based in Afghanistan. Since 2013, Latifi has made several trips to Greece and Turkey, where he has reported on the situation of Afghan refugees in both nations.