Afghan Refugee Conundrum: What Can be Done?

According to President Erdogan, Turkey currently hosts 300.000 Afghan refugees, whose most of them fled the country commensurate with the impetuous campaign of the Taliban.

The main question that arises here is whether the legal status of Afghan refugees can be found and resolved through international conventions, notably through the 1951 Refugee Convention. At first, glance, considering that Turkey and Iran are parties to this Convention, it seems that something feasible can come out of it. This, however, is not the case.

Undoubtedly, apart from other countries, Turkey and neighboring Iran have been affected substantially by the major Afghan refugee influx. According to President Erdogan, Turkey currently hosts 300.000 Afghan refugees, whose most of them fled the country commensurate with the impetuous campaign of the Taliban. The main puzzle, which should be dwelled on, is the route of these refugees. It is not a secret that virtually all of them have passed through Iran with the help of human smugglers alongside the Turkish-Iranian border. By considering this illegal smuggling, Turkish authorities have started to fortify the border walls by deploying special ops forces with intense patrols.

Considering the cardinal principles of respective immigration law policies in Turkey and Iran, it can be frankly emphasized that both of them have been hosting millions of refugees for an extended period of time. However, after Kabul's capture by the Taliban, hundreds of thousands of people fled the country, thereby, the number of refugees in neighboring countries has increased tremendously. For most of the refugee, the final destination were European countries. In order to reach to one of them, one must pass through Turkey and Iran. Also, regarding Iran, it is not the first time that it has experienced such a significant Afghan refugee influx. Shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the first policy of the nascent Islamic Republic of Iran was the open-door policy. As a result of these policies, the number of Afghan immigrants in Iran exceeded 3 million in 1990.

It is noteworthy to mention that both of the countries have signed and ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which governs the legal status of refugees. Thus, one can argue that both countries should act according to the articles of the convention. Even though article 26 of the Convention indicates otherwise, neither Turkey nor Iran cannot accord to refugees the right to choose their place of residence and to move freely within their territory subject to any regulations applicable to aliens generally in the same circumstances. Because, as of 2020, according to the UNHCR’s data, Turkey hosts 3.7 million and Iran hosts nearly 1 million registered refugees. Bearing in mind these numbers, it would be hard to expect these countries to allow refugees to travel freely within their countries. When it comes to the 1951 Convention, the most crucial point is the reservations put forward by these countries. According to Article 2.1(d)of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, a reservation is a declaration by a state made upon signing or ratifying a treaty that the state reserves the right not to abide by certain provisions of the treaty. The reservation which Turkey has declared is the geographical one. In another statement, according to Turkey, people who have become refugees due to events occurring in Europe would be deemed, refugees. Hence, people who fled from Afghanistan would not have the rights of the refugees under the 1951 Convention. A similar reservation has been declared by Iran. But Iran had no limitations regarding geography. It was, so to say, vaguer. Iran has reserved the right not to accord refugees the most favorable treatment accorded to nationals of States with which Iran has concluded regional establishment, customs, economic or political agreements. Furthermore, the second related reservation made is Iran deemed the stipulations contained in some articles, such as labor legislation, social security, and freedom of movement, as being recommendations only. To summarize, the oldest the most widespread Convention in the post-Second World War cannot be applied to Afghani refugees for many reasons. Therefore, this conundrum must be solved via bilateral agreements between Turkey and Iran.

Common Solutions

As indicated above, it is a well-known fact both countries are profoundly affected by this major influx. Currently, there are more than 3 million Afghan refugees in Iran. When added with Syrians, Turkey hosts approximately 5 million refugees. Thus, it would be prudent for two countries to seek common ground and solutions while adhering to international law and the non-refoulment principle. However, during this solution-seeking process, in order to ensure the nature of the absolute rights, parties should always pay regard to advisory opinions of the UN, indicating that deportations of the Afghani nationals shall be halted, including asylum seekers who have had their claims rejected.

The most feasible way to ensure the halting of the refugee influx between countries, firstly, is to increase the frequency of the high-level meetings and to establish a joint committee in order to ameliorate the agenda and the road map. A similar approach has been proposed in some academic works, indicating that it is essential to establish a multi-dimensional cooperation mechanism between the General Directorates of Migration Management, called DGMM and BAFIA, as these are the institutional cornerstones of the two countries. Secondly, building refugee camps, which are made of containers, would be feasible for both countries, given that container villages would not cost excessively and be temporal. Because after intense security checks, many refugee people can be resettled and be an advantage for both economies. But in this process, the key point is to bring international organizations into these projects, such as the UN and the EU, not only through moral support but by means of monetary support. Certainly, the EU would try to be part of this in order to halt other refugee influx to its borders.

Furthermore, from a diplomatic dimension, Turkish-Iranian relations are really substantial, given that the EU and some western countries, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, declared that they would not recognize Taliban administration as a legitimate entity. However, Turkey and Iran maintained their tacit diplomatic relations. Moreover, the commercial relations between Iran and Afghanistan put Iran front lines of diplomacy. Even though it has not been verified, it has been told that Iran and the Taliban Administration have signed a commercial agreement on fuel. Besides, it has been stated in an article that Iran’s emerging status as a Taliban interlocutor has won it some diplomatic influence, including from India, which has sought to reach out to Tehran as a channel to the Taliban. It means western countries would definitely need the assistance of these countries in order to maintain humanitarian assistance. Given that, these common grounds and common solutions could be an advantage for Turkey and Iran to work and overcome together and forget the stalemate and animosity between these two countries in Syria.

However, if these two countries squander this chance and dredge up the differences and hostilities, the consequences would be severe not just for the governments but also for the people who were forced to leave their homeland. But as indicated above, even though Turkey and Iran are willing to do that, the UN and the EU have to be involved in any part of the process. Because due to COVID-19, both countries’ economy affected and are in the rebound process. Therefore, incentive programs, as have been done with the Syrian refugee crisis, would absolutely accelerate the process and help millions of displaced Afghanis to resettle.

Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan’s Refugees, 1951 Refugee Convention