Destination Unknown: Afghans on the move in Turkey

Since the late 1970s, the continuous movement of Afghans within and from Afghanistan has been shaped by a combination of security, conflict, political and economic factors. At the end of 2019, around 2.6 million Afghans were internally displaced, while around 2.7 million were registered as refugees, representing the world’s most protracted displaced and dispossessed population under the mandate of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). For decades, Turkey has been a host country and transit hub for hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees, who constitute the second-largest group of refugees and asylum seekers registered in the country. In 2018, Turkey experienced a substantial increase of irregular arrivals (those lacking legal documentation) and Afghan nationals constituted the largest group of new irregular arrivals. In 2019, the number of Afghan arrivals doubled, and they remained the largest national group of new arrivals.

Triggered by this increase, MMC initiated a study “Destination Unknown – Afghans on the move in Turkey” that aims to improve understanding of the migration experiences of Afghans arriving in Turkey. The study outlines key drivers behind Afghan migration and examines the factors influencing short- to long-term intentions, such as decisions to either stay in Turkey or continue onward movement. It also details living conditions of Afghans in Turkey, focusing on the policy framework that shapes legal and socio-economic factors, while highlighting the vulnerabilities and protection challenges Afghans encounter.

The methodological approach included desk research, as well as fieldwork in six provinces (Van, Erzurum, Adana, Konya, Izmir and Istanbul). In each location, the research team simultaneously collected quantitative and qualitative data by conducting surveys, in-depth interviews (IDIs), and focus group discussions (FGDs) with Afghan refugees and migrants, as well as key informant interviews (KIIs) with officials from relevant provincial institutions and representatives of international agencies and NGOs. After the field work, the data was analysed and validated through expert interviews. From November 2019 to January 2020, the research team conducted 341 surveys, 27 IDIs, nine FGDs with a total of 69 participants, and 28 KIIs.

Drivers and decision-making

The findings of this study show that the majority of the Afghans surveyed in Turkey are young males who arrived irregularly. They were mainly driven to travel by violence and lack of economic opportunities and access to rights in Afghanistan. For some women, domestic violence, sexual abuse, verbal and physical threats, and forced marriages were reasons for embarking on migration journeys. The main reasons for coming to Turkey are expectations of family reunification, easy and fast access to asylum, economic opportunities, and better living standards. At the time they were surveyed, most respondents were still on the move to another location within Turkey or abroad. Of those who planned to travel on beyond Turkey, many expressed no particular preference for a specific country, saying this was less important than finding safety, a welcoming environment and improved living conditions.

Profiles: The majority of the surveyed Afghans were men (66%) and relatively young – between 18 and 30 years old (65%). A majority (65%) arrived in Turkey after January 2018, and most arrived irregularly (83%).[1]
Drivers: The majority left Afghanistan because of violence (66%) and/or economic factors (64%).
Family issues: Family reasons were influential in the decision-making process, especially for women who feared forced or early marriage. Female respondents who either fled on their own or with other family members indicated having been subjected to domestic violence, sexual abuse, verbal and physical threats, and forced marriages, often perpetrated by older male family members and relatives.
Reasons for coming to Turkey: Respondents chose to travel to Turkey to reunite with family (49%), for easy and fast access to asylum (45%), economic reasons (41%), and better living standards (34%).
Intentions: Nearly half (48%) of respondents indicated they had not reached the end of their migration journey. The majority expressed the intention to move within 12 months, but primarily within Turkey (51%), with 17% intending to move to another country.
Uncertain future: Afghans experience a high degree of uncertainty about their short- and long-term future. Most have no preferred destination as long as they would be safe, welcomed and benefitted from improved living conditions.

Routes, means and conditions of travel

Nearly all respondents came to Turkey via fragmented journeys through Iran and Pakistan, but prior to departure, a majority did not obtain information regarding the routes, destinations, costs, conditions, and risks that their trips would entail. Most relied on the services of smugglers, who were mainly needed for crossing international borders. Along with problems related to harsh weather and the physical conditions of the mountainous route, travelled primarily on foot, Afghans reported witnessing death, physical violence and family separation along the route. The general perception was that smugglers did not do much to mitigate risks and did not care about the well-being of their clientele. Some 70% of respondents even stated that smugglers were the perpetrators of incidents and violence. Nine out of ten respondents needed very basic assistance during their journey, which was not available in most cases. Despite all the risks and challenges faced, most were determined to move on and continue migration. However, while the respondents were determined to move themselves, and would have migrated even if they had known the risks in advance, the majority would not encourage other to migrate.

Information: Over half (53%) of respondents indicated not having obtained information regarding the routes, destinations, costs, conditions, and risks of their journey. Of the 45% of respondents who did obtain information, a majority (73%) obtained information from their friends and family – either in the country of departure or in another country – and returned migrants (46%).
Risks: A majority of 70% reported facing risks during their journey, including death (63%), physical violence (50%), robbery (43%), and detention (31%). 100 (46%) were separated from the ones they were with initially.
Needs along the way: Nine out of ten people (89%) reported that they needed assistance along the way. However, most (69%) did not receive the assistance they needed.
Decision-making: Had they known in advance about the risks they would face, 46% said that they would still have started their journey. However, almost three quarters (73%) said that it was not likely that they would encourage others to migrate.
Smugglers: A large majority (82%) resorted to the services of smugglers during their journey. Primarily for crossing borders (91%). 70% of respondents stated that smugglers were the perpetrators of incidents and violence.
Care from smugglers: Reportedly, smugglers did not do much to mitigate risks and generally did not care about the well-being of their clientele. For example, Afghans witnessed deaths in the group they travelled with, but these dead people were not buried and ignored by the smugglers.

Challenges faced in Turkey

Upon arrival in Turkey, respondents reported a variety of challenges related to access to protection, healthcare, education, employment, and general living conditions (housing and shelter). Restricted freedom of movement, risk of deportation, limited access to formal employment, language barriers, and lack of knowledge about the scope of legal rights and obligations were among the most cited problems. Over two-third of respondents reported not being aware of their rights as an asylum seeker or migrant. On top of that, a majority reported they did not receive adequate assistance from public institutions or non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

The qualitative findings show that if Afghan refugees and migrants are provided with permanent residency and legal employment, their incentive to consider onward movement decreases. If those preconditions are not in place, and no long-term solution is in sight, Afghan migrants’ and refugees’ final destinations remain unknown.

Protection: A majority (83%) of respondents arrived irregularly without legal documentation; 71% are not aware of their rights as an asylum seeker or migrant.
Freedom of movement: Requirement to reside in the assigned satellite city is a major challenge and there is a great desire to have more freedom of movement and the right to choose the city of residence.
Health: A significant proportion (31%) of respondents reported having health problems or disabilities.
Migration related traumas: Many research participants mentioned that they suffer from traumas (e.g., imprisonment, physical and emotional torture, loss of family members due to displacement and death) and stressors (social-cultural adjustment difficulties and lack of social support), which can cause poor mental conditions and stress disorders.
Education: 49% of respondents experienced problems accessing education in Turkey, especially due to language barriers (76%).
Employment: 74% of respondents faced problems with employment, such as access to the job market (73%) and language barriers (69%).
Shelter: Two thirds (68%) of respondents had accommodation-related problems, such as high rent (84%) and lack of basic utilities (73%).
Service provision: Two-third of the respondents consider the public services and the services provided by national and international NGOs to be inadequate.
Accessing public services: Most problems in accessing services are faced by those who arrived irregularly and are not registered as international protection applicants.
Feeling of neglect: NGOs are perceived as giving priority to Syrian over non-Syrian refugees.
Information about service provision: Half (50%) of respondents indicated not knowing how to access public institutions for service provision, compared to 26% in the case of national NGOs and 28% in the case of international NGOs.

Read more in the full research report Destination Unknown – Afghans on the move in Turkey or its summary.

[1] Purposive sampling was applied to prioritise understanding of recent irregular movements, so a high number of irregular arrivals was anticipated.