Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine: how many refugee crises can the world cope with? | Anushka Asthana

On the borders of Turkey, a six-metre high wall in the snow is holding back a tide of people desperate to find a haven from tyranny

The province of Van, in the east of Turkey, is a place of unbelievable beauty, where snow-covered mountains sweep out of the country and into Iran. Turkey is building a six-metre high wall across its border there, and as we reached it, we sank knee-deep into fluffy snow, shivering as the temperature fell to -20C and a bitterly cold wind whipped against our cheeks. In every direction, the view was stunning, mesmerising.

But the beauty masks a grim and stomach-turning reality. For many, this landscape is a death trap, part of a terrible and desperate journey that can only be completed by foot.

This is a key route for asylum seekers – mostly Afghans – into Turkey and beyond, which is why the wall that snakes along the border is sometimes described as a gateway to Europe.

I was there with producer Helen Clifford and cameraman Rob Turner, to make a piece for ITV’s On Assignment programme, and as we lost all feeling in our fingers and then toes within minutes, we asked: why would people attempt this in winter? Because smugglers told them that they were less likely to be caught in such treacherous conditions.

The risks people take using this route become clear in spring when the snow melts, uncovering dozens of bodies, including pregnant women and children. Their attempts to flee had failed, leaving just a number carved on a headstone in a nameless graveyard in the city of Van, thousands of miles from Afghanistan.

Right now, the story in Ukraine is one of both hell and humanity, with indiscriminate shelling destroying homes, taking lives and forcing millions to flee, and people lining up at borders and train stations with cardboard signs welcoming families into their homes.

But even at a time like this, it is important to remember the terrible plight of those fleeing other conflicts. Their stories must not be forgotten.

Perhaps the saddest moment in Turkey came as I kneeled on the floor of a play area in a deportation centre, watching a toddler run repeatedly up the green plastic steps of a dinosaur slide and then sliding down. Beside him stood a girl who said she had fled the Taliban because she wanted an education. She and her mother had done that journey, through those same treacherous mountains. She was a child of 10 – around the same age as my oldest son.

One man in the same centre told me that those with him died at the border, another described being one of 70 people, packed by smugglers into a vehicle made for 10. “Four people were killed when the car started moving due to lack of oxygen,” he said.

And that was not an uncommon story – it was one we heard again and again. Like from Fatima, once a law student and makeup artist in Afghanistan, now hiding in Van after she fled the Taliban who beat her black and blue, twice. After a harrowing journey into Iran, smugglers took thousands of dollars, only to drop her at a crossing into Turkey they knew was impossible. Then they asked for more money to try again.

Fatima, an Afghan woman who has escaped Afghanistan after Taliban takeover.
Fatima, an Afghan woman who has escaped Afghanistan after Taliban takeover. Photograph: ITV News

Eventually she scaled the wall and jumped down into a five-metre trench. She and others had to climb on each other’s backs to get out. Then they just ran, to escape the Turkish police. Smugglers took her to the city in a bogus ambulance before holding her in a so-called “shock room”, where refugees are held for weeks or months on end. There they threatened her with rape.

We later saw one of those rooms when the Turkish police let us accompany them on a raid into a building with holes in the floor, and shards of ice hanging from the ceiling. Up a flight of stairs, along a corridor covered in a sheet of ice, we discovered 12 men packed into a tiny, freezing room.

One man prayed silently in the corner before they were led out into a vehicle that would take them to a deportation centre. Both possibilities – going to the centre or staying with the smugglers – felt hopeless.

Britain has set up a resettlement scheme for those who worked for the British government in Afghanistan, but even that seems to be having difficulties. One man has been messaging me repeatedly from another part of Turkey where his temporary asylum period is running out. He has shared letters that he says are death threats from the Taliban, and proof that he worked for G4S, effectively for the British government.

But he says he has heard nothing since he applied for Britain’s Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy scheme. In the current crisis, with all eyes on Ukraine, who knows when his circumstances will improve.

Turkey’s location means it has been a country into which millions of Syrian refugees have come, with many Afghan refugees now heading in the same direction. Campaigners argue that the hardline response to new refugees is unfair. The governor of Van defended it to me by arguing that his country is full, and saying the migration crisis needs a global response. The issue is not whether we, or any single country, can cope with crisis, it’s how many crises can the world cope with at the same time?

  • Anushka Asthana is deputy political editor, ITV News

  • On Assignment, ITV’s international monthly current affairs programme, airs tonight at 10.45pm. It will then be available on the ITV Hub and ITV News YouTube channel


Anushka Asthana

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