Afghan family trapped in Istanbul airport after fleeing Taliban threats

Family of 16 had hoped to claim asylum in Russia, as thousands flee Afghanistan after troops withdrawal

Sixteen members of an Afghan family who fled Taliban death threats have been trapped in Istanbul airport for the past two weeks, and thousands more refugees are making their way overland seeking safety in Turkey, as the security situation in Afghanistan rapidly deteriorates after the withdrawal of US and Nato forces.

The family, from Herat city, decided to leave the country in June after a relative was shot and killed on the street by Taliban forces. Several of them work with international aid organisations on issues such as women’s rights, and have continued to face threats.

They decided to bypass stringent visa rules for Afghans in most countries by spending their savings on Euro 2020 fan passes for football matches being held in the Russian city of St Petersburg, hoping to claim asylum on arrival.

However, the family were turned away from their connecting flight in Istanbul on 22 June, and attempts to apply for asylum and international protection in Turkey since then have been repeatedly denied, one member of the family told the Guardian.

“We were stuck in the international transit area for 16 days,” said Farzad, 28, who asked for the family’s last name to be withheld to protect their safety. “Everyone we asked to help us said it’s not their job, and we need to be on Turkish soil to apply for refugee status.”

The American president, Joe Biden, announced the end of the US war against the jihadist movement in Afghanistan in April. Since then, the Taliban have made sweeping advances, often taking control of districts without a fight. They now claim to be in control of 85% of the country, sparking fears of renewed civil war.

Western Herat province is the latest to fall: the Taliban have seized two key border crossings to Iran and Turkmenistan, and much of the countryside beyond Herat city.

The stranded Herat family were unable to wash properly and ran out of money to eat properly during their ordeal, sleeping on the floor or on the airport’s benches. One elderly member began to show coronavirus symptoms, coughing constantly, a baby began to have digestive problems, and a young girl needed antibiotics for an infection, but medical staff only offered painkillers, they said.

After several days the girl was allowed to visit a hospital, but was sent away with a prescription the family were unable to fill. On several occasions they said they were threatened by airline staff and police with forcible deportation back to Afghanistan.

Eventually they were moved to the domestic transit area for two more days, and on Saturday allowed to go to the Turkish migration authority building at the airport, where they have been separated into men’s and women’s sections and have been able to shower and sleep.

It is still unclear whether their application for international protection has been filed.

​​​​​​İGA, the airport authority, referred the Guardian’s requests for comment to the migration authority, which in turn said that the family’s situation was a matter for the interior ministry. An interior ministry spokesperson did not immediately respond.

“[The family] sold everything they had to get out, and even since they left, the situation has gotten much worse,” said another member of the family living in the US, who has been trying to help from afar.

“They have nothing to go back to. They will go anywhere that isn’t Afghanistan, as long as it’s safe.”

In recent days there has also been a influx of Afghan refugees in Van, a Kurdish province in eastern Turkey, near the border with Iran. Ruşen Takva, a journalist who has documented the flow of Afghans, Iranians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis hoping to reach Europe through Turkey for the last decade, said that he had seen about 1,700 people – mostly Afghans – cross over the past two nights.

“The numbers are huge, we have not had anything like this in the past. Normally the refugees don’t give their names or want to talk much but this time what they said was that Biden’s decision has made the Taliban declare a new war, and that’s why they are escaping now,” he said.

The risks the new wave of Afghans are taking are high at every stage of the journey. In Turkey, at least 12 people were killed and 26 severely wounded on Saturday night after a smuggler’s minibus overturned on the highway in Van province. Another 60 people are missing and presumed drowned after a boat carrying refugees and migrants capsized trying to cross huge Lake Van on 30 June. The majority of victims in both incidents are believed to be Afghan, Takva said.

“We were threatened [by the Taliban] many times but we never thought about leaving Afghanistan before now,” said Farzad, a member of the family now stuck in Istanbul airport’s migration offices.

“But now the US and Nato troops are leaving it got worse than we could think. We had no choice but to leave.”


Bethan McKernan in Istanbul

The GuardianTramp

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