The situation in Afghanistan is worsening by the day as the Taliban advance across the country. Brutal clashes between the Afghan army and insurgents have displaced thousands of people, and many countries are already predicting a new wave of refugees as a result of the open conflict raging in the Central Asian country.
Turkey has already warned that the Afghan conflict could provoke a new refugee crisis similar to the one experienced in 2014 in the wake of the Syrian civil war, which shook many European governments and demonstrated the fragility of the European Union's migration and asylum system. The bad memories of that refugee crisis that drove the rise of the extreme right on the Old Continent could be repeated, but this time with the Afghan population as the protagonist.
Afghans already represent the second largest refugee population within the the Eurasian country. According to experts and observers, official figures hardly reflect the real gravity of the situation on the ground. The UN refugee agency UNHCR estimated the number of Afghan asylum seekers hosted by Turkey at 125,104 in a 2020 report. The Eurasian country is experiencing a severe economic crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, so a new massive influx of refugees could be critical to its stability.
The Afghan refugee problem in Turkey has been heightened following statements by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announcing a mechanism to resettle Afghan refugees through third countries, including Turkey. Ankara has described the decision as "irresponsible" and stressed that Turkey cannot again become a transit country in a "refugee crisis".
The United States has initiated a relocation programme for Afghans who worked or collaborated with Washington during the occupation, and who may be targeted by the Taliban after the withdrawal of US troops. The programme is intended for Afghans who worked with US contractors, non-governmental organisations or media organisations and who are not eligible for special US immigrant visas.
In addition, in order to enter this relocation programme, applicants must leave Afghanistan and wait in a third country where their cases will be processed in 12 to 14 months. The countries that have been suggested as transit zones would be mainly Turkey and Pakistan. Ankara has not welcomed the news, with the Turkish Foreign Ministry stating that "this will cause a major refugee crisis in the region and increase the misery of Afghans on the migration routes".
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic has reproached Biden's decision and stressed that it had been "taken without prior consultation". "Turkey will not assume the international responsibilities of third countries and will not tolerate the abuse of our laws by third countries for their own purposes under any circumstances. The Turkish nation cannot bear the burden of refugee crises resulting from decisions taken by third countries," Bilgic stressed.
Turkey is experiencing a strong polarisation over the reception of refugees. A new wave similar to that of 2014 could destabilise the country both socially and economically. The announcement also comes at a time when Washington and Ankara are still in talks over the potential role of Turkish forces in the protection and operation of Kabul's international airport following the withdrawal of US-led forces.