Missionaries in Istanbul: ticking timebomb as 'tension skyrockets' at Afghan refugees
by Chiara Zappa

"The social time bomb fueled by the economic crisis, in a country that already welcomes 5 million migrants, risks exploding with the new wave of arrivals," say Roberto and Gabriella Ugolini, who have worked for decades on the border with Iran, where the government is putting up a wall against those fleeing the Taliban.





Istanbul (AsiaNews) - "The climate in Turkey with regard to the new wave of refugees arriving from Afghanistan is very tense, xenophobia is mounting,"warn Roberto and Gabriella Ugolini, fidei donum missionaries of the diocese of Florence who have been in the Land of the Crescent Moon since 2000. They are worried. Today they are witnessing yet another migration emergency in a society severely tested by the economic crisis, further aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

"In recent years Turkey has shown itself capable of great welcome, but internal problems have exasperated the people, who do not want to hear about opening their doors to more refugees."

UN data puts the Syrians currently hosted in the country at 3.6 million, while the total number of refugees and asylum seekers, for the Government Immigration Authority, reaches 5 million, also because "many choose not to be registered in the hope of continuing the journey to Europe," explain the Ugolini couple. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans: 116,000 according to the government agency Afad, at least half a million for non-governmental organizations.

In recent weeks, about 1,500 Afghans per day - "including several military personnel on the run" -  have crossed the Turkish border from Iran, the  route country the to the West, and the number of arrivals are expected to increase. But the rate of rejections has risen dramatically.

"Right along the border with Iran, the Turkish government has built a wall that should eventually run for about 500 km, in an attempt to stop the advance of these desperate people." People that Gabriella and Roberto Ugolini know well, since their mission has always been alongside migrants in the East of the country: first Ürfa, on the border with Syria, then, for fifteen years, in Van, the heart of the Kurdish region a step away from Iran, land of shepherds, smugglers and many Afghans and Iranians fleeing violence and oppression.

"These are people fleeing for political reasons, to escape persecution on religious grounds, or in search of a decent life for themselves and their children. But there are also women fleeing familial and social constraints and people, such as gays, who suffer severe forms of intolerance in their societies of origin. They all see Turkey as a stepping stone to reach Europe or other Western countries, but then in reality they find themselves waiting up to ten years to obtain eventual refugee status."

In the meantime, "this country tries to welcome them with dignity: those who register have access to services, such as schooling for children, but they can only work illegally. And those who choose to remain in hiding are at the mercy of human traffickers".

Today, the "social timebomb" fuelled by unemployment - which recently saw riots and violence against a neighbourhood inhabited by Syrians in Ankara - risks exploding with new arrivals from Afghanistan. In the first weeks of the emergency, President Erdoğan had declared that "Turkey is not obliged to be the repository of migrants for Europe," pressed also by opposition parties who attack him on the agreement with the EU and emphasize the risk posed by the wave of refugees fleeing the Taliban government. Moreover, Erdoğan intends to grant credit to the regime fueling his refusal to accept asylum seekers.

"Meanwhile, those who were already waiting for the recognition of refugee status are now desperate because they fear that their application will be stalled," say the Ugolini couple, currently based in Istanbul where, in addition to providing assistance to migrants in the metropolis, they continue to follow the Turkish and English language school created in Van for Iranian and Afghan women.

The couple speak of how across the years the Church "has always been in the front line of reception, even with the limited means at its disposal. There is a Caritas that works well, both in the vicariate of Istanbul and in that of Anatolia, and there are numerous initiatives of assistance in collaboration with other Christian Churches, from the Greek Orthodox to the Protestant communities."

The needs, however, are enormous and the country today does not know how to address them. "The danger that intolerance will grow is real - admits the Italian couple - and it will not be easy to contain."