01/18/2022, 12.39
GATEWAY TO THE EAST
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Turkey pushing corpses across Iranian border to hide refugee deaths

by Dario Salvi

More deaths follow tragedy of the mother who froze to death to warm her children. The rise of the Taliban coincides with a rise in the flow of migrants from Afghanistan to Turkey in a (vain) attempt to enter Europe is growing. The work of Caritas: meals, accommodation, language and vocational courses to promote integration. The story of Shayan, fleeing for freedom.

Istanbul (AsiaNews) - In the last two months at least eight refugees have died of exposure to freezing temperatures in border areas on the outskirts of Europe; two of these deaths involved Afghans - including a mother with two children - who lost their lives in the district of Seraw, the extreme tip of the eastern province of Van, on the border between Iran and Turkey.

These are stories of desperation, of fleeing violence and extremism following the rise of Koranic students in Kabul towards a future that holds just as much suffering, deprivation and death. For hundreds of thousands of refugees, Turkish soil has become a wall, not only physical one, against which their hopes for redemption and salvation are dashed. For all who risk these perilous paths, redemption is encapsulated in two words: freedom and dignity.

Recently, pictures and videos of refugees trying to cross the border between the former Ottoman Empire and the Islamic Republic have been multiplying online, picturing of people braving the heavy snowfall and bitter cold.

According to the Mesopotamia Agency (Ma), Turkish soldiers are pushing back the bodies of victims who have died as a result of exposure to freezing temperatures, as confirmed by the terrible case of an Afghan refugee who froze to death in Özalp on 30 December. In a desperate attempt to keep her children warm, the woman stripped herself of her clothes and gave them to the children. Turkish villagers rescued them, only to hand them over to Iranian soldiers.

In the following days, the local governor's office stated that the young mother 'was caught in a snowstorm' and died of frostbite, while her children 'continued on their way' to the village. The note speaks of a "sad incident" that "did not happen within our [Turkish] borders", in an attempt to remove all responsibility.

According to the Human Rights Association (İhd), at least 160 refugees have lost their lives in Van province over the past three years. At least 49 died of hypothermia, 68 drowned in the lake of the same name, 42 died in road accidents and one was shot. Hamdi Bayhan, a member of the İhd leadership in Van, emphasised that "the time has come to fulfil our responsibilities towards the refugees". They are "used as cheap labour" and subjected to "all kinds of abuse" as well as being "targets of hate crimes and discrimination".

Target of hate

The 2021 UN report on migrants and refugees reveals that even before the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the reality was critical. More than a quarter of the population had fled their homes, bringing the number of internally displaced persons to 3.5 million.

In November, António Vitorino, director general of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), spoke of a nation "on the verge of collapse". Refugees fleeing Koranic students are leaving behind a society where Islamic law dictates rules and ways of life. Added to this is the threat of serious humanitarian crises, to the extent that people are already dying of measles again.

In Turkey, as in many other parts of the world, migrants and refugees are viewed with suspicion and have over time become a favourite target of political propaganda. In the 1950s, in the second part of her essay The Origins of Totalitarianism, dedicated to imperialism, the scholar Hannah Arendt stressed that they are perceived as a threat because they break the "trinitarian" vision that links the state-population-territory.

They have already lost all their rights by leaving their country and find themselves in a condition of further vulnerability, subject to inflammatory rhetoric, xenophobic attacks and nationalist rivalry coming mainly from the middle and lower middle classes. It is they who, in a time of crisis, identify the foreigner as the cause of the malaise. However, refugees are in most cases victims and not infrequently risk their own lives, or those of their children, in a desperate attempt to escape. The death toll is sketchy, but a Catholic source in Anatolia confirms that 'in the last two weeks alone, many people have died trying to cross the mountains along the border'.

Shayan, fleeing for freedom

"Because I don't believe in Islam, the religious decided to kill me and in one attack I received a head injury and two broken ribs,” Shayan (he only tells us his name) tells AsiaNews. His story of being a refugee, having studied at the University of Kabul and having worked for ten years in the cinema and television, before abandoning a nation "that America, NATO and the former Afghan State had delivered into the hands of the Taliban".

Originally from Samangan, he is one of dozens of people welcomed and helped by Caritas Turkey after "leaving my dreams and my homeland" and who arrived in Turkey after an "illegal and dangerous" journey through Iran. A journey that began in 2015, during the first phase of the war between the then government in Kabul and the Koranic students.

"In Zabul province," he recalls, "we were caught in the crossfire for a fortnight. One night we crossed the border and Iranian soldiers opened fire, some of us were wounded. Some of us were injured. We were captured and sent back across the border.

Shayan crossed the Iranian border twice and the Turkish border once, and it was only on the fourth attempt that he was able to leave his past behind. "He confirms that there is a high risk of being killed or attacked by bandits or border guards along this route.

Today he is trying, albeit with difficulty, to rebuild his life and plan his future "with the economic help of Caritas" thanks to which "I started a new school career. Since I couldn't work, I thought I would dedicate myself to studying. In Turkey, we refugees can only do hard work in illegal conditions". However, he has not lost hope of living "in a country where I can be free to travel, work, lead a dignified existence".

Caritas for refugees

Caritas Turkey is one of the few institutions to offer hope to refugees and last month alone it met the daily needs of 14 new families, consisting of widows and children. The Catholic organisation has rented houses and will soon open a canteen to feed at least 30 families, a total of 120 people. Two euros a day are enough," says a volunteer, "to guarantee two hot meals for each of them, so now more than ever it is important to support our work in any way.

In addition to the meals, there are schooling projects and vocational courses: six young refugees have learned how to make carpets; another 11 children and a mother are taking English and Turkish lessons; another group of 14 people, all young, wanted to enrol in English lessons; then there is a micro-project for women, where they learn how to bake and then sell their products at the market. The aim is to encourage integration into Turkish society, because migration to Europe remains utopian and returning to Afghanistan is tantamount to a death sentence.

In the meantime, Turkey, which is grappling with a very serious economic crisis and steadily rising double-digit inflation, has strengthened its border defences, especially with Iran. According to Ankara, there are at least 182,000 Afghan refugees registered in the country, in addition to another 120,000 who do not fit into the official channels and live in semi-clandestine conditions.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose consensus is at an all-time low, has intervened on the issue, stressing that he does not want to turn the country into a "storage centre" for migrants heading for Europe (in exchange for billions in funding, moreover).

Last year, security forces in Van province blocked the entry of more than 120,000 migrants, while the construction of the border wall continues. So far, 40 km out of a total of 64 planned have been completed, along which 103 communications (45) and surveillance (58) towers will be erected. Patrols have arrested 15,000 people (without specifying their identities or status) and 1,904 suspected traffickers, seizing 880 vehicles and five boats. Numbers to serve on the plate of political propaganda, behind which lies one of the many humanitarian emergencies crossing the planet.

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