How Erdogan will “manage” the Afghan refugee crisis

Images of Afghan refugees scrambling to escape Kabul following the Taliban’s seizure of power will haunt the international community for decades. According to the United Nations, 550,000 people have been displaced in Afghanistan this year alone.  In the middle of the Taliban’s lightning nationwide offensive, between twenty and thirty thousand Afghans are thought to be leaving the country every week.

These numbers are expected to escalate rapidly after the collapse of President Ashraf Ghani’s government and a new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is established.  Meanwhile, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has heightened his anti-refugee rhetoric with an eye toward leveraging the situation, assuring his NATO allies that his country will neither house refugees nor act as an intermediary in the resettlement process.

This is an unprecedented but localized humanitarian crisis. If NATO refuses to take a hard line with Turkey’s manoeuvring, it will become a global one as well. 

Several NATO members have already responded by pledging support for Afghans fleeing the Taliban. Among them, Canada has promised to resettle 20,000 refugees, and the UK is expecting 5,000, prioritising women, children, and religious minorities.  

Although these measures have been rightly criticised for not going far enough, they do at least indicate a basic level of commitment to NATO’s fundamental values, including humanitarianism and a sense of shared responsibility.

In stark contrast, Erdogan, Turkey’s authoritarian leader, has responded to the unfolding crisis with callous disregard. A NATO member since 1952, Turkey’s primary response to the unfolding crisis is to build a physical wall along its borders while erecting legal barriers to keep Afghan refugees out at all costs.

Already, a 243-kilometer barbed wire-topped concrete wall is under construction along Turkey’s border with Iran to deter Afghan refugees. Just this week, Ankara deployed 750 elite troops to fortify the border. 

Erdogan’s disregard for the safety and wellbeing of Afghan refugees is hardly surprising, given his administration’s systematic abuses of domestic minorities, including the Kurdish and LGBT communities, amongst others. Erdogan’s steady drift towards authoritarianism has been signposted along the way by a consistent assault on human rights.

Just as predictable will be Erdogan’s willingness to use Afghan refugees as a diplomatic bargaining chip. 

For the past ten years, Ankara has treated its Syrian refugee population as a pawn in its diplomatic maneuvers, especially in relation to its European neighbors — prompting accusations of blackmail from EU ambassadors.  

Ever since Chancellor Angela Merkel’s stoic response to the 2015 refugee crisis – summed up memorably in the phrase Wir schaffen das (“we’ll manage this”) – provoked a blistering domestic backlash, Erdogan has assiduously manipulated his country’s role as a buffer zone to exact endless concessions from Europe. 

Although the EU provides billions of dollars in assistance to Turkey to aid Syrian refugees, Erdogan frequently complains that the money goes through aid groups rather than directly to his endemically corrupt government. Make no mistake, Erdogan fully intends to draw on the same playbook and play politics with the Afghan refugee crisis. 

Erdogan has perfected the art of operating at the very edge of what other NATO members will tolerate, mixing flagrant breaches of common values with small symbolic gestures of solidarity. Erdogan’s last minute offer to send Turkish troops to secure Kabul airport just ahead of his meeting with President Joe Biden is a perfect example of the latter.

Having banked that diplomatic credit with Washington, the Turkish administration will now feel it has a freer hand to deal brutally with incoming Afghan refugees while simultaneously threatening to destabilise the EU by channelling unsustainable numbers of asylum seekers towards European shores. 

Erdogan intends to blockade his country’s border with Iran in order to prevent a domestic backlash similar to what Chancellor Merkel endured in 2015, while using the growing population of refugees on Turkey’s eastern flank to forestall EU action against his regime’s many abuses.

Unless NATO and the EU take decisive steps to resolve the current refugee crisis, Turkey’s dictator in waiting will purposefully exasperate the suffering of Afghan asylum seekers to finalise his demolition of Turkey’s civic infrastructure and, in turn, become an even bigger thorn in the side for his erstwhile allies.

If Europe and its close allies don’t manage this, Erdogan will.

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