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The refugee situation in Turkey is being politicized: an interview with Zakira Hekmat

Dr. Zakira Hekmat is the founder of the Afghan Refugee Solidarity Association (ARSA) in Turkey. This year, she received a Courage Award by the U.S. State Department for her activities in supporting the rights of refugees. 

Before studying medicine in Turkey, she secretly completed her school years in Ghazni province during the first Taliban regime in the 1990s. While at medical school, Hekmat cooperated with refugee support organizations in Turkey and volunteered to address the situation of refugees and minority groups in the country. In 2014, she officially established ARSA. 

She talked to Zan Times about the situation facing Afghan refugees in Turkey as well as her activities supporting refugee rights.  

Zan Times: What made you get involved in supporting refugees in Turkey and establish the Afghan Refugee Solidarity Association? 

Zakira Hekmat: One day I was at the Kayseri city terminal, and I wanted to travel to another city. I happened to be speaking Persian on the phone with someone. At that moment, a woman came to me, hugged me tightly, cried, and asked if I was speaking Persian and where I was from. I said that I was from Afghanistan. She said that she was also from Afghanistan, but she had been in the terminal for four days and nights because they didn’t understand the language and she didn’t know where to go.  

I was upset and went to the police, gave them my contact number, and said that they should contact me whenever such a situation occurred and I would volunteer to interpret for them. From there, with student friends and some other refugees, we decided to have an association: ARSA, or the Afghan Refugee Solidarity Association, which is the first foreign-founded association in Turkey. Our volunteer activities for immigrants began in early 2009, and it was later decided to carry out these activities officially. Finally, in 2014, this institution was officially registered with the Turkish government. 

ZT: What have been your major actions in support of refugees? And after the establishment of the association, who are you in contact with and what actions have you taken for them? 

Hekmat: From 2009 to 2011, our activities were focused in the city of Kayseri, Turkey, because I was studying medicine there. On weekdays, I was busy with university courses, but with my friends, we organized Turkish and English language and computer classes to enhance the capacities of the refugees. But in 2011, after an earthquake in the city of Van, which affected the refugees, we decided to expand our activities throughout Turkey. Since then, we have become a bridge between refugees and the Turkish government, as well as the United Nations. 

Currently, we have representatives and volunteers in 62 cities of Turkey through which we provide legal services, interpretation, counselling, protection services for women and children, and a refugee integration program with the host community. We have a capacity enhancement program for refugees and vocational courses for women, in cooperation with the Turkish government and the United Nations. Around 85 percent of our activities are for women and children because men mostly go to work and also these two groups are vulnerable.  

We provide services not only for refugees from Afghanistan but also for Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, and Ukrainian refugees, and even locals if requested. We have recently started cooperating with scientific and research institutions, introducing them to refugees so they can hear about the conditions and problems from the refugees themselves. 

ZT: From the beginning of the association to now, how many refugees have you taken care of and how have they welcomed your services? 

Hekmat: As I mentioned, we have cultural, educational, and capacity-building activities for refugees. We also train volunteers in different cities of Turkey. For example, we hold training and awareness-raising conferences for volunteers so that they can serve and cooperate with their peers in their own cities. From 2009 to this year, more than 110,000 people have directly benefited from our activities. These activities include online training courses about the asylum process, how to respond to interview questions, and awareness of a refugee’s rights in Turkey, as well as ways for them to access defence lawyers in case their cases are rejected. 

ZT: Which institutions support ARSA in advancing its objectives? 

Hekmat: In the early days, the municipality of the city of Kayseri cooperated with us in organizing swimming courses for 75 children in 2012, 2013, and 2014, and in setting up vocational training courses for women. Several other domestic Turkish institutions, which I won’t list individually, also cooperated with us. Recently, we have had a project with foreign institutions like UNHCR and GIZ. 

ZT: Which international institutions financially support you? 

Hekmat: We work as a partner with the United Nations, the Swiss Embassy, and the GIZ Foundation, which provides us with financial support. 

ZT: How many refugees from Afghanistan are currently in Turkey? Do you have any statistics? 

Hekmat: The number of registered refugees is approximately between 162,000 to 165,000. However, if we consider a more general estimate, this figure reaches around 300,000.  

ZT: What is the current situation for Afghan refugees entering Turkey? Are they still entering Turkey illegally?  

Hekmat: In 2021, when the Afghan government fell, a large number of refugees entered Turkey. This caused a public outcry among Turkish citizens on social media who wondered why so many refugees were coming from Afghanistan, and saying that they should all be sent back. Even now, despite stricter immigration policies in Turkey, many migrants still come to Turkey as soon as the weather gets warmer.  

ZT: How is the situation in Turkey? Is there support for refugees?  

Hekmat: Following the influx of Afghan refugees into Turkey, the Turkish government has taken a tougher policy stance to prevent this crisis. Nowadays, if a refugee wants to get registered, they cannot have their fingerprints taken in any city, which is very difficult. For instance, if someone wants to travel from the border city of Van to another city, they will encounter several police inspections, and in the absence of a transit paper, their fingerprints will inevitably be taken. They will be issued a deportation paper or transferred to a deportation centre. If they don’t encounter police inspection, then, in the city where they apply for registration, they are required to present a marriage certificate, ID card, and, if they are sick, a medical report from Turkish public hospitals. However, since they don’t have a refugee card, they are not given these documents. This is a major problem that refugees face and, for this reason, they have a hard time getting registered.  

The registration of unmarried men is even harder because most of the single men who had entered Turkey had stated that they came due to economic issues, and now the Turkish authorities mostly think that most people coming from Afghanistan are coming to work and do not have any life-threatening issues. Yet among them are those who are really in danger and they also lose their rights.  

ZT: We have previously received reports that those who recently come to Turkey are not registered, cannot rent a house, and are left to their fate; what do you think will be their eventual fate?  

Hekmat: The Turkish government will not register them if they do not have documents. If they do not get registered, then their children are deprived of the right to education, they are not given homes for rent, they don’t have the right to travel, they don’t have permission to work in the cities, and they are deprived of all their human rights and they hit a dead end. Some of them are at risk of being deported.  

In this regard, associations, especially ARSA, hold awareness meetings. In these meetings, we guide the refugees on what to do if they face deportation. We also negotiate with hospitals and try to give hospital reports to those who are in bad condition so that they can get refugee cards and thus solve their basic problems. On this issue, we talk to Turkish authorities and other institutions to rescue them from illegal status and deportation, and legally register them in Turkey. 

ZT: Do you have any statistics about the deported families?  

Hekmat: We do not have exact statistics, but previously it was mostly single young people who were deported. The number of deported families was very low. Yet, despite the known condition of Afghanistan to the whole world and that the women’s situation in Afghanistan is dire – they have no access to their rights, they are oppressed, at risk of being killed, raped, and subjected to familial violence and violence by the Taliban – we still witnessing cases of women who are being rejected by the Turkish government and are at risk of being deported. Unfortunately, in the past two weeks, nearly six flights to Afghanistan have taken place, mostly deported singles. 

ZT: Before the recent Turkish elections, most migrants thought that if Recep TayyipErdogan was re-elected, the migrants’ situation would improve. Has there been any change in the migrants’ situation since his re-election?  

Hekmat: No. Because the government did not change, no policy changed. The government is the same government and the policies are the same policies. The municipal elections are to be held in Turkey in March 2024. Until those elections are held, conditions will get worse. Because Erdogan’s rivals have politicized this issue and one of their slogans was that if they win then they would send refugees back to their countries. Now, to keep people satisfied, the Erdogan government is making stricter conditions and policies. 

ZT: After the Turkish presidential election, there have been reports that the situation has even worsened for families, and Turkish forces are gathering families whose cases have been rejected as well as single men and transferring them to deportation centres. EIs this happening all over Turkey?  

Hekmat: The issue you mentioned is not new. We also had these cases in 2021, when several families were taken to deportation centres by police.  We got them out of the centres through the United Nations and institutions that have legal activities. Within a week, we got almost 12 families out of deportation centres in different cities.  

According to Turkish laws, those whose cases have been rejected and whose court processes have also been completed must be taken to deportation centres and deported. In this regard, we are lobbying in all conferences to change the conditions. From our point of view, the arrival of police at the doors of refugees has a bad psychological effect on them and their children and changes neighbours’ views of them. For this reason, we even spoke with Turkish authorities, asking them not to send police to the doors of houses, and instead, even if they have signed deportation papers, they should ask people to go to the immigration office. 

ZT: How does the United Nations act in such cases? 

Hekmat: The United Nations handed over all activities related to refugees to the Turkish Immigration Department since 2018 and currently has no role. All cases are in the hands of the Turkish government. When a case is accepted by the Turkish Immigration Department, it then refers them to the United Nations for the next steps, and after that, the United Nations interviews the refugees, and, if accepted, sends the case to a third country to determine the destination country. Otherwise, the United Nations has no specific task. 

ZT: Have you ever asked the United Nations for help in such cases? If so, how has their performance been?  

Hekmat: For some of the cases that are very urgent, we try to first contact the Turkish Immigration Department and solve the problem ourselves. There are some cases for which we ask lawyers from the United Nations for support, and they do pay attention to some issues.