Southeastern Turkey, wedged between Iran and Iraq, is where the bright blue waters of Lake Van wash up against some very contested territory. Over the centuries the area was conquered by the armies of the Armenians, the Persians, the Ottomans and finally the Turks.
A view of Lake Van in September 2010.
A view of Lake Van in September 2010. AP
But the largely Kurdish population living here now is seeing people pour across the border not to wage war but to flee repression, bloodshed and chaos.
Sonar Cules with the Turkish Human Rights Foundation says the fluctuating refugee flows reflect the political ups and downs in the region. "Turkey is a bridge between the Middle East and Anatolia, and Van is a very important border for that," he says, "and we see a lot of people coming from Iran, Iraq and especially, lately, Afghanistan."
Turkey doesn't accept non-European refugees, but it is dealing with an increasing population of desperate people waiting for the U.N. refugee agency to resettle them — a process that can take years.
Stories Of Desperation And Loss
In a warehouse-lined industrial area on the edge of the city of Van, Rang Malih puts down his tools and explains how he was forced to flee his native province in western Afghanistan in the face of brutal violence against civilians handed out by the Taliban. "The Taliban came one day to Herat and they hanged a bunch of people," Malih says. "They would smash people in the heads, drive nails into people's heads. The Taliban is bad news."
Malih's first destination was neighboring Iran, which has been absorbing Afghan refugees since the war against the Soviets in the 1980s. The U.N. says there are nearly 1 million Afghans in Iran today. Some have suffered deportation or worse, and Malih says he kept moving, clear across the country and into Turkey.
"You know, Iran is no better than the Taliban. They don't give you anything; it's like in Afghanistan," he says. "But here in Turkey it's not like that. They let you come, and they even try to help you."
A Mixed Reaction From The Locals
On a commercial street in downtown Van, men on stools hunch over low tables laden with full ashtrays and glasses of sweet tea. At one table, a man is muttering about the problems the refugees cause — taking jobs, soaking up resources, getting involved in crime. But a young schoolteacher, who gives only his first name, Laski, takes a more charitable view.
"You can see some differences," he says. "The Afghans, you really feel that they have suffered. With an Iranian it's hard to know — is he a refugee, a businessman, a tourist? But with Afghans, you hear the most horrible stories."
Falling Prey To Swindlers
But while there are many inclined to help refugees and asylum seekers, there are also predators who feed off the misery of the newcomers.
In a small upstairs room above a row of shops, an Afghan woman working at a sewing machine starts to tell her story to a journalist but stops, overcome by emotion and fear of what might happen if the authorities find out she's here. Her application for resettlement has been rejected by the UNHCR, and she's here illegally because she has nowhere to go. As she hides her face in her hands, her young daughter sings to herself, intent on wrapping a scarf around a stuffed animal toy.
The Turkish woman who's helping this family survive, who identifies herself as Nejla, is seething with anger at the people who prey on vulnerable refugees. "Some Afghans who came here before told this woman to tell the authorities she had converted to Christianity," Nejla says. "That means money comes from the West, from Christian groups. But none of it gets to the family; those leeches take it all. And then, if the refugees are caught lying, their applications can fail and they're stuck."
But even approval by the U.N. is no guarantee.
In another corner of Van, several young Iranians share their tales of flight, delay and frustration. One of them is a former political blogger named Arash Pajooh. He was enthusiastically pro-reform when he was in Iran — so much so that he was arrested more than once, and finally forced to flee to Turkey well before the controversial 2009 elections that returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. Having come of age attending protests in Tehran that attracted only a handful of people, he found himself watching the biggest demonstrations of his lifetime on television from Van.
For people like Pajooh, who have convinced the U.N. that they have a genuine fear of persecution at home, it's a life in humanitarian purgatory.
"You tell me — what kind of life is this?" he asks. "We're here, we can't work, we don't have access to medical care, we can't go to school, they take money from us and we wait here. And that's what they keep telling us, to wait. Not yes, not no — just wait."
Human-rights groups say, in Turkey's defense, it does provide education and medical care to many young refugee children — and despite its law against accepting non-European refugees, Turkey is struggling with a sizeble population of refugees at the moment. It's a situation that satisfies no one, and one that's not likely to change anytime soon.