VAN, Turkey — The paths of refugees and drug traffickers have crossed at the porous Iranian-Turkish border, the route of tens of thousands fleeing Afghanistan, with growing indications that refugees are being forced to carry drugs.
Turkey has seen an unprecedented influx of Afghan refugees since the Taliban took over Afghanistan last year amid the hasty US withdrawal, with Ankara often under fire for failing to prevent the illegal entries from Iran. The Afghans cross Pakistan and Iran to reach Turkey’s eastern border and are often joined by migrants from Pakistan and other Asian countries as they make their way across the mountainous frontier with the help of human traffickers.
The same route has long been a major heroin-smuggling route from Afghanistan to Western Europe, running via Turkey and the Balkans. In 2018, nearly 60% of heroin seizures outside of Afghanistan took place on the so-called Balkan route, according to the Turkish police’s 2021 drug report. Nearly 14 tons of heroin were seized in Turkey in 2020. Bulky seizures of heroin and other narcotics such as methamphetamine are frequent in the eastern province of Van, which borders Iran.
There are growing claims and indications that drug traffickers have come to use refugees to carry smaller amounts of narcotics across the Iranian-Turkish border, apparently by making deals with human smugglers.
An Iranian in his early 30s who fled Iran for being a dissident of the regime told Al-Monitor in Van that he was among refugees whom the traffickers forced to carry drugs during their clandestine passage to Turkey three months ago. According to his account, packages of narcotics were given to about 15 people in the crowded group. Those who showed reluctance were threatened to be left on the Iranian side. And those who agreed were offered some privileges such as extra food and water, crossing the border separately from the group under the escort of guides or riding on horseback rather than walking the five-hour mountain trek.
Van’s district of Caldiran, which directly abuts Iran, is at the heart of the human-smuggling route. In periodical statements on the issue, the Interior Ministry speaks of tight measures at the border, but migrants have often been captured on camera while trekking into Turkish territory unhindered.
The Interior Ministry’s migration management agency said in an April statement that more than 55,600 “irregular migrants” have been detained across Turkey since the beginning of the year, and about 21,000 illegals, mostly Afghans and Pakistanis, have been deported.
Meanwhile, this reporter’s observations along the Iranian border and interviews with migrants indicate that many who are pushed back by the security forces are able to re-enter Turkey in a couple of days.
Based on the accounts of villagers and other sources in border areas, one could estimate that an average of 1,000 people cross illegally from Iran to Turkey daily, despite the risk of falling prey to wild animals or freezing to death during winter. Apparently, this has not escaped the attention of drug traffickers amid the exodus from Afghanistan, the world’s largest producer of opium, after the takeover of the Taliban. Using refugees to carry drugs is believed to be seen as a less risky way by drug traffickers.
Umit Avci, a Van lawyer who has been involved in many illegal migration-related cases in the region, told Al-Monitor that most smuggling operations take place at night via border villages where security measures are deemed to be less or laxer. “Because the refugees cross in big numbers and stand a chance of escaping or scampering away, the drug traffickers seem to see this method as safer,” he said.
A statement by the Van governor’s office about a security operation against human trafficking in July 2021 describes an incident that appears to mesh with the account of the Iranian refugee. According to the statement, the security forces spotted three suspicious men walking with backpacks near the border in Caldiran. The men disobeyed orders to stop and managed to escape after dropping their baggage. The three backpacks contained 80 packages of heroin, totaling 41 kilograms, the statement said.
A villager from the hamlet of Bakisik, just 600 meters from the Iranian border, said on the condition of anonymity that smuggling was rife in the area. “There is hardly anything that is not coming through this border. From livestock to people, from diesel to tobacco and narcotics — everything is coming in,” he said. The drug trafficking involves marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine, the villager said. “Only cocaine is not coming via this route.”
The Iranian refugee, a native of the city of Khoy, described his experience in the following words: “The night we were preparing to cross to Turkey, the smugglers came with packages and told us to put them in our bags. I was reluctant but they were pressing us to comply. And I was not in a position to refuse. I took the plastic bags containing drugs and put them into my bag unwillingly for the sake of crossing the border. Once we reached the Turkish side, another smuggler came riding on horseback, took the packages and went away.”
There are also claims that some members of the security forces are involved in this new method of drug trafficking. Such allegations have made their way to court documents after a man suspected of human smuggling and using the refugees to traffic drugs was shot dead by the police in December 2019.
The police opened fire on Orhan Gunbay while he was driving a van packed with 28 Afghans in the province of Bitlis, which borders Van and lies on a route that many migrants sneaking from Iran use to travel on to Istanbul.
According to official reports of the incident, the police found narcotics in the van and in the possession of the Afghan passengers. The prosecutor investigating the shooting alleged in the indictment that Gunbay was acquainted with one of the four policemen involved in the incident, a claim corroborated by witnesses. Though the policemen remain on trial on charges of intentional homicide, they have been released and returned to duty, making the case even more controversial.