Last year I had the providence to meet Mostafa, a nineteen year old Afghani who suffers from a rupture in the state/citizen relationship. This breakdown, a consequence inherent in the Westphalia modal, problematizes rather than supports refugees like him.
Born in Iran, Mostafa refuses to return to the war in Afghanistan. He never had access to an education, medical care, or a sufficient wage. In fact, he never had access to a future. With dreams sewed tightly to his heart, he chased one.
I met Mostafa in Istanbul. He’s a registered asylum-seeker who lived in the same camp where I taught English. Mostafa was my best student. He always worked hard and never missed a class. But sometimes, after our lesson, I overheard him ask his friends how he could get into Europe.
About a month later, six Afghani boys approached him. They told him they were going to cross into Bulgaria that night. Infatuated with Europe, he left the camp and followed their lead.
That day, Mostafa and the others pooled their monthly wages from United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). With money to spare, the group boarded a bus from Istanbul to Edirne. This city is located in the north of Turkey, not far from the Bulgarian border.
Upon their arrival, three Turkish officials confronted them. The boys quickly showed their UNHCR papers. Since they were registered, their documentation was adequate for now.
It was pitch black. The boys, with very little knowledge of their surroundings, spent the rest of their money on a taxi. They watched as the meter approached fifteen lira. They weren’t driven far. Mostafa recollects,
“When we left the car we couldn’t see anything. We just kept moving in the same direction. We had a small map, and with our lighter, we managed. I think we were two hours away from the border by foot. Sometimes, just to be safe, one of us threw a stone. If it sounded like the rock hit a field, or a familiar surface, we followed it…”
As the boys neared the border, abruptly, they stopped and formed a circle. Before advancing anymore, they burned their UNHCR documents into ashes. If they managed to get across, they planned to register again in the EU.
They hoped to take advantage of the principle of nonrefoulement. This rule, as stipulated in international law, prohibits the deportation of refugees back to their country of origin where there is a well-known fear of torture or persecution. Moreover, upon arrival, it entitles each migrant to seek asylum and register with UNHCR.
After putting out the fire, the boys treaded carefully. As they progressed, they heard security officials marching nearby. Discreetly, Mostafa and the others lied on the ground hopeful that nobody would see them. They waited until the guards walked a safe distance away. They remained still. They were silent.
Rapidly, boarder security surrounded them. Mostafa still thinks about this incident, “The guards shouted at us. They were aggressive with us. And I was scared. I was really scared.”
Because Mostafa exists outside the paradigm of citizenship, he is excluded from civil law. This means that instead of prison, “illegal” migrants are enclosed in detention centres for an undetermined period of time.
In Turkey, undocumented refugees are taken to “foreign guest houses.” Don’t be fooled by the endearing title, these places are nothing more than typical detention centres that trap vulnerable people in even more susceptible conditions. This is where the authorities sent Mostafa. They transported him to Gaziosmanpasa guest house in the far northern province of Kirklareli.
Non-government organizations (NGOs) are prohibited from entering these “houses”. Separated from any external assistance, detainees are rendered helpless to exceptional treatment. Liabilities such as language barriers, unfamiliarity with the state’s penal code and the absence of social or economic capital deter migrants from accessing liberties entitled to them under international law. According to Mostafa, in the small chance that a detainee has any money, they bribe the authorities in exchange for either freedom or a lawyer.
One day, a crowed of Afghanis including Mostafa, organized a football match against a group of Syrian refugees. During the game, one of the Syrians made a hard sliding tackle that tripped his Afghani counterpart. Abruptly, tempers flared:
Both teams started to fight. Everyone was kicking, hitting, and even biting each other. The guards didn’t do anything. They just watched. They wanted us to kill each other. They even closed the playground doors! They didn’t let anyone out. They wouldn’t let me out.
Moreover, the amenities were horrible; sanitation was disgusting, the rooms were too crowded, the bedding was awful and hundreds of people were suffering from illness. In fact, as Mostafa recollects, there wasn’t any hot water except for Friday afternoons, “They were nice on Fridays. They allowed us to shower with hot water for a few minutes.”
As time passed, Mostafa developed a friendship with a Coptic Egyptian named Peter. Resentfully, Peter was battered daily by a few of the other detainees. And as usual the guards did nothing.
Fed up, Peter told Mostafa he was leaving. That afternoon, Peter went to see Mr Orphuk, the top authority of Gaziosmanpasa guesthouse.
Mr. Orphuk dismissed him straightaway. But Peter didn’t leave. Rather, he threatened to kill himself if he wasn’t released immediately. Mr. Orphuk started to laugh.
Mostafa still thinks about his response, “He didn’t think Peter would do it, but I knew he would.”
Peter knew also. With a small piece of glass he started slicing his wrists. As blood poured to the floor, Mr Orphuk shouted at the guards to apprehend him. Fearing that Peter might try again, he conceded to his demands.
Two days later, Peter was assigned a lawyer. The attorney helped him fill out some paper work, and by the end of the week, he was released.
Peter wears the scars that Gaziosmanpasa left behind. Mostafa, however, was now alone. Enclosed from the world, he considered doing anything to get out.
He confided in the other Afghanis, “I told them I will deport myself back to Afghanistan. I couldn’t take it anymore.” His peers advised him otherwise. According to Mostafa, “Everyone thought I was going crazy, and I thought I was too.”
Three months passed, and though more people were released, Mostafa and his peers were still there.
One morning, he woke up and made his way to Mr. Orphuk’s office. He was going to ask for his deportation. But right before he knocked on the door, he decided against it.
A month later Mostafa was released. And though the authorities sent him back to Istanbul, the spatial memories of Gaziosmanpasa detention still haunt him, “I never want to go back there” he says.
Since he’s been back in Istanbul, sometimes Mostafa and I have a few chess matches over a cup of coffee. One afternoon, while staring at my cornered King, he remarked, “I know how it feels to have nowhere to go.”
Mathew Nashed is a writer living in Istanbul.