Afghan refugees trapped in Syria's Idlib after being deported by Turkey
But late last year they were picked up in Ankara, then deported by the Turkish authorities to the Syrian opposition enclave through Khirbet al-Joz border crossing into western Idlib.
“We told the Turkish authorities that we were Afghans, yet they deported us to Syria,” Nasratullah, one of the young Afghan men, told Middle East Eye.
The youths - Nasratullah, 22, Safiallah, 23, Khiyali Gul, 18, and Attaallah, 25 - decided to leave their eastern Afghanistan city when the Taliban took power last summer.
“It took a month to travel from Afghanistan to Turkey via Iran for $1,100," said Safiullah.
“As soon as we got to Ankara, the police caught us and we were persecuted,” Nasratullah added.
“We begged them to send us to Greece. They said they would send us to Greece or Afghanistan but they sent us to Syria.”
Today the young Afghans have largely run out of cash. None have phones, and MEE was only able to speak to them through a local intermediary.
When they were deported, the youths were immediately arrested by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a militant group that controls Idlib. They were held for a month, and only released after convincing HTS that they were not connected to Iran and were supportive of the Syrian revolution.
For the past month, the youths have been living in a temporary shelter in northern Idlib’s Qah, under the supervision of a local people smuggler.
The plan remains to cross back into Turkey and resume their journey to Europe. In Qah, they spend their days attempting to reach out to relatives and gather enough money to pay the smugglers to get them across the border.
But even finding work to earn enough cash to live in Idlib is proving hard. And if they are able to pay smugglers, getting across the highly fortified Turkish border is not only difficult – it’s highly dangerous.
Turkey and Syria are separated by a large border wall reinforced with thermal cameras, trenches and barbed wire. Hundreds of Turkish border guards are positioned along it.
On Wednesday, two Syrians were killed attempting to cross the border. Turkish troops are accused of directly targeting refugees trying to flee Idlib, with hundreds of deaths reported in recent years.
“We have failed to jump across the border wall without a smuggler, and the border guards shot at us twice,” Nasratullah said.
“When we crossed at the third time, the border guards arrested us and brought us back to Syria even though we told them we were Afghans.”
The safest routes into Turkey are inevitably the most expensive. Smugglers claim they bribe Turkish border guards, and have dug tunnels under the fence through which people can pass safely. They charge $2,500 to $3,000 for those routes.
But risks remain. Turkish authorities occasionally seize smuggling tunnels and blow them up to prevent the influx of new refugees.
About four million people live in northwestern Syria, half of whom have been displaced by pro-Syrian government forces and are now living in tents.
The Afghans are not the only foreigners that have been deported to Idlib by Turkey.
Last year, Turkish authorities deported nine Iranians to northern Syria, after they claimed to be Syrians while trying to cross into Europe.
Although there is increasing hostility towards Syrians in Turkey, some foreign refugees and migrants there claim to be Syrian thinking it will win them sympathy of the authorities and the local community.
'We begged them to send us to Greece. They said they would send us to Greece or Afghanistan but they sent us to Syria'
- Nasratullah, Afghan refugee
Last year, Tanju Ozcan, the mayor of the Bolu province, described Syrians as 30 years behind Turks, and said Afghans were 100 years behind.
The Afghan youths’ smuggler is said to have told authorities they were Syrians hoping to win them a reprieve. It didn’t work.
“We were beaten and imprisoned in Turkey, then we were photographed in prison and forced to fingerprint the deportation papers,” Nasratullah said.
Nadia Hardman, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, urged Turkey to stop deporting asylum-seekers.
“We are deeply concerned by the reports that Turkey has deported Afghans to Idlib, where they were imprisoned by HTS,” she told MEE.
“Asylum-seekers must be given the opportunity to present their fears that have led them to seek asylum,” she added.
“Turkey shouldn’t be introducing processes that complicate refugee access to protection. Deporting people without giving them a chance to claim asylum indicates that Turkey is not a safe third country.”
Turkish officials have on several occasions denied deporting refugees, telling MEE last month that no one has been deported to northwest Syria.
However, sources said that Turkish authorities deported some 150 people to Syria in February, about 16 of whom were able to return to Turkey with difficulty by coordinating with local Syrian organisations based in Turkey.