by Leo Kendrick
An article by United Kingdom Defense Secretary Ben Wallace that appeared Sunday in The Mail on Sunday has stirred speculation and debate about alleged British plans to establish Afghan refugee ‘processing hubs’ in Turkey and Pakistan.
Wallace’s article, which does not explicitly mention Turkey or Pakistan by name, calls for the establishment of what the Defense Secretary calls ‘processing hubs’ in countries neighboring Afghanistan in order to handle the wave of refugees exiting the country following the takeover of the Taliban last week. Later reports, specifically one from BBC Türkçe, indicated that the Ministry of Defense was examining Turkey and Pakistan as possible hosts for said processing hubs. Wallace’s article emphasized the urgency of current evacuations of British personel, as well as an admission that they would likely not succeed in evacuating everyone, specifically local allies of British and NATO troops still on the ground in Kabul. The secretary’s plan for processing hubs was ostensibly proposed with these Afghans in mind: those allied with the UK, US, and NATO forces prior to their withdrawal. With the Taliban’s August 31st deadline for the evacuation of all foreign military presence fast approaching, evacuation capacity is limited, and Kabul’s airport has been overrun in recent days with Afghans hoping to flee the country before foreign powers leave for good.
The Defense Secretary’s announcement was met with immediate denial by Turkey’s Foreign Ministry, who released a statement late Sunday evening saying “Until now we have not received such a request from any other country. Even if we had received such a request, it would not be possible for us to accept it,” referring to reports that the United Kingdom had requested Turkey be a host for the proposed refugee ‘processing hubs’.
President Erdoğan’s communications director Fahrettin Altun also released a lengthy rebuttal to the alleged plans, refuting in a series of tweets any notion that Turkey planned to host Wallace’s planned ‘processing hubs’. Altun’s tweets underlined that Turkey had not been mentioned in Wallace’s article, and accused Turkey’s opposition of deliberately distorting the facts and peddling “lies which attack our government.”
Opposition leaders were quick to jump on the issue, condemning both the British proposal and alleged Turkish complicity in such a plan. Republican People’s Party (CHP) chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu released a statement on social media Sunday saying the British Defense Secretary plans to “choose the refugees for themselves and leave the rest in our country,” referring to reported British plans to selectively grant asylum to refugees wishing to migrate to the United Kingdom, while leaving the rest in host countries such as Turkey. İYİ Party Chairwoman Meral Akşener, meanwhile, posted a Tweet accusing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of being a “subcontractor” to the United Kingdom.
The initial confusion over whether British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace had specifically designated Turkey and Pakistan as locations for the planned ‘processing hubs’ lasted into Monday afternoon, at which point BBC Türkçe editor Murat Nisancıoğlu explained in a lengthy Twitter thread the mix-up, one that was panned by President Erdoğan’s spokesperson as “disinformation”. In his explanation, Nisancıoğlu stated that BBC Türkçe’s mistake had been in attributing the Turkey and Pakistan hosting proposal to the Defense Secretary himself, although the idea had reportedly come from British Ministry of Defense sources. While apologizing for this error, Nisancıoğlu also noted that in the two days that had passed since the news first broke, no correction or clarification been offered by the Ministry of Defense whatsoever.
President Erdoğan held a phone conversation Sunday evening with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson regarding the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan. The conversation touched on Turkish plans to continue operation of the Kabul airport, although earlier reports indicated that such plans had been shelved. The two heads of state agreed that under certain conditions, continued operation of the airport was possible. Following the call, Johnson released a statement mentioning Erdoğan’s request that the crisis in Afghanistan and resultant migration crisis be dealt with as an international responsibility.
Kabul’s rapid fall to Taliban forces just over a week ago and the ongoing migration crisis have put the issue front and center in both Turkish domestic politics and abroad. Erdoğan’s conversation with Johnson comes as the President has adopted harder-line rhetoric on the refugee issue in recent weeks. As the issue has gained prominence in the domestic political sphere of late, opposition leaders have repeatedly seized on the opportunity to exploit the president’s perceived ambivalence towards irregular immigration into Turkey’s eastern provinces.