AGRI, Turkey (Reuters) - On a mountainous road leading west from the Iranian border, 22-year-old Sunnatilla Rasulbek trudges through heavy rain, one of tens of thousands of Afghans hoping to find work and security in Turkey before a wall goes up to keep them out.
Already 2,000 km (1,250 miles) from his home in Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, Rasulbek plans to try to earn some money in eastern Turkey before heading further west to Istanbul in sarch of a job to support his family back home.
The number of Afghans arriving in Turkey tripled in the first three months of the year to 27,000, driven by conflict and poverty and fears that the route may soon be closing.
While the numbers are small compared to the 3.5 million Syrians who have taken refuge in Turkey, the influx will further strain Turkish authorities, who have flown hundreds of Afghans back to Kabul and are building a wall on the border with Iran and a new detention center close to the frontier.
That has not deterred Rasulbek, walking with three other migrants on the edge of a highway in the foothills of Mount Ararat, the snow-capped peak which towers over eastern Turkey and is associated with the Bible story of Noah’s ark.
Many of them paid smugglers to get them across the porous and hilly border - often handing over $600 to $1,000, the migrants say. Across the countryside groups of them can be seen walking by the roads with few clothes and possessions.
Most appear very young, possibly teenagers.
“There is war in Afghanistan and there are no jobs,” Rasulbek says, determined to reach his next destination - the central Anatolian city of Sivas hundreds of kilometers away.
Under a deal signed with the European Union two years ago, Turkey agreed to take back all migrants and refugees crossing illegally by sea into Greece, helping to stem the flow of people arriving in Europe.
It has built a wall along its border with Syria, making it hard for people to reach Turkey from the south. But migrants are still coming from the east, causing resentment among locals who face a jobless rate of more than 10 percent and high rents.
Government spokesman Bekir Bozdag says the official figure of 27,000 Afghan migrants crossing into Turkey this year from Iran understates the scale of the arrivals, because many have not been detected by authorities.
He said Turkey, which after years of hosting millions of Syrian refugees now talks about helping them return to secure areas in the north of their country, would take a firm line on the latest arrivals.
“Turkey as a country will take the same measures to the illegal refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan as it does to refugees from other countries,” he told a news conference in Ankara last week.
The 144 km (90 mile) wall it is building on the border with Iran is meant to help stem smuggling and illegal immigration, as well as infiltration by Kurdish militants, officials say. The wall is half built and will be finished in a year.
Work on the wall “is creating concern that it will be hard to pass once construction is complete” said Ibrahim Vurgun Kavlak, an activist who supports migrants and asylum seekers in Turkey.
He said economic problems in Iran, which has hosted Afghan refugees for more than 30 years, means there are fewer jobs for Afghans there - another factor driving people toward Turkey.
The migrants themselves say they heard rumors that Tehran was preparing to repatriate Afghans from Iran.
Iranian officials told Reuters that thousands of Afghans had voluntarily returned home in the past few months, while many others have headed to Europe via Turkey.
Asked whether Iran was forcing Afghan refugees to go back, a senior Iranian Interior ministry official said: “There is no war in Afghanistan. We and the Afghan government believe that they can return home and help the construction of their own country.”
It is more than four years since the official end of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan launched after al Qaeda attacked the United States in 2001, but violence continues. Last year, more than 10,000 civilians were killed or wounded in fighting between government forces and the ousted Taliban which hosted al Qaeda.
Afghans are one of the largest displaced groups in the world, with three million living in Iran and Pakistan alone, the Norwegian Refugee Council said. It said conflict had displaced more than a million Afghans in the past two years – a period in which asylum acceptance rates for them globally have plummeted.
A week ago 591 Afghans, mostly young men, were deported from Turkey via a charter flight back to Kabul. In the same buildings where they were held outside the Turkish city of Erzurum, surrounded by high green fences, hundreds more await their fate.
Nearer the border, at an intercity bus terminal in Agri province, two families still at liberty try to find buses to take them to western Turkey, where fellow Afghans can help them find jobs including washing dishes in restaurants for $10 a day.
For a week they have slept alongside one another on a tiled floor beneath the stairs of the two-storey terminal. Young mothers complain of poor hygiene and lack of help.
“My child is coughing and has chest pain, he is not well and vomits sometimes. We couldn’t take him to the doctor because we have no money,” said 22-year-old Aisha, while her two-year-old son played in her arms.
“I am ready to do all kinds of labor for my child to get better,” said Aisha. She is trying to reach the Turkish capital Ankara, after a long journey which started in Kabul.
“We fled because of suicide bombings and explosions,” she said. “When you left the house, you didn’t know whether you would come back home alive or not.”
Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Ankara and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; editing by Dominic Evans and Philippa Fletcher