Turkish guards at the border with Syria are indiscriminately shooting at refugees fleeing the fighting in northern Syria, Human Rights Watch said on Saturday.
A senior Turkish government official denied the report, repeating the Erdogan regime’s standard line that Ankara had taken in 3.5 million war refugees since the Syrian Civil War began in 2011.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said residents were fleeing a new round of heighted violence in the northwestern province of Idlib, near Turkey’s border.
The Turks have kept the border closed to all but critical medical cases.
Syrians are trying to seek refuge near the Turkish border, which remains closed to all but critical medical cases. According to the UN, 247,000 Syrians were displaced to the border area between December 15, 2017 and January 15, 2018.
Refugees who succeeded in crossing to Turkey, using smuggling routes, told Human Rights Watch that Turkish border guards shot at them and others while attempting to cross the border In some cases, Turkish border guards beat asylum seekers they detained and denied the victims medical assistance, witnesses said.
“Syrians fleeing to the Turkish border seeking safety and asylum are being forced back with bullets and abuse,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “As fighting in Idlib and Afrin displaces thousands more, the number of Syrians trapped along the border willing to risk their lives to reach Turkey is only likely to increase.”
Individuals interviewed by Human Rights Watch described being treated in a similar fashion at various crossing points. Some cases involved border guards failing to provide medical treatment when it was requested or clearly needed, and instead summarily returned them to Syria.
Twelve of the families Human Rights Watch spoke to who crossed near the Syrian internally displaced persons camp in al-Dureyya, near the city of Darkush said that upon capture, Turkish border guards placed them in a large square where they would remain until the guards had collected enough people to send back to Syria. Three families estimated that the square could fit up to a thousand people and usually had hundreds in it.
Those interviewed described their journeys across the border into Turkey as arduous and dangerous. Aside from the danger of being shot at by border guards, they described terrain littered with landmines, steep climbs, narrow paths along ravines, and valleys. They said they paid smugglers between US$300 and US$8,000 per person to reach Turkey, in many cases exhausting their resources.
Turkey has taken in about 3.5 million Syrians, hosting more refugees than any other country. Turkey has granted many of them temporary protection status, and sought to provide them with basic services, including medical care and education. However, Turkey’s generous hosting of large numbers of Syrians does not absolve it of its responsibility to help those seeking protection at its borders.
While Turkey is entitled to secure its border with Syria, it is required to respect the principle of nonrefoulement, which prohibits rejecting asylum seekers at borders when that would expose them to the threat of persecution, torture, and threats to life and freedom. Turkey must also respect the right to life and bodily integrity, including the absolute prohibition on subjecting anyone to inhuman and degrading treatment.
The Turkish government should issue standard instructions to the border guards at all crossing points that lethal force must not be used against asylum seekers and no asylum seeker is to be mistreated, but should be given access to medical aid when required. It should ensure that all crossing points comply with these core legal obligations, as well as the ban on refoulement.
The escalation of hostilities in the provinces of Idlib and Afrin inside Syria, and Turkey’s refusal to allow Syrian asylum seekers to cross the border, comes as some refugee host countries assert that Syria is safe for returns. Both Lebanon and Jordan have effectively closed their borders to Syrian asylum seekers as well.
In October 2017, the UN refugee agency stressed that “all parts of Syria are reported to have been affected, directly or indirectly, by one or multiple conflicts” and therefore maintained its long-standing call on all countries “not to forcibly return Syrians.”
Turkey’s international partners – including the European Union, which has a migration agreement with Ankara aimed at stemming onward migration to the EU – should press Turkey to keep its borders open to refugees, provide financial support to support Turkey’s refugee efforts, share responsibility by stepping up resettlement of refugees from Turkey, and refrain from returning people to Syria, Human Rights Watch said.