Turkey has all but closed its borders to Syrian asylum seekers and is summarily pushing back Syrians detected as they try to cross, Human Rights Watch said on November 23.
Syrians described Turkish border guards intercepting them at or near the border, in some cases beating them, and pushing them and dozens of others back into Syria or detaining and then summarily expelling them along with hundreds of others, according to Human Rights Watch.
During the second half of October 2015, Human Rights Watch interviewed 51 Syrians in Turkey who had fled airstrikes and other violence in Syria. All said it was common knowledge among Syrians that they could only enter Turkey using smugglers. They described men, women, and terrified children trying to clamber at smuggler crossings across steep terrain at night for many hours surrounded by gunfire.
“Turkey’s border closure is forcing pregnant women, children, the elderly, the sick, and the injured to run the gantlet of Turkish border officials to escape the horrors of Syria’s war,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Turkey has generously hosted Syrians and is entitled to closely control its borders for security reasons, but it should not be forcing asylum seekers back to a war zone.”
As of mid-November, Turkey had registered almost 2 200 000 Syrians, of whom about 250 000 live in 25 camps managed by the Turkish authorities. In September, Turkey said it had spent $7.6 billion on assisting Syrian refugees since 2011. Turkey deserves credit and support for hosting these refugees, but is obliged to keep its borders open to people seeking asylum, Human Rights Watch said.
Turkey closed its last two official border-crossing points to almost all Syrians in early March, only allowing some people with urgent medical needs to cross.
Syrians have continued to reach Turkey through smuggling routes. However, according to sources in southern Turkey with extensive knowledge of the border areas, Turkey has stepped up enforcement measures at unofficial border crossing points as well since the July 20 attackin the Turkish border town of Suruç, HRW said.
Many interviewees told Human Rights Watch that the intensified Russia-Syrian airstrikes in Aleppo and Idlib since September finally forced them to leave Syria. They also described extreme poverty, lack of electricity and clean water, limited aid and poor medical care due to a lack of qualified staff, and overwhelmed medical facilities.
Since the border enforcement increased, Human Rights Watch has only been able to find one location – to the southeast of Antakya – where Syrians have continued to cross in significant numbers with smugglers at night.
Almost all of those interviewed said it was common knowledge in their home areas that it was the best chance they had of crossing into Turkey because the hilly terrain makes it harder for the Turkish authorities to detect them than in the flat plain border areas further north and east.
They said that hundreds – and on some days, thousands – of Syrians were amassed in the area, waiting to cross by night. Many said they had to wait for up to a week before smugglers told them it was safe to try.
Interviewees said groups scattered when they heard border guards shooting, resulting in separation of relatives, including children from their parents. They also described how difficult it was to cross the hilly terrain in the dark. In some cases, elderly people fell down steep inclines. One woman said she saw an old man die after such a fall, according to Human Rights Watch.
Some groups used women’s veils to create makeshift ropes to pull women and children up particularly steep hills. Interviewees said they had told their vulnerable relatives back home to stay in Syria because the crossing would be too difficult.
“The sheer exhaustion and desperation Syrian families go through after fleeing for their lives and literally scrambling their way to safety through the night across the Turkish border is written all over their faces,” Simpson said. “Turkey should not be putting people escaping war through such hardship.”
Turkey ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, but with a geographical limitation that only recognises as refugees people fleeing Europe.
However, under customary international refugee law and international human rights law, Turkey must respect the principle of nonrefoulement, which prohibits countries from returning anyone to a place where they face a real risk of persecution, torture, or inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. Nonrefoulement also prohibits rejection of asylum seekers at borders that would expose them to such threats, HRW said.
Between January 1 and late November, about 420 000 Syrians left Turkey for Greece by boat in an effort to reach the European Union.
Amid mounting concern among EU governments at the scale of the arrivals in Europe, the EU is negotiating an action plan aimed at reducing migration flows to Europe. The latest draft says that the EU and Turkey will “strengthen cooperation to prevent irregular migration flows to the EU.”
The first draft referred to “prevent[ing] further arrivals of irregular migrants to Turkey and irregular departures of refugees and migrants from Turkey to the EU.”
The EU’s negotiations with Turkey – including a possible three billion euro aid package and visa liberalisation for Turkish nationals – suggest that the EU may still be trying to provide incentives for co-operation to stop the migration flow.
The EU should ensure that the final plan includes a commitment by the Turkish authorities to allow Syrians to seek asylum in Turkey, Human Rights Watch said.