ISTANBUL – Turkish border guards are shooting and beating Syrian asylum seekers trying to reach Turkey, resulting in deaths and serious injuries, Human Rights Watch said today. The Turkish authorities should stop pushing Syrian asylum seekers back at the border and should investigate all use of excessive force by border guards.
During March and April 2016, Turkish border guards used violence against Syrian asylum seekers and smugglers, killing five people, including a child, and seriously injuring 14 others, according to victims, witnesses and Syrian locals interviewed by Human Rights Watch. Turkey’s Foreign Affairs Ministry maintains the country has an “open-door policy” for Syrian refugees, despite building a new border wall.
“While senior Turkish officials claim they are welcoming Syrian refugees with open borders and open arms, their border guards are killing and beating them,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Firing at traumatized men, women and children fleeing fighting and indiscriminate warfare is truly appalling.”
Since at least mid-August 2015, Turkish border guards have pushed back Syrians trying to reach Turkey. In April 2016, Human Rights Watch reported that Turkish border guards enforcing Turkey’s one-year-old border closure had shot at Syrians escaping advances by the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS), northeast of Aleppo. Human Rights Watch also revealed how Turkish border guards blocked thousands of fleeing displaced persons after their camps near the border had been hit by artillery fire on April 13 and 15.
The hostilities continue to threaten Syrians already displaced by fighting. According to witnesses, at around 5 p.m. on May 5, three airstrikes hit the Kamuna camp sheltering 4,500 displaced Syrians near Sarmada in northern Idlib province, 3 miles (5km) from Turkey’s increasingly impenetrable border. An independent humanitarian source in Turkey told Human Rights Watch that medics recovered 20 bodies, including two children, and that at least 37 people were injured, including 10 who lost one or more limbs and who were transferred to Turkey for medical care.
According to the Syrian Civil Defense, seven women and four children were also injured on April 24, when three artillery rounds fired by Syrian government forces hit al-Iqaa displaced persons camp near al-Zawf, located 3.5 miles (6km) northeast of the Khurbat al Juz-Guvecci border crossing. According to camp representatives, the al-Iqaa camp shelters many Syrians who have previously been pushed back by Turkish border guards.
Human Rights Watch interviewed victims and witnesses involved in seven incidents between the first week of March and April 17, in which Turkish border guards shot dead three asylum seekers (one man, one woman, and a 15-year-old boy) and one smuggler; beat to death one smuggler; shot and injured eight asylum seekers, including three children, aged three, five and nine; and severely assaulted six asylum seekers. Syrians living near the border also described the aftermaths of the shootings and beatings, including Turkish border guards firing at them as they tried to recover bodies at the border wall. One witness filmed a number of the dead and surviving victims and shared the videos with Human Rights Watch.
On May 4, Human Rights Watch sent a letter with these findings to the Turkish interior minister, urging Turkey to investigate the allegations made by Human Rights Watch, to order its guards not to shoot at asylum seekers, and to reopen its border to Syrians seeking safety.
Six of the incidents Syrian witnesses described took place near the Khurbat al Juz-Guvecci border crossing, about 30 miles (50km) south of the Turkish city of Antakya. The seventh happened near the Syrian border town of al-Duriya. Seven of the injured people said they had briefly stayed in the Salaheddin camp for displaced persons in the village of Khurbat al Juz, overlooking the newly erected Turkish border wall nearby. Most of them, and others who traveled straight to the border, said they had recently fled fighting in and around Aleppo.
Between April 12 and 20, Human Rights Watch also interviewed 28 other Syrian asylum seekers who described Turkish border guards intercepting them as they crossed the border with smugglers between February and mid-April. They said guards detained them for up to a day, then pushed them back to Syria with dozens – and in some cases hundreds – of others. Some were living in the Khirmash IDP [internally displaced person] camp to the west of the Syrian town of Bidama. A representative of the camp told Human Rights Watch that on April 13, Turkish border guards in the nearby watchtowers used loudspeakers to announce in Arabic that no one should approach the border and that anyone who did would be shot.
Turkey’s land borders are legally protected by land army border units of the Turkish Armed Forces. Gendarmerie also on duty at the borders operate under the authority of the land forces command. There are also gendarmerie stations near the borders charged with regular rural policing activities. This report refers to border guards without specifying if they are soldiers or gendarmes since such specific information was not provided or known by many witnesses.
As of early April, Turkey had completed a third of its 566 mile (911km) rocket-resistant concrete wall along its border with Syria and was working to fortify the rest of its border.
Turkey is entitled to secure its border with Syria, but is obliged to respect the principle of non-refoulement, 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 is also obliged to respect international norms on the use of lethal force as well as the rights to life and bodily integrity, including the absolute prohibition on subjecting anyone to inhuman and degrading treatment.
The violence against Syrian refugees, and Turkey’s refusal to allow them to cross the border, comes as the European Union has shut its own borders to asylum seekers. In March, the E.U. concluded a controversial migration deal with Ankara to curb refugee and migration flows to Europe, committing €6 billion in aid to assist Syrians in Turkey, reinvigorating Turkey’s E.U. membership negotiations and offering the prospect of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. The deal provides for Europe to return migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, including Syrians, who reach Greece by boat, on the grounds that Turkey is a safe country for them. The deal also commits the E.U. to work with Turkey to create areas inside Syria that will be “more safe.”
“The E.U. shouldn’t just stand by and watch as Turkey uses live ammunition and rifle butts to stem the refugee flow,” said Simpson. “E.U. officials should recognize that their red light for refugees to enter the E.U. gives Turkey a green light to close its border, exacting a heavy price on war-ravaged asylum seekers with nowhere else to go.”
This article was originally published by Human Rights Watch and is reprinted here with permission.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.