ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – A human rights monitor has accused Turkish border guards of “indiscriminately shooting” and abusing Syrian asylum seekers attempting to cross into Turkey. Witnesses claim 10 people, including a child, have been killed on the border in recent months.
Refugees displaced by recent fighting in Idlib who managed to cross into Turkey between May and December 2017 told Human Rights Watch (HRW) that Turkish guards have been turning them away by force. The border remains closed to all but the most serious medical cases, forcing many to take dangerous alternative routes over mountains littered with landmines.
One woman who attempted the crossing seven times with her three children at several different crossing points between September and October said Turkish border guards fired on them. She was pregnant at the time.
“When they [Turkish border guards] open fire, we would be hiding in the valley,” she told HRW. “They would shoot randomly. I could see the bullets spark between my feet. In one incident, a woman was hit twice in her belly, and two men carried her back to Syria. We could see the trail of blood between the bushes.”
Another woman told the monitor she witnessed the shooting of a 13-year-old boy who was trying to cross with his mother.
“We had reached the wide street that divides Syria and Turkey, and the smuggler told the child and another man to cross it. They started to walk across, and then bang, bang. They were both shot. The kid, it went straight through his stomach, and he was bleeding heavily. We dragged him back with us all the way, and he died in Syria.”
The shootings allegedly took place near al-Dureyya camp for internally displaced Syrians, at Turkey’s border wall near the Bab al-Hawa/Cilvegözü border crossing, and near the Orontes river – a common smuggling point.
Asylum seekers who spoke to HRW said some of those captured by Turkish border guards were abused and beaten. Even those clearly in need of medical assistance were denied help and summarily returned to Syria, they claimed.
“When they [the Turkish border guards] captured us, we would stay out in the cold for hours [gathered in a square] until they had collected enough groups to return us to Syria,” one witness told HRW. “Even when it was cold and raining, they would force us to sit silently. One time a woman asked for a drink of water, and they hit her.”
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told reporters on Saturday that Ankara has maintained an “open-door policy” on refugees throughout the Syrian civil war. He insisted Turkish soldiers are there to protect them.
A senior government official later told Reuters that “there has been absolutely no case of civilians being fired upon at the border.”
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HRW released its report on Saturday in expectation of a fresh wave of displaced civilians fleeing the ongoing fighting between Turkish troops and their Syrian proxies and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The campaign, known as Operation Olive Branch, was unleashed on January 20 targeting the US-backed People’s Protection Units (YPG), considered a terrorist outfit by Ankara based in the border enclave of Afrin.
“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 HRW. “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.”
“Conditions in Syria are not safe for refugee returns,” Fakih added. “With hostilities in Afrin contributing to the growing displacement crisis in the country, Turkey should allow the thousands of desperate Syrians seeking refuge to cross the border.”
Some 247,000 Syrians were displaced to the border area between December 15, 2017 and January 15, 2018, according to the UN.
Although HRW commended Turkey for accepting around 3.5 million refugees since Syria’s civil war began seven years ago, it said Ankara’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,” the monitor said.
“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 monitor said it had described its findings in a letter to Turkey’s interior minister on January 30. It has also called on the European Union and Turkey’s other international partners to offer financial support for the relief effort and to pressure Ankara to reopen its borders to refugees.
Turkey is reportedly drawing up contingency plans to cope with any movement of Syrian civilians towards the north of the country to flee Ankara's air and ground offensive.
The country’s humanitarian agencies are reportedly scouting for camp areas around Azaz as well as Idlib if large numbers of civilians head for the border seeking safety from the bombardment.
According to the United Nations, Afrin has an estimated population of 324,000 people, with around 5,000 already displaced by the offensive by the end of January.
Last updated at 10:25 p.m.