HRW: Turkey pushing back Syrian refugees at border

Rights group’s claims, based on interviews with refugees, are rejected by Turkish officials who say borders are open.

File photo of Syrian Kurdish refugees sitting in a truck after crossing the Turkish-Syrian border near the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province
Turkey hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees with a figure as high as 2.2 million [Reuters]

Human Rights Watch says Syrian refugees trying to enter Turkey are being pushed back as they try to cross the border.

In a report released on Monday, the New York-based rights group said Turkey has now closed all its borders to Syrian refugees and is pushing them back to Syria.

Emma Sinclair, a Turkey-based HRW researcher, told Al Jazeera that those being pushed back are being left with no choice but to use smugglers and embark on dangerous routes to enter Turkey.

“A number of Syrians have said they were pushed back at the borders once they were intercepted. People being pushed back are forced to eventually use smugglers,” she said.

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“Syrians are fleeing a conflict in their country, they are fleeing constant air strikes all they want is to go to safety and claim protection.

“Turkey has every reason to be concerned about security and has the right to screen refugees, but the route it is leaving Syrians to take is dangerous.

“We are very concerned about these pushbacks. Some refugees try to enter a second and third time, and sometimes get prosecuted.”

However, Yasin Aktay, an MP with Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), told Al Jazeera the claims were baseless. 

“In humanitarian terms, Turkey would never consider closing its borders. It has said this numerous times. Turkey would never close its doors to these people who are running for their lives, trying to enter the country only for humanitarian reasons,” Aktay, who is also vice chairman of the party, said.

He said Turkey took additional precautions and had been monitoring crossings more closely as to who was going in and out.

“Unmonitored crossings are a risk for us as it can lead to terrorists entering the country,” Aktay said.

Refugees exhausted

HRW said it conducted 51 interviews with Syrians during the last two weeks of October in Antakya and Istanbul provinces about the ordeal they faced as they attempted to cross into Turkey.

They were pushed back near Turkey’s Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salama crossings, it said.

The vast majority told HRW that they had crossed hours and some days before being interviewed resulting in their exhaustion and weariness.

Six people told HRW they were forced back into Syria, three of them said they were arrested by Turkish border guards and forced to stay overnight in detention.

Others witnessed border guards pushing back dozens of people into Syria.

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Khaled Khoja, president of the opposition National Coalition, says the closing of borders comes as international forces are trying to clear border areas from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group in order to create safe zones .

“We are still coordinating with the Turkish government on ways to be deliver humanitarian and medical aid into Syria,” Khoja said in Istanbul on Monday.

For his part, Aktay said Turkey was preparing to take more refugees after the recent civilian deaths across the border as a result of Russian strikes.

“People are fleeing from these attacks and Turkey is arranging more space in its refugee camps for this new flow. The Prime Ministry Disaster & Emergency Management Authority works on the issue,” Aktay told Al Jazeera.

“Turkey sees this issue as a humanitarian one and would never change its approach to it.”

In 2014, Syrians fleeing the conflict entered Turkey without identity documents through official border crossing points, but by January the government imposed new rules requiring Syrians to present valid travel documents to enter Turkey.

The Turkish government closed its last two official border crossings in March, according to the HRW.

Turkey hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees with a figure as high as 2.2 million refugees.

According to the UNHCR, there is a total of 4.2 million Syrian refugees, including almost two million children. In Syria there are at least 12.2 million internally displaced people, including 5.6 million children.

The Syrian conflict began with anti-government protests in 2011 before spiralling into a multi-front war after a brutal regime crackdown.

At least 250,000 have been killed since then and an additional 11.8 million people have been displaced.

Source: Al Jazeera