The Turkish government has been forcibly deporting refugees to war-torn Syria, two international rights groups have alleged, days after Ankara concluded a cross-border operation partly aimed at creating a so-called “safe zone” to settle millions of refugees living in Turkey.
Amnesty International said in a report, which was released on Friday and was based on 28 interviews with refugees, that Turkish police had beaten, threatened or tricked them into signing documents stating they were asking to return to Syria.
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In a written statement to Al Jazeera, Hami Aksoy, the Turkish foreign ministry spokesman, said the report’s claims that Syrians have been forcibly returned to their country, threatened and ill-treated were “untrue and imaginary”.
“While we are hosting four million Syrian refugees, including 3.6 million Syrians, within our borders, we are studiously implementing our policy of ‘non-refoulement’,” he said.
He added: “Our authorities has been carrying out the ‘repatriating process’ in collaboration the UN refugee agency and other non-governmental organisations. Our country has in every opportunity always stressed that refugee returns should be voluntary, secure and in line with the international law.”
But Amnesty said its interviews documented 20 verified cases of forced deportations in the months before the launch of Turkey’s military operation in northeast Syria on October 9. It said the alleged deportations involved people being sent across the Syrian border on buses filled with dozens of other people, who, the interviewees said, were handcuffed with plastic ties and were also seemingly being forcibly deported.
“Some said they were beaten or threatened with violence to force them to sign. Others were told they were signing a registration document, that it was a confirmation of having received a blanket from a detention centre, or a form that expressed their desire to remain in Turkey,” Amnesty said.
“Turkey’s claim that refugees from Syria are choosing to walk straight back into the conflict is dangerous and dishonest. Rather, our research shows that people are being tricked or forced into returning,” said Anna Shea, researcher on refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty.
The London-based group said it estimated that over the past few months, hundreds of refugees were forcibly deported to Syria, adding that it was illegal to do so as “it exposed them to a real risk of serious human rights violations”.
Hosting the highest number of refugees from neighbouring Syria, Turkey has frequently complained about not getting financial support from the international community to share the burden.
Following a recent policy change, refugees residing in Turkey have until October 30 to return to the provinces in which they were first registered upon arriving in the country. The Turkish police have been carrying out operations, particularly in Istanbul, to enforce the order since the summer.
Yasin Aktay, an adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said there have been sporadic returns of unregistered refugees to “safe areas” in Syria.
“These are not forced returns as they were not supposed to be in the country in the first place. The directorate-general of immigration has also accepted back many refugees after they proved their status and situation,” he told Al Jazeera on Friday.
“They were only allowed to go to safe areas with livelihood and security, and were given the time and opportunity to prove their status,” Aktay said.
Following the launch of its operation and an agreement with Russia, Turkey is in the process of creating a “safe zone” inside Syria cleared of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Ankara considers a “terrorist” organisation. The country aims at gradually repatriating two million of the refugees currently residing on its soil to the zone.
The safe zone will be a 32km-wide (20 miles) area between the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, which covers 120km (75 miles) of the Turkish-Syrian border, according to the deal reached with Moscow, which also has a military presence in the region as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad‘s main ally.
This was Turkey’s third push into Syria in the last several years. Ankara conducted two operations into northern Syria in 2016 and 2018 to clear the areas of what it called “terrorists”. It controls swaths of land in northwestern Syria as a result of these operations.
The Turkish authorities say some 365,000 people have left for Syria on a voluntary basis in recent years.
Aktay told Al Jazeera that Turkey’s health, security and other services exist in the Syrian areas controlled by the country.
“There are life standards enough to make some people voluntarily move there to establish new lives,” he said.
In a separate statement released late on Thursday, US-based Human Rights Watch also said that authorities arbitrarily detained and deported Syrians to northern Syria between January and September 2019.
“Deported Syrians said that Turkish officials forced them to sign forms they were not allowed to read, in some cases after beating or threatening them, and transported them to Syria,” the rights group said.
Human Rights Watch said it spoke with 12 Syrians by phone about their arrest and detention in Turkey and deportation to Idlib in northern Syria, with two Syrians in person who fled Idlib after being deported there and who returned to Turkey, and with the wife of a man deported from Istanbul.
According to the group, 13 said they were deported by bus between July and September. Three said the other bus passengers, a total of about 100, told them they were being returned to Syria against their will.
Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch said: “Turkey hosts four times as many Syrians as the European Union, but that does not mean it can return them to a warzone.”
Simpson added: “With the Syrian conflict recently taking another deadly turn, the EU should be helping Turkey respond to a reality that requires ongoing protection for millions of refugees.”
Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_Uras