ISTANBUL – Turkish officials detained, beaten, and forcibly repatriated hundreds of Syrian men and boys over a six-month period, according to a leading human rights group.
Human Rights Watch, based in New York, said in a report that the treatment of migrants seeking temporary asylum in Turkey violates international law.
In the past, the Turkish government has denied allegations of forcibly returning migrants to Syria.
Turkey has the world’s largest refugee population, largely 3.6 million Syrians fleeing their country’s decade-long civil war.
Deported Syrians told Human Rights Watch that Turkish officials arrested them at their homes, workplaces, and on the street. They were subsequently imprisoned in deplorable conditions, with the majority subjected to beatings and abuse, and forced to sign forms promising to return to Syria “voluntarily.”
They were forced across the Syrian border at gunpoint after being driven in handcuffs for up to 21 hours, according to Syrians.
“In contravention of international law, Turkish authorities have collected up hundreds of Syrian refugees, including unaccompanied minors, and pushed them back to northern Syria,” said Nadia Hardman, a Human Rights Watch refugee and migrant rights researcher.
Ankara is committed by international treaty to the legal concept of nonrefoulement, which prevents the return of anybody to a place where they face a serious risk of persecution, torture, or death. Last month, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria reiterated that Syria is not safe for repatriation.
In the midst of a terrible economic crisis, Turkish attitudes toward migrants have deteriorated, with attacks on Syrian homes and businesses.
With elections coming, the government is now aiming to restore an increasing number of civilians to parts of northern Syria under Turkish military control.
A Turkish official stated earlier this month that over 527,000 Syrians had returned voluntarily. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced in May that a home-building initiative in Syria’s northwest Idlib region would assist the return of 1 million refugees from Turkey.
Erdogan recently announced a shift in Syria policy, implying the prospect of negotiations with Syrian President Bashar Assad. As a supporter of opposition parties, Ankara previously advocated Assad’s ouster. Many Syrians staying in Turkey are concerned that improving relations will put more pressure on them to return.
“Despite providing temporary safety to 3.6 million Syrian refugees, it now appears like Turkey is attempting to turn northern Syria into a refugee dumping ground,” Hardman added.
Between February and August, Human Rights Watch interviewed 37 Syrian men and two boys, as well as relatives of those deported to Syria.
They all stated that they were deported with dozens or hundreds of others and were forced to sign paperwork that they mistook for voluntary repatriation agreements. One 26-year-old Aleppo resident stated a Turkish official told him that anyone attempting to re-enter Turkey would be shot.
According to Hardman, the European Union should halt funding for migrant detention and border controls until forceful deportations cease. In exchange for limiting the influx of migrants to Europe, the EU agreed to provide Turkey with 6 billion euros in aid in 2016.