Turkish guards 'attacking' Syrian refugees and 'pushing them into the arms of smugglers'

Families fleeing the carnage in Aleppo are being greeted at the border with bullets and beatings. Laura Pitel reports from Kilis on Ankara’s increasingly inhumane efforts to put up the barricades

Turkish border guards are routinely attacking Syrians attempting to cross illegally into Turkey, refugees and campaigners have claimed.

Families who fled the recent fighting in Aleppo told The Independent that officers had opened fire as they tried to reach Turkey with the help of smugglers. Others spoke of heavy beatings for those caught after attempting to slip across.

Turkey has cracked down on its border security amid heavy pressure from the US to limit the transit of jihadist fighters seeking to join Isis. At the same time, the European Union has urged Ankara to stem the flow of refugees setting off towards Europe in dinghies from Turkey’s western coast.

As EU leaders prepare for a key summit with Turkey on Monday, aimed at preventing a repeat of last summer’s influx, they face warnings that they must also encourage Turkey to grant safe passage to those trying to escape a war zone. Turkey insists that it maintains an “open door” policy towards Syrians, but human rights groups say that, for the past year, only those with serious or urgent medical conditions have been allowed to cross. 

Ankara does not deny that border guards sometimes open fire on those crossing illegally. “In certain cases, the border patrol has no option but to fire warning shots because they often come under attack from smugglers and terrorist groups on the Syrian side,” a senior government official said, while insisting that the border force had an “outstanding track record”.

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Syrians say that Turkey’s policies are pushing them into the arms of greedy and unscrupulous smugglers - and that guards use excessive force on those fleeing in fear for their lives.

Aliya Radwan, a grandmother from the town of Hraytan in northern Aleppo, was cowering from air strikes in a neighbour’s basement when she decided that she had to leave. She knew that she and her family would not be allowed into Turkey at the Bab al-Salama crossing, 25 miles to the north. She had friends among the tens of thousands from Aleppo province who had already flocked to the border but were sleeping in the open after being barred from entering Turkey.

Instead, she turned to a smuggler. He took her family to a crossing at the town of Khirbet al-Jawz in neighbouring Idlib province. On their first attempt to cross on a dark, rainy night last month, they were forced to retreat in terror after border guards opened fire. They managed to sneak through undetected on a second attempt. Others were not so lucky.

A young widow who fled heavy bombardment in Aleppo two months ago, who asked to be named only as Fatima, said that she saw border guards shoot a young girl making the same journey. “She didn’t speak Turkish so didn’t understand when they shouted ‘Get away!’” she recalled. “The guards opened fire.” She did not know whether the girl had lived or died.

Amnesty International reported last month that hospitals in Azaz, a town near the Turkish border, were receiving two civilians a day who had been shot while attempting such crossings. It said that, in one case, a child aged 10 died after being shot in the head.

That claim was echoed by Dr Ali al-Saloum, an orthopaedic surgeon at a hospital in Azaz. He said that the number of cases waxed and waned but, during the worst periods, it was common to see two people a day who were shot trying to cross the border. He had seen victims old and young, including a one-year-old baby girl, who died after being shot in the head. Dr Saloum said that, while the problem had been going on for some time, he believed it had grown worse. “It used to be much rarer,” he said. “And when it did happen it was people being shot in the leg of the arm. But people started dying.”

He said there was a bitter irony in the ultimate fate of some of those most badly injured while trying to reach the neighbouring country. “The funny thing is that, with the most seriously injured people, we don’t have the necessary specialism or intensive care services. So we get them transferred to Turkey.”

Some of those seeking to sneak into Turkey have suffered heavy beatings. Aktham Alwany, 28, a Syrian activist and journalist, said he was beaten on two separate occasions after being caught attempting to enter Turkey illegally to visit his mother, who has cancer. 

On his first of three attempts to cross via the Syrian-Kurdish enclave of Afrin, he says that he was stopped, beaten and detained. His mobile and laptop were taken. After being released, he tried again, near the Turkish town of Kilis. As he and others attempting to cross illegally jumped down into a trench that demarcated the crossing, border guards opened fire, he said. He gave himself up, he said, and was hit over the head with a rock. He claimed to have suffered heavy bleeding from his forehead and nose, followed by  period of memory loss. A photograph taken by doctors shows his face streaked with blood.

He said that he eventually made it into Turkey after paying a border guard $1,000 to hide in the back of a goods truck. His experience motivated him to make a documentary about the problem. In the course of filming, he met people who were attacked with dogs, who suffered broken ribs from beatings, and a mother whose child was shot.

Mr Alwany said that he did not solely blame Ankara. “I want to be fair, it’s not only related to Turkey,” he said. “The issue is bigger than Turkey.” But he warned that people already fleeing Syrian and Russian bombing, the tyranny of Isis or the attacks from rebel groups, now faced a fresh danger. 

Andrew Gardner, a Turkey researcher for Amnesty International, said that it was “abhorrent” that people seeking protection should find themselves facing live fire at the border. He called for regulated safe border crossings for Syrians and urged the EU to “live up to its responsibilities” towards asylum seekers so that Turkey - a country that already hosts 2.5 million Syrians - did not have to shoulder an unfair burden. He said: “Without those two things, these tragedies on the borders will be replayed again and again.”

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