Turkey is risking the lives of Syrian refugees by “forcing them to return to a war zone,” human rights groups have said.
Dozens of Syrians have been “arbitrarily” detained by Turkish authorities and deported across the border to a region where fighting continues, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International.
Both organisations, in statements issued separately on Friday, said they had spoken to refugees who claimed to have been beaten, threatened, or forced by police to sign documents stating they were returning voluntarily to their homeland.
Turkey currently hosts about 3.6 million refugees who fled Syria‘s eight-year-long civil war. With public sentiment towards them souring, Ankara hopes to resettle up to two million in a planned “safe zone” in northeast Syria.
But the United Nations has warned the “vast majority” of Syrian asylum-seekers “continue to need international refugee protection” and should not be forcibly returned.
Amnesty said it had been able to confirm 20 cases of forced deportations, based on interviews conducted between July and October, but believed there to be hundreds more.
HRW accused authorities in the Turkish cities of Istanbul and Antakya of unlawfully deporting dozens of Syrians “and possibly many more” to northern Syria’s Idlib province.
More than 1,000 civilian have been killed in and around the Idlib demilitarised zone since April, according to the United Nations, which said Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its allies were responsible for nearly all of those deaths.
The Turkish government claimed about 350,000 Syrian refugees had voluntarily returned to their country.
“In reality, Turkey put the lives of Syrian refugees under serious danger by forcing them to return to a war zone,” Amnesty International said.
There was no immediate reaction to reports from Ankara.
In July, Turkish interior minister Suleyman Soylu denied the country had deported any Syrians but said anyone “who voluntarily wants to go back to Syria” could benefit from procedures allowing them to return to unspecified “safe areas”.
But Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at HRW, said: “Turkish officials’ claims that all Syrians returning to their country are happy to go ring hollow in the face of evidence to the contrary.”
Some Syrians told the organisation they had been deported to Idlib along with busloads of others refugees over the summer.
“Turkey hosts four times as many Syrians as the European Union, but that does not mean it can return them to a war zone,” Mr Simpson said.
Anna Shea, Amnesty’s Researcher on Refugee and Migrant Rights, said Turkey deserved recognition for hosting so many Syrians over many years but “it cannot use this generosity as an excuse to flout international and domestic law by deporting people to an active conflict zone”.
A plan agreed between Turkey and Russia this week envisages Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters being removed from a 19-mile strip of territory along the Turkish border and refugees returning there “in a safe and voluntary manner”.
Addressing world leaders at the United Nations in September, Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan set out proposals to build dozens of new villages and towns in the planned safe zone along the border.
Pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak claimed on Friday that life would “normalise” in the Syrian border towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn now Turkey had taken control of the area from the YPG.
It added Turkey would reconstruct the two towns ravaged by years of war, establish security forces and a judiciary there and work to bring economic stability to the region.
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