A new report published by Amnesty International on 25 October has revealed that hundreds of Syrian refugees in Turkey have been compelled to return to their war-torn home country, some in handcuffs, after receiving threats of violence or being tricked into signing “voluntary return” agreements.
“The Turkish authorities must stop forcibly returning people to Syria and ensure that anyone who has been deported is able to re-enter Turkey safely and re-access essential services,” said Anna Shea, Researcher on Refugee and Migrant Rights at Amnesty International, in a press release.
The new report shows how Turkish authorities have spent the months leading up to the country’s current military offensive in northeast Syria forcibly deporting hundreds of Syrian refugees back to Syria.
Dozens of refugees told the organisation that the Turkish police beat and threatened them into signing documents saying they were willingly returning to Syria. Based on interviews conducted between July and October this year, researchers estimate that hundreds of people have been sent back unlawfully and against their will.
While it is illegal to forcibly deport people to Syria, as it exposes them to a real risk of serious human rights violations, Turkey claims that all those who return to Syria do so voluntarily. Turkish officials say 315,000 people have left for Syria on a voluntary basis.
“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.
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 International documented 20 verified cases of forced deportations, each of which involved people being sent across the border on buses filled with dozens of other people who were handcuffed with plastic ties and were also seemingly being forcibly deported.
According to the report, Qasim*, a 39-year-old father from Aleppo, said he was detained in a Konya police station for six days, where the officers reportedly told him:
“You have a choice: one or two months, or a year, in prison – or you go to Syria.”
John, a Syrian Christian, said Turkish migration officials told him:
“If you ask for a lawyer we will keep you six or seven months and we will hurt you.”
He was deported after being caught by the Turkish coastguard trying to get to Greece, and said that after arriving in Syria he was detained for a week in Idlib by Jabhat al Nusra, an Islamist group linked to Al Qaeda.
“It was a miracle I got out alive,” he said.
During the journeys to the border, although most people said that they were not mistreated, some Syrians said that they were beaten by the Gendarmerie or witnessed other people being beaten. Farid from Azaz told Amnesty:
“I felt like I was between heaven and hell. I just wanted to arrive somewhere. I was just waiting for it to end. Imagine spending 26 hours on a bus, with just one glass of water and half a sandwich. And every two hours the [Gendarmerie] would come to hit us and wake us up.”
He said that when an elderly man was moving slowly while exiting the bus, the Gendarmerie pushed him from the vehicle: “Then once he fell on the ground, they beat him again.”
The Amnesty report also confirms already mounting evidence of a crackdown on Syrian refugees inside Turkey since the summer. Many refugees describe being stopped by police officers in train stations and other public places and asked to show a Turkish ID card, known as the “kimlik”.
Turkey is host to an estimated 3.6 million Syrians who have fled war in the neighbouring country, a situation that has increasingly become a domestic political headache for the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan warned, before launching Turkey’s military incursion against Kurdish forces in northern Syria formerly allied with the US in the fight against Islamic State, that he planned to resettle 2 million people in a “safe zone” along the border.
“The European Union and the rest of the international community, instead of devoting their energies to keeping people seeking asylum from their territories, should dramatically increase resettlement commitments for Syrian refugees from Turkey,” Anna Shea said.