ANKARA: With the Syrian conflict recently taking another turn, after the cease-fire process in the north following the Turkish invasion of the region, efforts to establish a safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border have sparked debate about the fate of Syrian refugees: Will they be forcibly deported to their homeland? According to a report from Human Rights Watch (HRW), Turkish authorities in Istanbul and the southern province of Antakya randomly arrested and expelled many refugees into northern Syria, specially into Idlib governorate, between January and September 2019.
The report, based on the statements of deported Syrians, claims that the refugees were forced to sign forms without reading them in advance or seeing a lawyer, and in some cases were beaten or threatened before being transported.
The watchdog released its reports days after Turkey concluded its two week-long cross-border operation into northern Syria aimed at creating a so-called “safe-zone” to settle up to 1 million refugees currently living in Turkey.
Sheltering 3.67 million Syrians, Turkey currently seeks to use territories formerly held by the Kurdish-led YPG militia. Once settled, the security of the safe zone will be ensured by joint patrols of Turkish and Russian troops. However, HRW says, “safe zones” established during other conflicts have rarely been safe, and establishing one cannot justify forcibly returning refugees.
“HRW would argue forcefully against any deportation of Syrian refugees from Turkey to what Turkey might call a ‘safe zone’ in the northeast of the country, where too many warring parties with too many interests in that area would make such a zone unsafe,” Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at HRW, told Arab News.
On Oct. 15, HRW shared its findings with Turkey’s Interior Ministry but has not received a response.
“We imagine that any attempt to round up Syrian refugees in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Hatay or any other provinces that host refugees would result in attempts to leave the country. Whether or not Turkey would allow them to get on boats to head to Greece or Bulgaria is another question,” Simpson said.
According to HRW, “The recent deportations from Istanbul show that any Syrian forcibly returned from Greece would face a risk of onward transfer to Syria,” while the refugee deal inked between Turkey and the EU in March 2016 maintains that Turkey is a safe country for the return of Syrian asylum seekers from European countries.
The EU provided about €55 million to Turkey to support immigration reception and detention centers between 2011 and 2015.
Turkey’s General Directorate of Immigration Management denied the claims in the HRW report in a statement published on Friday, and insisted that the claims are untrue.
“The claim that Syrians are deported in an unlawful manner doesn’t reflect the reality on the ground,” it said.
The international principle of nonrefoulement forbids the return of anyone to a place where there is a real risk of persecution, torture or ill-treatment, including threat to life.
So far, 364,663 Syrian refugees have returned voluntarily from Turkey to their homeland. Turkey claims that those refugees went back to places with decent living standards with health, security and other necessary infrastructure.
In its report, HRW also called on Turkey’s Interior Ministry to “ensure that police officers and immigration officials do not use violence against Syrians or other detained foreign nationals and should hold any officials using violence to account.”
The group also insisted that Turkey allow the UN high commissioner for refugees “to freely access removal centers, monitor the process of obtaining Syrians’ permission to return them to Syria to make certain it is voluntary, and observe interviews and removal procedures to ensure that police or immigration officials do not use violence against Syrians or other foreign nationals.”
Turkey’s new policy states Syrian refugees should return to their province of first registration by Oct. 30. Since the summer, Turkish forces have been carrying operations in big cities to enforce this rule.