A monitoring group Tuesday alleged at least 163 Syrians fleeing their war-torn country have been slain by Turkish border guards since the start of 2016. The accusation is the latest in a series stretching back more than a year of border guards firing on war refugees as they sought sanctuary in Turkey.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which has a network of activists on the ground inside Syria, says 31 children and 15 women were among those killed by Turkish gendarmes as they attempted to cross into Turkey.
Turkish authorities closed their border with Syria in March 2015, ending in effect their much-vaunted open door policy for refugees. Initially, they said the move was just temporary. Since then, there have been frequent claims by Syrians trying to escape airstrikes and fighting of being targeted by Turkish border guards.
Turkish officials insist their border guards do not fire on refugees but they say they have to make the border secure from infiltration by jihadists and terrorists intent on carrying out attacks in Turkey.
The first refugee killing this year came on January 12, says the monitoring group, when gendarmes killed a refugee as he attempted to sneak into Turkey from the province of al-Hasakah in the northeast corner of Syria. Refugees have reported being shot at all along the border, from Latakia in the west and through the provinces of Raqqa, Aleppo and Idlib.
There have also been reports of refugees being beaten and robbed of money and cell phones by Turkish gendarmes.
Call for Turkey to rein in border guards
SOHR executive director Rami Abdul Rahman called Tuesday “for the international community and UNHCR to push the Turkish government to control their border guards and to stop them from killing the Syrian citizens.”
In July, SOHR and other monitoring and rights groups accused Turkish border guards of shooting dead eight Syrian refugees in one weekend, including three children and four women, as they tried to escape northern Syria. The Local Coordination Committees, another network of activists inside Syria, backed up the claim, reporting that one child was just 6 years old.
Three of Syria’s immediate neighbors, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, have made it virtually impossible for civilians to flee Syria. As refugees have strained resources and competed for jobs, often lowering wages as a result, public opinion has increasingly hardened against them in all three countries. The Syrian conflict has uprooted more than 5 million Syrians who have fled to neighboring states and Europe to escape the airstrikes, barrel bombs and fighting in their war-torn country. Another 6 million are displaced from their homes.
Last month, Lebanon's new president, Michel Aoun, in his inaugural address, vowed to send packing the 1.5 million Syrian refugees in his country. “The issue of the Syrian refugees should be resolved as soon as possible,” he said, characterizing them as a security threat. Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian party, is allied with the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement, whose fighters have helped to prop up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Human Rights Watch last year accused European governments of indirectly encouraging harsh treatment of war refugees by Syria's immediate neighbors by shutting their doors on Syrians. “EU officials should recognize that their red light for refugees to enter the EU gives Turkey a green light to close its border, exacting a heavy price on war-ravaged asylum seekers with nowhere else to go,” the rights group said.
Wherever you turn, there’s war
For Syrians, the journey to safety in Turkey is harrowing enough without the dangers of a border crossing. There are tremendous physical risks inside with blistering airstrikes and skirmishes among an array of armed groups. For civilians in northern Syria, fleeing conflict can take you right back into conflict. Wherever you turn, there’s war, say refugees who have made the trek.
Forty-two-year-old Bassam, a father of three, described the trip he and his family made in October through northern Syria. The former shop owner shook his head at what he had seen, saying he’d encountered many women and children carrying small bundles. “There’s little food to be had on the journey,” he said. “We had to move very slowly to avoid being targeted by warplanes.”
Other refugees describe complicated meandering journeys around northern Syria trying to reach the border safely and then facing the peril of being shot at by Turkish guards.
Last year, Lina Chawaf, editor of the independent Syrian radio station Rozana, which broadcasts from studios in Paris and Gaziantep, Turkey, described to VOA her experience trying to re-enter Turkey after a reporting trip to Aleppo. A well-known TV personality in Damascus until she fled after siding with the political opposition against President Bashar al-Assad, Chawaf and a group of civilians trying to use a cross-border tunnel 700 meters long, three meters deep and three meters across were fired on when they began to walk to the tunnel.
“The shooting came from Turkish guards trying to deter refugees from reaching the tunnel,” she said. The refugees dashed to the tunnel. She said small children were in the group.
Bribes for safe passage
Syrians who manage to slip across the border often have to bribe Turkish gendarmes, paying up to $1,200 a person, according to refugees interviewed by VOA during the past year. People smugglers also profit, charging several hundred dollars.
“The current rate for a ‘less risky’ smuggling road to Turkey is $1,500 per person, which is a huge amount for the vast majority of Syrians,” according to Haid Haid, an analyst with Chatham House, a London-based research institution.
“Therefore, people keep trying other smuggling roads that are cheaper and riskier,” he says. “Border security is no excuse for depriving Syrians of refuge and by no means does it justify shooting civilians when it is clear that all they seek is their own safety.”
Earlier this year, Western governments and aid agencies urged Turkey to open its border and admit civilians fleeing heavy fighting in northern Syria sparked by a Russian-backed Assad offensive. A European diplomat based in Turkey told VOA that in recent months, EU governments had reduced their behind-the-scenes pressure on Ankara to open the border.
“We are just going through the motions really: European governments fear another migration wave and they know if Turkey did open the border, there would be more Syrians attempting to reach Europe.”