United Nations member states and UN agencies attending the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul on May 23-24, 2016, should press the Turkish authorities to reopen Turkey’s border to Syrian asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said today. Partners should make clear that any border guards who shoot at or beat asylum seekers should be held accountable.
Since Turkey closed its border to all but seriously injured Syrian asylum seekers in early 2015, Turkish border guards have pushed back thousands of Syrians and – according to victims and witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch have killed at least five and seriously injured at least 14 Syrians who tried to cross the border into Turkey. The closure is trapping tens of thousands of people fleeing conflict, including those previously pushed back at the border, in dangerous Syrian border displacement camps where recent shelling and airstrikes have killed and injured dozens of civilians.
“Turkey casts a dark shadow over the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul as its border guards have killed Syrian asylum seekers and pushed others back into the world’s worst war zone,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Governments and UN agencies should end their deafening silence on Turkey’s abuse of Syrian asylum seekers and press Turkey to reopen its border to civilians fleeing the horrors in Syria.”
Turkey’s president and other officials deny the border is closed to refugees. Neither the European Commission nor any European Union member state – or any other country – has called on Turkey to reopen its border to Syrian asylum seekers and to end border guard violence, while UN agencies have remained publicly silent.
The world’s – and in particular the EU’s – silence over Turkey’s breach of the cornerstone of international refugee law condones Turkey’s border abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
Governments, UN agencies, and nongovernmental organizations will meet at the first World Humanitarian Summit to discuss how to halt the global erosion of international human rights and humanitarian law and to improve protection for people in need. Human Rights Watch is participating in events on including people with disabilities in humanitarian response and protecting schools in conflict, but has also questioned whether the governments that are frequently the cause of serious abuses will alter their conduct as a result of the summit.
Turkey hosts more Syrian refugees – 2.75 million – than the whole of the EU and rest of the world combined, but Human Rights Watch has documented that, since at least mid-August 2015, Turkish border guards enforcing the country’s March 2015 border closure have pushed back Syrians trying to reach Turkey.
In early May 2016, Human Rights Watch also documented that Turkish border guards killed three asylum seekers and two smugglers and seriously injured 14, including three children and a woman. In April, Human Rights Watch reported that Turkish border guards at the country’s new border wall with Syria shot at Syrians escaping advances by the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS), northeast of Aleppo.
Human Rights Watch has also revealed that Turkish border guards blocked thousands of fleeing displaced people from entering Turkey after their camps near the border were hit by artillery fire on April 13 and 15. Most had previously tried to flee to Turkey but were pushed back by Turkish border guards. On May 5, airstrikes hit the Kamuna camp, five kilometers from Turkey’s closed border, which had been sheltering 4,500 displaced Syrians. The attack killed at least 20 people, including two children, and injured at least 37, including 10 who lost limbs and who were transferred to Turkey for medical care.
Turkey has long promoted the concept of a “safe zone” inside Syria where people fleeing the fighting could go instead of entering Turkey. As part of its controversial migration deal with Ankara to curb refugee and migration flows to Europe, the EU has pledged to work with Turkey to create in Syria “areas which will be more safe” where “the local population and refugees [will be able] to live.”
“The attack on Syria’s Kamuna camp underscores that ‘safe zones’ are often little more than wishful thinking,” Simpson said. “Wasting time discussing ‘safe zones’ is a dangerous distraction from developing workable systems to protect Syrian refugees in Turkey and the EU.”
Turkish military sources have denied turning Syrian asylum seekers back at the border and using violence against them. On May 17, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Turkish Interior Ministry asking for clarification of the Turkish military’s position.
Turkey is entitled to secure its border with Syria, but is obliged to respect the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits rejecting asylum seekers at borders when that would expose them to the threat of persecution, torture, and threats to life and freedom. Turkey is also obliged to respect international norms on use of lethal force as well as the rights to life and bodily integrity, including the absolute prohibition on subjecting anyone to inhuman and degrading treatment.
Although no other country has called on Turkey to reopen its border, on May 12, Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said that the Human Rights Watch May 10 reporting on Turkish border guard killing and injuring Syrian asylum seekers was “alarming” and that it was in Turkey’s “own interest” to explain what was happening at the border.
The EU’s failure to take in more Syrian asylum seekers and refugees also contributes to the pressure on Turkey to deal with greater numbers. The EU should swiftly fulfill commitments to relocate Syrian and other asylum seekers from Greece and, together with other countries, should expand safe and legal channels for people to reach safety from Turkey, including through increased refugee resettlement, humanitarian admissions, humanitarian and other visas, and facilitated family reunification.
“As host of the World Humanitarian Summit, Turkey should be setting a positive example on the treatment of people at its borders and not trapping them in a war zone,” Simpson said. “It has been a year since Turkey shut down its border to the world’s most war-ravaged people, and it is well past time for the world’s leaders to speak up.”