Things are bad when Syrian government barrel bombs rain down on your home and force you to flee to a displaced persons camp. Things are really bad when ISIS comes to your camp and orders you to leave. But when Turkish border troops – working with the European Union to close down routes for people on the move – shoot at you as you flee ISIS to seek refuge abroad? Then, in the words of a displaced old Syrian man I spoke with last week, you “don’t know what to think anymore.”
“Ahmad” is one of about 100,000 war-weary displaced Syrians living in a 40 by 20 kilometer stretch of land sandwiched between the Syrian city of Aleppo and the Turkish border. It’s an area Turkey hoped to be a “safe zone.” Last July
, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said
it was a place to which Syrian refugees could one day return and where Syrians escaping horrors throughout the country could flee once ISIS had been ousted from the area.
The area started to fill with tens of thousands of displaced Syrians after Turkey closed its border to all but gravely injured Syrians in March 2015. Since then, Human Rights Watch documented how border guards pushed back
thousands of Syrians at the border
, often violently.
The rest of Turkey’s safe zone efforts – and the consequences – are painfully captured by two photos of the Ikdah displaced persons camp on the Turkish border. First, Turkey has strongly encouraged Turkish organizations to build Ikdah and other camps for displaced Syrians there and to truck in aid from Turkey – painting a false picture that this area is actually safe.
Second, Turkey has already sealed off
a third of its 911 kilometre border by building a 3 meter high concrete wall, including next to Ikdah camp, making it impossible for Syrians to seek protection across the border without passing through official crossing points which remain closed.
It was that wall which Ahmad faced the morning of April 14 – with ISIS on his heels – as the groups’ fighters took over the Ikdah camp and destroyed some of the shelters. Together with at least 30,000 other Syrians running from ISIS, he fled further west along the closed border. He’s now stuck at the Bab al-Salameh border crossing, manned by Turkish troops with orders to keep the gate firmly shut.
Syrians seeking to escape ISIS advances in northern Syria are entitled to protection and compassion, not live ammunition. Turkey has a clear legal responsibility not to push Syrians back into a war zone. And the EU – preoccupied with containing irregular migration flows with little regard for human consequences – should stop its morally bankrupt support for a phantom safe zone that, in reality, is one of the crucibles of Syria’s horrific conflict.