(Istanbul) – Syrian military attacks on armed opposition groups near the Turkish border hit two displaced persons camps on April 13 and 15, 2016, causing at least 3,000 people to flee, although they were unable to cross the border to safety, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch interviewed camp residents and members of the local civil defense forces, who said there were no fatalities in the camps, near the town of Bidama, though there was damage to tents and other property. A separate attack on a nearby displaced persons camp in late January killed two people and seriously injured three others. Turkey should open its borders to fleeing Syrians who have been forced into these camps near Turkey’s southwest border.
“Under fire even in makeshift border camps, Syrian victims of Turkey’s border pushbacks are paying the price,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch. “As the world struggles to end attacks on Syrian civilians, it should at least support Turkey to open its border to people fleeing the conflict, and stop turning them into sitting ducks.”
Over the past three months, displaced Syrians who tried to seek refuge in Turkey were repeatedly pushed back at the border and into insecure border camps in the area. On April 14, Human Rights Watch reported that Turkish border guards enforcing Turkey’s one-year-old border closure shot at Syrians escaping ISIS advances northeast of Aleppo.
The Syrian military should immediately end indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, and uphold its obligation to take all feasible precautions to avoid killing or injuring civilians, and damaging civilian objects, including camps for displaced people, Human Rights Watch said. Likewise, Turkey should respect its obligations to allow all Syrian civilians fleeing fighting to seek protection in Turkey.
Hossam Zleito, head of the Bidama Syrian Civil Defense, made up of volunteer search and rescue workers, said that on April 13 and 15, the Syrian government struck areas around Bidama, including the Khirmash and Hambushiyah camps, to the northeast of the town. The Syrian government issued no statements on the attacks. On April 18, armed opposition groups announced that they would open a new offensive in the area, known as Jabal al-Akrad (or Kurdish Mountains).
According to humanitarian agencies monitoring the situation, at least 17,000 displaced civilians are in the area.
Syrian government forces’ advances since October 2015 in the Kurdish and Turkmen mountains to the northeast of the Syrian city of Latakia have displaced thousands of people. They have fled to various locations northeast of Latakia, near the Turkish border.
On April 16, Human Rights Watch spoke with five Syrians who had been living in the camps that were attacked the day before, Khirmash and Khabasi, which sheltered 2,000 people. Two Turkish border guard watchtowers overlook the camps.
Two of the witnesses said that Syrian government forces whom they believed were positioned in Ghamam, about 25 kilometers southwest of Bidama, and Ain Ashra, about 10 kilometers southwest of Bidama, started shelling roads near the camps on April 14, including the main roads between Bidama, Ain al-Hur and al-Hanbushiya. Human Rights Watch could not confirm where the attack had been launched.
The camp residents said that on April 15, artillery projectiles landed near both camps and inside Khirmash and that its 1,500 inhabitants had fled to nearby villages or into the hills.
It was early evening and the camp was full of families preparing for prayer and dinner. Suddenly, we heard an explosion near the camp, I think about 50 meters away. All the other explosions the day before and earlier that day were a few kilometers away in the towns, but we were worried. We called the Syrian Civil Defense and we started to evacuate everyone. We took all the women and children to the nearby camp school. About 15 minutes later, another shell landed in the middle the camp and there was a big explosion. Later we found out it landed near a cooking gas canister. After that, about four other shells landed in and very close to the camp. Everyone was very scared.
A member of the Syrian Civil Defense said:
At 6:15 p.m., we received a phone call from some in Khirmash camp who said a shell had landed close by and that everyone was afraid. Four of us went straight to the camp. While we were there another shell landed, this time in the camp. We ran toward the explosion and looked in all the nearby tents to make sure no one was injured. Fortunately everyone had already left and only one of the tents was destroyed.
Over the next hour, we then used as many cars and trucks as we could to get people out of the camp. During that time another four shells landed in the camp and six outside the camp. People were very scared, but fortunately no one was hurt. This morning some of the men came back to pack up their things. They were crying and said their children were now extremely afraid and that they didn’t know where to go.
The camp representatives told Human Rights Watch that the people in the camps were mostly from Bidama, which government forces attacked in early February. Those interviewed said the camp residents had first fled to the Khurbat al Juz-Guvecci border crossing, 10 kilometers northeast of Bidama, but that Turkish border guards had repeatedly denied them entry. They then moved to the Khirmash and Khabasi camps.
One of the men said that on April 13, Turkish border guards in the nearby watchtowers had used loudspeakers to announce in Arabic that no one should approach the border and that anyone who did would be shot.
When asked about humanitarian needs in the camps, such as food and shelter, one said: “We don’t care about those things. All we want is to go to Turkey and be safe.” He added that some of the people who had fled the Khabasi camp were trying to dig a cave into the mountainside to protect themselves from shelling.
“The message from the Syrians to Turkey and other countries is loud and clear,” said Simpson. “We need safety first; food and tents cannot protect against shelling.”
Blocked at Border, Fleeing from One Camp to Another
Human Rights Watch also spoke with other Syrians displaced by government attacks who had been repeatedly blocked from crossing into Turkey by Turkish border guards since late January and are now living in their second or third displacement camp.
Two Syrians living in poor conditions in the overcrowded Sheikh Sayyah camp a few kilometers from the border town of Khurbat al Juz said they had previously lived for five months in the al-Hambushiya displaced persons camp, about three kilometers northeast of Bidama, but that on April 13, Syrian government forces had shelled the camp, forcing its approximately 1,000 inhabitants to flee yet again. Both said they had tried to flee to Turkey through the Khurbat al Juz-Guvecci crossing, but that border guards had pushed them back.
Human Rights Watch also spoke with two of the 15,000 Syrians living in two displaced persons camps in Duria on the Turkish border, 15 kilometers northeast of Bidama. They had previously lived in the Yunsiya displaced persons camp, three kilometers southwest of Bidama, but fled with thousands of others at the end of January, when Syrian government forces attacked the nearby village and camp.
A third man in the Duria camp said that at the end of January 2016, he had also fled with hundreds of other displaced Syrians from the Itqan camp, which was struck by government shelling on January 30. The head of Bidama’s Syrian Civil Defense confirmed that two people had been killed and three injured in the attack. Two of the injured had to have arms amputated. An aid worker familiar with the area said that many of the Itqan residents tried to flee to Turkey, but were pushed back and went to Duria.
The Duria camp representative told Human Rights Watch that in early February, all 15,000 residents had tried to flee to Turkey through the Khurbat al Juz-Guvecci border crossing, but had been pushed back by Turkish border guards, triggering the construction of the Duria camp. One woman said that she and thousands of others had sat for 10 days in the rain next to the Turkish border fence at Khurbat al Juz begging the guards to let them in.
“Turkey isn’t just pushing Syrians back who recently left their homes for the first time,” said Simpson. “It’s also blocking desperate people who have repeatedly fled attacks on displaced persons camps.”
Turkey’s Closed Border
Since early 2015, Turkey has all but closed its borders to Syrians fleeing the conflict. Between April 12 and 19, 2016, Human Rights Watch interviewed 25 people who described how Turkish border guards at the Syrian border pushed them and dozens – in some cases hundreds – of others back to Syria between February and mid-April. Many described serious violence and two said that Turkish border guards beat fellow asylum seekers so badly that they were hardly recognizable.
These recent accounts of Turkish border guard abuses are consistent with Human Rights Watch findings in late 2015 of Turkish border guards beating and summarily expelling dozens of Syrians who crossed to Turkey using smugglers.
As of early April, Turkey had completed a third of a 911-kilometer, rocket-resistant, concrete wall along its border with Syria and was working to fortify the rest of its border.
Turkey is obliged to respect the principle of non-refoulement. That principle, under customary international law, prohibits rejecting asylum seekers at borders when rejection would expose them to the threat of persecution, torture, and threats to life and freedom.
Turkey’s refusal to allow Syrian refugees to cross the border comes as the European Union is closing its own external borders to asylum seekers. In mid-March, the EU concluded a controversial migration deal with Ankara to curb refugee and migration flows to Europe, offering €6 billion in aid to assist Syrians in Turkey, reinvigorated EU membership negotiations, and the prospect of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. The deal provides for the return to Turkey of asylum seekers and refugees, including Syrians, who reach Greece by boat, on the grounds that Turkey is a safe country for them. The deal also commits the EU to work with Turkey to create areas inside Syria that will be “more safe.”
“As EU leaders celebrate lower numbers of Syrians reaching EU shores, they should reflect on the heavy price paid by tens of thousands of civilians trapped right now on Turkey’s border,” Simpson said. “Closing their eyes to suffering doesn’t mean it’s gone away.”