(Istanbul) – Turkish border guards are shooting and beating Syrian asylum seekers trying to reach Turkey, resulting in deaths and serious injuries, Human Rights Watch said today. The Turkish authorities should stop pushing Syrian asylum seekers back at the border and should investigate all use of excessive force by border guards.
During March and April 2016, Turkish border guards used violence against Syrian asylum seekers and smugglers, killing five people, including a child, and seriously injuring 14 others, according to victims, witnesses, and Syrian locals interviewed by Human Rights Watch. Turkey’s Foreign Affairs Ministry maintains the country has an “open-door policy” for Syrian refugees, despite building a new border wall.
“While senior Turkish officials claim they are welcoming Syrian refugees with open borders and open arms, their border guards are killing and beating them,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Firing at traumatized men, women, and children fleeing fighting and indiscriminate warfare is truly appalling.”
Since at least mid-August 2015, Turkish border guards have pushed back Syrians trying to reach Turkey. In April 2016, Human Rights Watch reported that Turkish border guards enforcing Turkey’s one-year-old border closure had shot at Syrians escaping advances by the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS), northeast of Aleppo. Human Rights Watch also revealed how Turkish border guards blocked thousands of fleeing displaced persons after their camps near the border had been hit by artillery fire on April 13 and 15.
The hostilities continue to threaten Syrians already displaced by fighting. According to witnesses, at around 5 p.m. on May 5, three airstrikes hit the Kamuna camp sheltering 4,500 displaced Syrians near Sarmada in northern Idlib province, five kilometers from Turkey’s increasingly impenetrable border. An independent humanitarian source in Turkey told Human Rights Watch that medics recovered 20 bodies, including two children, and that at least 37 people were injured, including 10 who lost one or more limbs and who were transferred to Turkey for medical care.
According to the Syrian Civil Defense, seven women and four children were also injured on April 24, when three artillery rounds fired by Syrian government forces hit al-Iqaa displaced persons camp near al-Zawf, located six kilometers northeast of the Khurbat al-Juz-Güveççi border crossing. According to camp representatives, the al-Iqaa camp shelters many Syrians who have previously been pushed back by Turkish border guards.
Human Rights Watch interviewed victims and witnesses involved in seven incidents between the first week of March and April 17, in which Turkish border guards shot dead three asylum seekers (one man, one woman, and a 15-year-old boy) and one smuggler; beat to death one smuggler; shot and injured eight asylum seekers, including three children, aged 3, 5, and 9; and severely assaulted six asylum seekers. Syrians living near the border also described the aftermaths of the shootings and beatings, including Turkish border guards firing at them as they tried to recover bodies at the border wall. One witness filmed a number of the dead and surviving victims and shared the videos with Human Rights Watch.
On May 4, Human Rights Watch sent a letter with these findings to the Turkish interior minister, urging Turkey to investigate the allegations made by Human Rights Watch, to order its guards not to shoot at asylum seekers, and to re-open its border to Syrians seeking safety.
Six of the incidents Syrian witnesses described took place near the Khurbat al-Juz-Güveççi border crossing, about 50 kilometers south of the Turkish city of Antakya. The seventh happened near the Syrian border town of al-Duriya. Seven of the injured people said they had briefly stayed in the Salaheddin camp for displaced persons in the village of Khurbat al-Juz, overlooking the newly-erected Turkish border wall nearby. Most of them, and others who traveled straight to the border, said they had recently fled fighting in and around Aleppo.
Between April 12 and 20, Human Rights Watch also interviewed 28 other Syrian asylum seekers who described Turkish border guards intercepting them as they crossed the border with smugglers between February and mid-April. They said guards detained them for up to a day, then pushed them back to Syria with dozens – and in some cases hundreds – of others. Some were living in the Khirmash IDP camp to the west of the Syrian town of Bidama. A representative of the camp told Human Rights Watch that on April 13, Turkish border guards in the nearby watchtowers used loudspeakers to announce in Arabic that no one should approach the border and that anyone who did would be shot.
Turkey’s land borders are legally protected by land army border units of the Turkish Armed Forces. Gendarmerie also on duty at the borders operate under the authority of the land forces command. There are also gendarmerie stations near the borders charged with regular rural policing activities. This report refers to border guards without specifying if they are soldiers or gendarmes since such specific information was not provided or known by many witnesses.
As of early April, Turkey had completed a third of its 911-kilometer rocket-resistant concrete wall along its border with Syria and was working to fortify the rest of its border.
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.
The violence against Syrian refugees, and Turkey’s refusal to allow them to cross the border, comes as the European Union has shut its own borders to asylum seekers. In March, the EU concluded a controversial migration deal with Ankara to curb refugee and migration flows to Europe, committing €6 billion in aid to assist Syrians in Turkey, reinvigorating Turkey’s EU membership negotiations, and offering the prospect of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. The deal provides for Europe to return migrants, 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.”
“The EU shouldn’t just stand by and watch as Turkey uses live ammunition and rifle butts to stem the refugee flow,” said Simpson. “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.”
Turkish border guard violence against Syrian refugees
In mid-April 2016, Human Rights Watch interviewed four victims, five witnesses, and six local Syrian residents who described seven occasions in March and April in which Turkish border guards shot or assaulted 17 Syrian asylum seekers and two smugglers. During the incidents, Turkish border guards killed five people (shot to death three asylum seekers and a smuggler and beat to death one smuggler); shot and injured eight asylum seekers, including three young children; and severely assaulted six asylum seekers.
Six of the incidents occurred near the Khurbat al-Juz-Güveççi border crossing, near the Turkish town of Antakya, and one near the Syrian border town of al-Duriya.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed six Syrians from Khurbat al-Juz who helped some of the survivors and retrieved the bodies of those killed, in some cases coming under fire by Turkish border guards as they approached the bodies. One of the men, a security guard working in one of the local displaced persons camps, filmed a number of the victims and bodies.
Below is a summary of the seven incidents, in reverse chronological order. Human Rights Watch has a record of the names of all the victims and witnesses, but has not used them to help protect them and their relatives from possible retaliation should they reach Turkey. Victims who appear in the video are given pseudonyms. Other victims are not identified.
Human Rights Watch staff and a Syrian assistant and interpreter with close knowledge of the border areas and communities living there interviewed victims, witnesses, and local Syrians by cell phone. Staff explained the purpose of the interviews and gave assurances of anonymity. We also received interviewees’ consent to describe their experiences.
Turkish border guards shoot dead two adults and shoot and injure two adults and two children near Khurbat al-Juz-Güveççi border crossing, April 17
Human Rights Watch spoke with four people about the killing of two adults, and wounding of two adults and two children near the Khurbat al-Juz-Güveççi border crossing on April 17. A survivor of the shooting described in an April 20 interview by cell phone how he witnessed the deaths of his sister and cousin, called “Abdullah,” and how he and the other three were injured. A second brother of the dead woman confirmed her death, and two local men described helping two adults with one injured child leave the area and then retrieving the two bodies.
The man, who returned to his home area near Aleppo, described what happened:
After airstrikes destroyed many homes near where we lived next to Aleppo, 20 people in my family tried to flee to Turkey at the end of March, but the border guards at the Bab al-Salameh crossing would not let us through. The camp there was full, so we went to Khurbat al-Juz and found a smuggler to help us cross.
On Sunday, April 17, a smuggler took us at about 5 p.m. towards the border wall. Suddenly, when we were about 500 meters from the wall, we heard automatic weapons fired from the direction of the wall and bullets landed all around us. The women started screaming and the children started crying, but the shooting continued. We all threw ourselves onto the ground, covering the children. I was lying close to my sister and my cousin, and the bullets hit them while we were lying down. They stopped screaming and shouting. I knew right away they had been killed.
A bullet also hit my right hand. My other cousin was also injured in his right hand. They also shot and injured his 9-year-old daughter in both her legs and his 5-year-old son in his right leg. I saw it happen.
The shooting lasted a long time. I can’t remember for how long, but I think it was at an hour. We were all petrified. Then the shooting just stopped. We waited for a short while. We were all split up in different places. Some of us crawled back towards Khurbat al-Juz. While we were crawling we heard some more shooting. I was near my mother and I think one of the bullets landed near her head and she fainted. We had to leave her to get help. When we felt we were safe, we got up and walked the rest of the way. It took us a long time. I think we reached the village at 8 p.m. Someone found us and took us to a clinic there. My cousin and his children were missing and so was my mother and one of my brother’s children. I didn’t stay in the clinic. I went back with four local men to find the others and to get the bodies of my sister and cousin.
As we approached the place where the bodies were, the Turkish police [sic] started shooting again. The villagers called the police and asked them to stop shooting while we got the bodies. We walked back towards the bodies and this time they didn’t shoot. One of the police spoke to us from the wall using a loudspeaker. He said we had 15 minutes to move the bodies, after which they would start to shoot again. We picked up the bodies and carried them away from the wall as fast as we could. We rested when we were far away. It took us an hour to get them back to the village. We put the bodies in a local man’s house. Later next morning, we buried them in the local cemetery. My sister and cousin both had bullet holes in their back. My cousin also had two bullet holes in his right hand. We all left Khurbat al-Juz at 4 p.m. the same day and went to stay with relatives near Aleppo. That’s where we are now and we won’t try and go back to Turkey. It’s too dangerous.
On April 19, Human Rights Watch spoke by cell phone with two local men from Khurbat al-Juz who described how, during the early evening of April 17, they helped some of the survivors, including a man with an injured hand and his injured daughter who had been shot in both legs, leave the border area and reach Khurbat al-Juz and then went back with other locals to retrieve the two bodies. They said they found the bodies a few hundred meters from the border wall on the Syrian side, between two Turkish border guard towers near Turkey’s Nişrin and Kandıl police stations. They said the area was very close to the Sheikh Sayyah displaced persons camp on the Syrian side of the border, about two kilometers south of the Khurbat al-Juz-Güveççi border crossing.
They said Turkish police shot at their car as they approached the bodies. One described what happened next:
We reversed and drove south to the Khurbat al-Juz crossing point. We spoke to a Turkish border guard there and told them we were trying to recover two bodies near the border wall. He called the commander in charge of the nearby [Güveççi border gendarmerie] base. I told him on the phone that there were dead and possibly some injured people on the Syrian side of the wall near Kandıl. He said we could go get the bodies, but should keep the car lights on. Then we drove back. I stayed at the car while the other four walked towards the bodies. They came back and said they had heard soldiers cocking automatic weapons so I drove back again to speak with the commander who said he would drive to the spot on the Turkish side of the body to make sure his men didn’t shoot at us.
I drove back to the area and walked with the others towards the bodies. We could see the commander on the other side holding a torch. We picked up the two bodies – a man and a woman – and took them back to the car and then to Khurbat al-Juz.
When we got back, I spoke to the brother and male cousin of the dead woman and man. I also spoke to the four people who had been shot and injured: the two men with injured hands and the two children hit in the legs. There were other children too who were not injured. Everyone in the group was from the same family. They said there were 10 adults and 10 children in the group, but apart from the two dead, there were two others missing: an older woman and a 6-year-old girl. I got permission from the Turkish commander to look for them the next morning and found them at about 9 a.m. near the border wall. They had stayed there all night in the dark, afraid of being shot.
Then we buried the bodies and the family left to go back to Aleppo.
Turkish border guards shoot dead a 15-year-old boy, on the night of April 14-15
On April 15, Human Rights Watch spoke by cell phone with the two cousins of a 15-year-old boy shot dead by Turkish border guards the night of April 14-15, near the Syrian town of al-Duriya.
The dead boy’s 13-year-old cousin, who witnessed the killing, described what happened:
There were seven of us: three from Duriya, including my cousin, and four from Aleppo. We crossed the border last night near Duriya. We were in a valley called al-Nabua. I am not sure whether we were yet in Turkey, but suddenly the shooting started. My cousin fell down. He was shot in the head. I was next to him. There were bullets flying all around us. We threw ourselves on the ground. A few hours later the shooting stopped and we escaped. A few hours after that we went back to get the body.
On April 15, the dead boy’s other teenage cousin described by cell phone how they retrieved the body:
A few hours ago my brother called me to say Turkish border guards had shot dead our cousin. He asked me to help them bring the body back. He told me where they were and I went with two other friends. As we approached the group we heard shooting and we knew it was the Turkish border guards. We called the mayor of Karbeyaz [a Turkish border town] and asked him to tell the soldiers to stop shooting. He gave us a number for the border guard’s commander and one of the others called him. First he put the phone down. The second time he said, “Anyone who approaches the border will be killed.” The third time he gave us permission to get the body. That was at about 8 a.m. I went with my cousin and the Turkish border guards were waiting for us there. They let us take the body away.
Turkish border guards assault two men near Khurbat al-Juz-Güveççi border crossing, on April 7
On April 18, Human Rights Watch spoke by cell phone to a local man from Khurbat al-Juz who helped look after two men who told him Turkish border police had stopped them as they tried to cross into Turkey and assaulted them. He said:
Mid-morning on April 7, I got a call from a[n] [opposition] fighter at one of the Ahrar al-Shams checkpoints in Khurbat al-Juz. He said that two men had tried to cross to Turkey, but were badly beaten by the Turkish border police who had then left them back on the Syrian side of the border wall. He said the two men had walked to the check point and explained what had happened to them. I went to the checkpoint and I met the two men there in a small room. I spoke to them and filmed them.
One of them, called “Badri,” was from Homs and the other, called “Burhan,” was from Hama. Both of them are now back in Idlib province. They told me they had tried to cross to Turkey at al-Maklah, near the first Turkish border guard watch tower about 500 meters south of the Khurbat al-Juz-Güveççi border crossing point, but that Turkish border guards had caught them and then beaten them really badly. They also said there was a third man with them who the border guards also beat, but we never found out what happened to him.
Turkish border guards shoot and injure two men and young girl near the Khurbat al-Juz-Güveççi border crossing, on March 29
On April 19, Human Rights Watch spoke by cell phone with a man who was shot by Turkish border police and who also witnessed the shooting and wounding of another man and a young girl called “Elham” as they were heading to Turkey on March 29, near the Khurbat al-Juz-Güveççi crossing point. He said:
On March 29, at about 6 a.m. I was on my way to Antakya because I needed surgery on a broken hand. I had screws in the hand and I needed them taken out. I crossed the border with a smuggler in a group of 20, including my cousin and a woman from Deir al-Zor together with a little girl. We crossed about two kilometers south of the Khurbat al-Juz-Güveççi crossing point. At the time there was no wall there. There is now. We crossed through a hole in the fence.
The smuggler told us he had a permit for all of us to enter Turkey. A few hundred meters into Turkey a border guard found us. I remember he was fat and fair-haired. He was standing about 10 meters from us when he told us to stop. The smuggler said to him in Arabic, “I have a permit” and the guard just raised his rifle and shot at us. Everyone started running. The bullets hit me in the back and they hit my cousin in the chest. It didn’t hit my spine but just a little to the right of the spine. One of the bullets also hit my bag. The little girl was hit in her leg. Everyone who wasn’t injured, apart from the woman, ran away. The soldier took my phone and then just told us to go back to Syria. My cousin was able to stand and walk and the woman helped me and the little girl walk.
We crept back through the hole in the fence and walked back towards Khurbat al-Juz. Suddenly we heard lots more shooting behind us and we hid for a half an hour without moving. Then the shooting stopped and we continued. From there we went to Ain Beyda clinic. My cousin was transferred to Darkush hospital. The hospital tried to get him to Turkey, but the soldiers at the gate told the hospital that no one is allowed across, even with very serious injuries. Some people in Khurbat al-Juz also described to the soldiers my injuries and asked if I could cross to Turkey for treatment, but they said no.
Turkish border guards beat smuggler to death and assault four men near Ain al-Kawakh near the Khurbat al-Juz-Güveççi border crossing, on March 28
Human Rights Watch spoke with five people about the killing of one smuggler, called “Faisal,” and injuring of four others near the Khurbat al-Juz-Güveççi border crossing on March 28. They include one of the men who was beaten, who also witnessed the severe beating of the other four men and three local men from Khurbat al-Juz who recovered the dead smugglers’ body near the Syrian border village of Ain al-Kawakh and the Turkish police station of Nişrin, two to three kilometers north of Khurbat al-Juz and spoke with two of the assaulted men about what had happened.
On April 19, one of the assaulted men called “Ghassan,” who was later filmed by a local man from Khurbat al-Juz, described by cell phone what had happened to him and the other four men:
I am from the Kurdish mountains [Jebel el Ekrad] and am married with two children, aged three years and six months. All five of us fled fighting about 10 months ago. We went to Ikbane village for seven months, but then the regime attacked us in early February, so we went to the Ubeen [displaced persons] camp, but then the regime shelled the camp. I thought about going to Turkey, but I didn’t want to risk my children’s safety crossing with a smuggler. Everyone told me that the Turkish police were shooting at people.
So we went to live in the Salaheddin [displaced persons] camp in Khurbat al-Juz. But we had no money, so I decided to go to Turkey to find work. I found a smuggler and crossed with him and three other men towards the end of March. All four of them lived in the camp too, but I only knew the smuggler.
Just after we had crossed at about 5 a.m., we heard shooting close by. We lay down and shouted, “Don’t shoot.” Then the Turkish border guards arrived. They beat all of us and then they took us to a [Güveççi border gendarmerie] base very close by. As soon as we got there, about six border guards beat us really badly for a long time. They beat me all over my body and on my head. They used their fists and feet and sticks and rifle butts. I have no idea why they beat us. They didn’t say anything in Arabic. They were just shouting in Turkish, but all I really heard was the beating. I was in so much pain I lost track of what has happening. Then I passed out.
I woke up lying on the ground next to the wall on the border, on the Syrian side. It was late morning. I felt very sick and my whole body hurt a lot. A little further away I saw one of the other men from my group. He was lying on the ground and he was moaning for help. I got up and walked towards Khurbat al-Juz to get help for the other man. I met someone and told them where he was. Later that man told me they had found the smuggler’s body near the border wall. It’s better to die in Syria than to die under torture at the border.
On April 20, Human Rights Watch also spoke by cell phone with a local man from Khurbat al-Juz who described how he met one of the other men, called “Hasim,” who had been beaten and whom he filmed speaking about what happened:
It was at the end of March, the same day we found the smuggler’s body. I was near the border and I saw a man walking slowly towards me from the border. He was stumbling and he was covered in blood. I went towards him and he said the Turkish border police had captured him and four other men. I took him to the nearby Ain Beyda clinic in my car.
In the car the man told me what had happened. He said he was a Turkmen from near Aleppo and had escaped the fighting there. He said he tried to go to Turkey with four others, but that the Turkish border guards had caught them and taken them all to a nearby [Güveççi border gendarmerie] base near the Khurbat al-Juz-Güveççi crossing. He said there the border police stripped them and beat them all very badly. He said that the other four all lost consciousness but he didn’t and that they took him in a pickup truck to the border wall and let him go.
On April 18 and 19, Human Rights Watch spoke by cell phone with three locals from Khurbat al-Juz about how they recovered the body of the smuggler. All three of them described how Turkish border guards on a jeep repeatedly shot at them as they tried to approach the body lying a few hundred meters from the border wall, even though they had asked the local Turkish border guards for permission first.
Turkish border guards shoot dead smuggler near the Khurbat al-Juz-Güveççi border crossing, around March 20
Human Rights Watch spoke by cell phone with a local man from Khurbat al-Juz who found the body of a smuggler called “Ibrahim” right next to the border wall close to the Salaheddin displaced persons camp in Khurbat al-Juz, around March 20. He said:
On the third Friday of March, people in the Salaheddin camp nearby told me there was a body next to the border wall near the camp. I called the Güveççi mayor and asked him to tell the border guards not to shoot us while we went to get the body. He said OK, so we went to the body and they didn’t shoot at us. The man was lying on the ground right by the wall near a gap in the wall where there are usually Turkish border police on the other side. He had a gunshot wound in the middle of his chest. I recognized the man because he was living in the Salaheddin camp before.
Turkish border guards shoot and injure man near Khurbat al-Juz-Güveççi border crossing, first week of March
On April 20, Human Rights Watch interviewed a man by cell phone who was shot in the leg as he tried to cross to Turkey during the first week of March. He said:
I am from Jisr al-Shughur. I fled with my family because of the regime attacks on the town in February and March. We first tried to go to one of the [displaced persons] camps between Ain Beida and Khurbat al-Juz, but life there was very tough. So my wife and I decided to try to go to Turkey with our children.
About 35 days ago at eight in the evening we tried to cross in a group of about 13 in an area about two kilometers south of Khurbat al-Juz. There were about six men, four women, and three children in our group. A smuggler organized it but didn’t come with us. He sent two young boys, about 12 and 13, to help us cross. We approached the fence and suddenly we heard shooting. I felt pain in my leg and saw I was hit in the leg. I fell down. Everyone else ran away. I stayed in that place for about 30 minutes and I shouted for help. No one else was injured. The shooting stopped and then some men came and carried me back to Khurbat al-Juz. There was no shooting while they were helping me. They took me to Ain Beida hospital two or three kilometers away. The doctors told me I had one bullet above my knee and one bullet below my knee, in the left leg.