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Turkey: Syrians in mortal danger due to deportations

(Beirut) - The Turkish authorities in Istanbul and Antakya arbitrarily detained and deported dozens of Syrians and possibly many more between January and September 2019, despite acts of war in northern Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. Deported Syrians said Turkish officials forced them to sign forms they were not allowed to read beforehand. In some cases, the victims were previously beaten or threatened before they were finally brought to Syria.

At the end of July, the Turkish Minister of the Interior, Süleyman Soylu, denied “deportations” of Syrians by Turkey. At the same time, however, he said that anyone “who wishes to return to Syria voluntarily” can benefit from procedures that enable them to return to unspecified “safe areas”. Human Rights Watch's research directly contradicts this and comes to the conclusion that Turkey has illegally deported Syrians to Idlib Governorate, one of the most dangerous regions in Syria. According to the United Nations, at least 1,089 civilians have been killed in attacks by the Syrian-Russian military alliance on Idlib and the surrounding areas since April, including at least 20 who died in an air strike on a refugee camp on August 16.

"Claims by Turkish officials that all Syrians returning to their country are happy to return sound like mockery given the facts to the contrary," said Gerry Simpson, deputy head of crisis areas at Human Rights Watch. "Turkey has taken in four times as many Syrians as the European Union, but that does not give it the right to deport refugees to a war zone."

On September 24, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan informed the UN General Assembly that Turkey would try to establish a security zone in northeast Syria in areas that are controlled by the Kurdish-led autonomous administration at the time. Between one million and three million Syrian refugees could return to this security zone. Following the withdrawal of US forces and a Turkish military attack, Turkey and Russia agreed on October 22nd joint patrols on most of the Syrian-Turkish borders that were formerly controlled by Kurdish forces. Human Rights Watch said that "security zones" established during other conflicts have rarely been safe and that the establishment of such a zone cannot be used as a justification for forced returns of refugees.

Turkey has taken in 3.65 million Syrians under a "temporary protection" ordinance. According to the Turkish authorities, this protection automatically applies to all Syrians who apply for asylum. This reflects the position of the UN Refugee Agency that "the vast majority of Syrian asylum seekers continue to ... need international refugee protection" and that "States should not forcibly return Syrian nationals and permanent residents" .

Human Rights Watch spoke to 12 Syrians by phone about their arrest and detention in Turkey and deportation to Idlib. Furthermore, personal talks were held with two Syrians who fled Idlib and returned to Turkey after their deportation, as well as with the wife of a man deported from Istanbul.

Thirteen said they were deported by bus between July and September. Three said the other people on the bus, around 100 in total, told them they were being taken back to Syria against their will. Human Rights Watch said this is cause for concern that Turkey has deported significant numbers of Syrians from Istanbul and Antakya to Idlib in recent months.

A Syrian from Idlib, who has been in Turkey since 2013, said he was arrested on July 17 in Antakya while trying to update his personal information. He said Turkish immigration officials slapped him in the face and forced him to sign a voluntary return form. The next day they put him on a bus with about 30 other people heading for the border. "Everyone said they were pressured to sign a form and one of the women cried and said that the officers slapped her in the face to force her to sign," he said. "Nobody on that bus wanted to go back to Syria."

None of the 15, some of whom were detained up to six weeks before their deportation, were charged with a criminal offense or were allowed to appeal to the authorities or a judge. Despite Turkish laws, which award legal counsel to anyone threatened with deportation, only one of the interviewees stated that they had found a lawyer who could prevent their deportation. Some didn't have time to ask for a lawyer because they were deported so quickly. Others were told by immigration officials that they did not need a lawyer or that they could not afford legal fees. Most of those who paid legal fees said they had never seen the lawyers again.

The Turkish Interior Ministry should ensure that police and immigration officers do not use force against Syrians or other detained foreigners. All officials who use violence should be held accountable, Human Rights Watch said. Turkey should allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) free access to return centers, oversee the process of obtaining consent from those wishing to return to Syria, so that it can be ensured that it is indeed a voluntary action . In addition, interviews and repatriation procedures should be monitored to ensure that police or immigration officials do not use force against Syrians or other foreign nationals.

On October 15, Human Rights Watch reported the results of the investigation to the Turkish Interior Ministry. The ministry has not yet responded to the request for a statement.

Turkey is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention as well as inhuman and degrading treatment. If Turkey arrests and detains a person for deportation but there is no realistic prospect of it, for example because the person would be harmed in their country or because the person is unable to contest their deportation, then the detention is arbitrary. Any Syrian suspected of violating Turkish civil or criminal law should only be prosecuted if they are formally charged and have the opportunity to defend themselves in court. Otherwise, the victim should be released.

Turkey is also bound by customary international law of non-refoulement, which prohibits people from returning to a place where they would be at real risk of persecution, torture or other ill-treatment, or where their lives would be in danger. Turkey must not use force or the threat of violence or imprisonment to force people to return to places where they are at risk of harm. This also includes Syrian asylum seekers who are entitled to automatic protection under Turkish law, including those who have been excluded from registration for temporary protection since the end of 2017.

Under its March 2016 agreement with Turkey, the EU claims that Turkey is a safe country to which Syrian asylum seekers can be returned. Turkey has never met the EU's criteria for safe third countries, and the most recent deportations from Istanbul clearly show that every Syrian after being forced to return from Greece would face the risk of further deportation to Syria.

The EU spent at least € 55 million between 2011 and 2015 to support Turkish reception and detention centers for migrants. This support on migration continued under the 2016 agreement. The EU should continue to support the registration and protection of Syrian refugees in Turkey, but the European Commission should also publicly report on the deportations of Turkey to Syria and, together with the EU member states, publicly call on Turkey to stop the deportations and to the UNHCR allow us to monitor whether imprisoned Syrians want to stay in Turkey or voluntarily return to Syria.

"With the conflict in Syria recently taking another deadly turn, the EU should help Turkey respond to a reality that requires continued protection for millions of refugees," said Simpson. “This means protecting Syrians who reach the EU's shores, relocating Syrians from Turkey to the EU and asking Turkey to use its resources, including EU financial support, to protect the refugees instead of sending them back to danger areas send. "

Turkey's increasingly restrictive Syrian refugee policy

Since 2011, Turkey has welcomed and protected millions of Syrians, with almost all of the country's 3.65 million currently registered Syrians receiving temporary protection by early 2017. However, the recent deportations of Syrians from Istanbul and Antakya by Turkey result from a policy that increasingly denies protection to many Syrian asylum seekers.

For the past four years, Turkey has sealed off its border with Syria, with hundreds of thousands of Syrians now stuck with little support in refugee camps and villages on the other side of the closed border. Turkish border guards have carried out mass pushbacks, killing and injuring Syrians as they tried to cross the border. In late 2017 and early 2018, Istanbul and nine provinces on the border with Syria suspended the registration of newly arrived asylum seekers. The Turkish travel authorization system prohibits Syrians from leaving the border provinces through which they reach the country in order to register elsewhere in the country.

On July 22, the Governor of Istanbul Province issued a statement that Syrians who are in Istanbul but registered in one of the country's other provinces must return there. In addition, the Ministry of the Interior will send unregistered Syrians to other provinces to be registered there. The authorities have since released no information on how many people were sent away or where they were ultimately registered.

The July statement came amid growing xenophobic sentiment across the political spectrum against Syrian and other refugees in Turkey, with some politicians and sections of the electorate increasing calls for Syrians to return to their country.

Detailed reports from deported Syrians

Human Rights Watch spoke to 12 Syrians by phone about their arrest and detention in Turkey and deportation to Idlib. Furthermore, personal talks were held with two Syrians who fled Idlib and returned to Turkey after their deportation, as well as with the wife of a man deported from Istanbul.

Thirteen of the respondents were deported between July and September, including a man who was deported with three of his sons. One of the respondents was deported in January and another in April. All but one were brought to Idlib via the Cilvegözü / Bab al-Hawa border crossing.

Those affected said that police arrested them in or near Istanbul and Antakya and then turned them over to immigration authorities in most cases. They would have held them for between several hours and 42 days without charge and then finally deported them.

The Syrians said police or immigration officials told them they were being detained for a variety of reasons, including lack of protection permits, expiration of their permits, spelling mistakes, registration of permits outside of Istanbul, lack of work permits or because there would have been disputes with neighbors. Eleven of the respondents were registered, the other four not. Given the ongoing armed conflict, widespread violence and widespread human rights abuses in Syria, the expiry or lack of temporary protection does not warrant deportation of Syrians from Turkey, Human Rights Watch said.

People interviewed said they had been forced to sign forms at police stations or in detention centers and that they suspected the forms said they wanted to return to Syria. They said the officers did not allow them to read the forms or explain what was on the forms to them. Some said officials covered portions of the forms that were in Arabic with their hands. Most said the authorities in these facilities treated other Syrians in the same way.

This research echoes a statement by the Istanbul Bar Association that between early July and August 20, it received around 180 complaints about police misuse of voluntary return forms stating that the person concerned wishes to return to Syria. The results also coincide with the reports of four other deported Syrians with whom Human Rights Watch spoke in July.

Five deported Syrians said officials beat them to force them to sign a form, the purpose of which they were not told. Two said they saw officials beat other Syrians while telling them to sign a form. Three said officials repeatedly yelled at them, some threatened them with violence or threatened to detain them until they were signed. One victim said an officer held his hand and physically forced him to sign. Two said they saw officers beat other Syrians on a bus from Istanbul to the Syrian border.

Two Syrians said they were deported within hours of being detained, leaving them with no time to ask for a lawyer. Four said they did not ask for a lawyer because the officers lied and said they would not be deported. Another eight said they couldn't afford to pay attorneys charging up to $ 1,500, with some cutting their claim down to $ 350. Three Syrians said they were able to pay the legal fees, but the lawyers simply disappeared afterwards or did not represent them despite the payment.

All respondents said they were taken to the Syrian border in a minibus or a large bus full of Syrians. They said that based on conversations they overheard at the detention center before they were put on the bus, as well as conversations on the bus, they believed many were being deported. However, only three said that they knew from extensive conversations during the long journey that all the people on their bus, like them, were being returned to Syria against their will.

A man from the city of Hama, who had been in Turkey for three years and was deported from Istanbul on July 24, said:

I was deported in a big bus with about 35 Syrians. They handcuffed us and the drive to Bab al-Hawa (border crossing) took 21 hours. They beat some of the men on the bus with clubs when they went to the bathroom or asked for water. We have all spoken to each other over and over again and we have all said that we will be deported. Nobody wanted to go back to Syria.

Most of the people interviewed could not name the police station or the detention facility where they were held, but some said they were held in detention centers in Çatalca and Pendik, Istanbul. Some of those detained in Antakya said they were deported from an immigration service facility known by Syrians as the Amniyat [Emniyet] 500.

Five said officials used force to force them to sign a form, and two said they saw officials beat other Syrians who were pressured to sign a form.

In mid-July, police arrested a 25-year-old man from Idlib City in Antakya and took him to the Amniyat [Emniyet] 500 facility. He said:

There everyone was supposed to sign a paper stating that we wanted to return to Syria. Most did, but a few others and I refused. I said my life in Idlib would be in danger and the officer said, 'You're lucky we are sending you to Idlib and not Assad. ... I asked for a lawyer but they didn't respond and said that once the governor signed the papers we would all be taken to the border.

Then around noon they called the names of everyone who had refused to sign. We went to another room, one at a time. The officers in the other room yelled at others who went in before me, and some of the Syrians were crying. I spoke to some of them when they came out and they said that the officers yelled at them until they finally signed.

They called my name and I went in and two men shouted at me to sign the form on the table and that I was being taken back to Syria for being in Turkey illegally. One of them hit me in the face. When he raised his hand to hit me again, I raised mine to protect my face. He yelled at me, 'I'm a civil servant, don't put your hand on me.' They treated me and everyone else like criminals. I still refused to sign the document, but they deported me anyway.

A man from Homs, who entered Turkey in May and was arrested in Istanbul on August 6, said police had taken him to a detention center near Istanbul in Çatalca, where he had a Turkish Red Crescent and an EU - Saw flag on the walls. He said:

The next day, a Friday, some of us were supposed to sign statements. One of the men, who had been in Turkey for five years, refused to sign. Two gendarmes wearing red clothes with 'Jandarma' on their backs and holding the batons took him out of our room. They almost beat him to death. When he came back, he could no longer walk. He still refused to sign. One person said they signed documents on his behalf. They deported him a week later, on a Friday.

Three other Syrians described officials repeatedly yelling at them to get them to sign. Some threatened them with violence, others threatened to detain them until they were signed.

A 34-year-old Aleppo man who was deported from Istanbul in early July said his pregnant wife and two daughters were still in Istanbul. He lived in a refugee camp near the village of Atma, near the Turkish border, and shared a tent with eight other people. He said:

In early June, the police arrested me outside my workplace and took me to an immigration center in Çatalca and held me there for a month. From day one, they kept telling me to sign a document, but I refused. Each time they said, 'You will sign and go back to Syria.' During the four weeks the boss there said things like, 'You will stay here for the rest of your life if you don't sign,' and, 'Whether you sign or not, the decision has already been made and I will sign for you. '