Months before its latest military operation in northeastern Syria, Turkey illegally forced possibly hundreds of Syrian refugees to return to an area of the war-torn country near the Turkish border, where Ankara has plans to set up a “safe zone,” Amnesty International said in a report on Friday.
The international rights organization said it had already verified 20 cases of illegal so far, but estimated the actual figure to be much higher — in the hundreds.
Turkey, which currently hosts some 3.6 million Syrian refugees, launched an offensive in northeastern Syria on October 9 with the stated aim of carving out a “safe zone” along the border.
Ankara hopes that it could resettle some 2 million Syrian refugees to the planned demilitarized zone along the border, which is expected to extend 20 miles into Syrian territory.
The refugees fled their country in the wake of the civil war that started there in 2011.
Russia and Turkey agreed to a deal on Tuesday that allowed Ankara to control a 75-mile-long area between the Syrian towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain in order to facilitate the return of refugees “in a safe and voluntary manner.”
Amnesty said on Friday that while statistics were hard to verify, it estimated that hundreds of Syrian refugees were sent backed to Syria, with many receiving threats of violence or being tricked into signing “voluntary return” agreements.
The report titled “Sent to a War Zone: Turkey’s Illegal Deportations Of Syrian Refugees” involved claims that the refugees were compelled to return to Syria prior to an attempt by the Turkish government to establish a “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the border.
“We have verified 20 cases of forced illegal deportations by Turkish authorities,” Amnesty said, based on interviews conducted between July and October where dozens of refugees said Turkish police beat and threatened them into signing documents saying they were willingly returning to Syria.
“The Turkish government claims that all refugees who return to Syria do so voluntarily. But that isn’t true. Many were coerced or misled when signing so-called ‘voluntary return’ documents,” Anna Shea, Amnesty’s Researcher on Refugee and Migrant Rights, underlined in a tweet.
The Turkish government claims that all #refugees who return to Syria do so voluntarily
But that isn't true.
Many were coerced or misled when signing so-called “voluntary return” documents.
Some said they were beaten or threatened with violence to force them to sign. 1 / 2
— Anna Shea (@AnnaLucyShea) October 25, 2019
Turkish officials have announced that a total of 315,000 Syrian refugees have left for their homeland on an entirely voluntary basis.
In the report, Shea also labeled Turkey’s claim that refugees are choosing to walk straight back into the conflict as “dangerous” and “dishonest.”
“Rather, our research shows that people are being tricked or forced into returning,” she added.
Despite acknowledging that Turkey deserves recognition for hosting more than 3.6 million women, men and children from Syria for over eight years, Shea highlighted that the ruling AK Party (AKP) government “cannot use this generosity as an excuse” to deport people to an active conflict zone.
“It is illegal to deport people to Syria as it exposes them to a real risk of serious human rights violations,” she reminded, urging Ankara to stop it and ensure that anyone who has been deported is able to re-enter Turkey safely and re-access essential services.
Later on Friday, the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s Spokesman Hami Aksoy held forth in a statement that Turkey was fulfilling all of its responsibilities towards the Syrian refugees in accordance with the international laws.
Aksoy described the claims in Amnesty’s report that hundreds of refugees are being forcibly sent back, threatened and mistreated as “false” and “imaginary.”
“Our country is reiterating at every opportunity that the return of migrants needs to be done voluntarily and safely and that this process must be carried out in line with international laws,” he explained.