Syrian refugees no longer welcome in Turkey?

Syrians described Turkish border guards intercepting them at or near the border, in some cases beating them, and pushing them and dozens of others back into Syria or detaining and then summarily expelling them along with hundreds of others.” These are the conclusions from a report presented on Monday by Human Rights Watch (HRW), based on dozens of interviews with Syrians in Turkey who claim they could only enter the country using smugglers.

If HRW is correct, it is extremely alarming news and raises several questions. Under the international human rights law, Turkey is not allowed to send back anyone to a place where he or she faces the risk of persecution or violence. The rejection of asylum seekers at borders is strictly prohibited. In this case, there is no doubt that people fleeing Syria do so because they are in danger of being killed by government forces, by Russian jets supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad or by the barbarians of Daesh (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant [ISIL]).

In public statements Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have often criticized European leaders for not doing enough to help the Syrians trying to escape the horrors in their war-torn country and have contrasted this failure with Turkey’s open arms policy. This lecturing was definitely legitimate in the past. But apparently, Turkey taking a high tone with the Europeans no longer reflects the reality on the ground.

When and why did Turkey change its open border policy?

The second pertinent question is whether Turkey closing its borders is a direct effect of the negotiations with the EU on stopping the flow of Syrian refugees to Europe. Has Turkey changed its policy because the EU has urged Ankara to do so in exchange for 3 billion euros and some other rewards?

HRW is not the first to report on closed borders. In March 2015, several media outlets gave details about the Oncupinar and Cilvegozu border gates that were closed on March 9 because of intelligence pointing to a terrorist attack. Until then, most Syrians used these crossings to get into Turkey. Already in March there was talk about the only option left for Syrian refugees: entering Turkey illegally with the help of human smugglers. Both border gates have still not been re-opened.

In June thousands of Syrians fleeing the fighting in the Tal Abyad border town were able to break through the fences at the Akcakale border crossing. But especially after the suicide bombing in Suruc in July, news reports indicate that Turkish border guards have increasingly prevented Syrians from entering the country and are chasing and arresting those who try to get in at informal crossing points — for instance, at one popular location to the southeast of Antakya.

Based on all this information, it is about time the Turkish authorities stop with their self-righteous rhetoric and start explaining to their citizens, and to the rest of the world, what the real situation at the Turkish-Syrian border is and why they have replaced their welcoming attitude with the kind of repressive approach for which they love to bash the EU.

The fact that the Turkish-Syrian border has already been more or less closed for refugees since March of this year should caution against making quick links with the ongoing EU negotiations that will be finalized this Sunday at a special Turkey-EU summit in Brussels. In March the EU and Turkey had not even started talking about a possible cooperation, and Turkey clearly took this step for other reasons. Still, it would be naive to think that keeping the borders closed has not popped up in current negotiations. It is obviously not only in Turkey’s interests to block the flow of new waves of refugees to Turkey and, potentially, to Europe.

As I explained before, I am not against a deal between the EU and Turkey that includes money, an EU promise to accelerate visa-free travel for Turks and, eventually, a plan to resettle large numbers of Syrian refugees in Europe.

In order, however, to prevent any misunderstanding and to make it clear the EU is not willing to break international law, not even in desperate times, the EU should ensure, as HRW formulated, “that the final plan includes a commitment by the Turkish authorities to allow Syrians to seek asylum in Turkey.”


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