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31st March 2016, 15:30:35 UTC

Large-scale forced returns of refugees from Turkey to war-ravaged Syria expose the fatal flaws in a refugee deal signed between Turkey and the European Union earlier this month, Amnesty International revealed today. In one case, three young children were forced back into Syria without their parents. A woman who was eight months pregnant was also forced to return.

New research carried out by the organisation in Turkey’s southern border provinces suggests that Turkish authorities have been rounding up and expelling groups of around 100 Syrian men, women and children to Syria on a near-daily basis since mid-January. Over three days last week, Amnesty International researchers gathered multiple testimonies of large-scale returns from Hatay province, confirming a practice that is an open secret in the region.

All forced returns to Syria are illegal under Turkish, EU and international law.

“In their desperation to seal their borders, EU leaders have wilfully ignored the simplest of facts: Turkey is not a safe country for Syrian refugees and is getting less safe by the day. The large-scale returns of Syrian refugees we have documented highlight the fatal flaws in the EU-Turkey deal. It is a deal that can only be implemented with the hardest of hearts and a blithe disregard for international law,” said Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland.

The EU-Turkey deal paves the way for the immediate return to Turkey of Syrian refugees arriving on the Greek islands, on the grounds that it is safe country of asylum. EU officials have expressed the hope that returns could start as of Monday 4 April. The EU’s extended courting of Turkey that preceded the deal has already had disastrous knock-on effects on Turkey’s own policies towards Syrian refugees.

“Far from pressuring Turkey to improve the protection it offers Syrian refugees, the EU is in fact incentivising the opposite. It seems highly likely that Turkey has returned several thousand refugees to Syria in the last seven to nine weeks. If the agreement proceeds as planned, there is a very real risk that some of those the EU sends back to Turkey will suffer the same fate. The inhumanity and scale of the returns is truly shocking; Turkey should stop them immediately,” said Colm O’Gorman.

The inhumanity and scale of the returns is truly shocking; Turkey should stop them immediately

Colm O'Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland

Many of those returned to Syria appear to be unregistered refugees, though Amnesty International has also documented cases of registered Syrians being returned, when apprehended without their papers on them. Amnesty International’s recent research also shows that the Turkish authorities have scaled back the registration of Syrian refugees in the southern border provinces.

Registration is required to access basic services. In Gaziantep, Amnesty International met with the son of a woman requiring emergency surgery to save her life but who was denied the ability to register – and therefore have the surgery. She eventually was able to register elsewhere and receive the life-saving treatment. According to other Syrian refugees in the border province of Hatay, some people attempting to register have been detained and forced back into Syria, together with refugees found without their registration documents.

Amnesty International spoke to a family of unregistered Syrian refugees in Hatay province who have opted to remain in their apartment rather than trying to register, for fear they will be returned to Syria. There are currently around 200,000 displaced people within 20km of Turkey’s border. According to humanitarian aid groups as well as camp residents, conditions in camps close to the border are abysmal, without clean water or sanitation. A camp resident reported kidnappings for ransom among the dangers.

Increased border security and the lack of any regular means of crossing have pushed people into the hands of smugglers, who are demanding at least US$1,000 per person to take people into Turkey, according to Syrian nationals Amnesty International spoke to on both sides of the border. The increasingly restrictive border policies are a radical change from those adopted previously by the Turkish authorities during the five years of the Syrian crisis. Previously, Syrian residents with passports had been able to cross at regular border gates, and those who entered irregularly – the vast majority – were also able to register with the Turkish authorities.

“Over the last few months, Turkey has introduced visa requirements for Syrians arriving by air, sealed its land border with Syria for all but those in need of emergency medical care, and shot at some of those attempting to cross it irregularly. Now Turkey is touting the creation of an undeliverable safe zone inside Syria. It is clear where this is all heading: having witnessed the creation of Fortress Europe, we are now seeing the copy-cat construction of Fortress Turkey,” said Colm O’Gorman.