Turkish Border Guards Torture, Kill Syrians

Turkey Should End Impunity


Turkish border guards are indiscriminately shooting at Syrian civilians on the border with Syria, as well as torturing and using excessive force against asylum seekers and migrants trying to cross into Turkey, Human Rights Watch said on April 27, 2023. The Turkish government should investigate and hold accountable border guards responsible for these grave human rights violations, including unlawful killings, and end the longstanding impunity for these abuses.

On March 11, 2023, Turkish border guards viciously beat and tortured a group of eight Syrians who were attempting to cross irregularly into Turkey. A man and a boy died in Turkish custody, while the others were seriously injured. Six guards are under investigation by Turkish authorities for their alleged role in the attack. On March 13, a Turkish border guard shot and killed a 59-year-old Syrian man who was plowing his land in an area adjacent to the border. No information has been made available about an investigation into this killing. Human Rights Watch wrote to the Turkish ministers of justice, interior, and defense on April 20, 2023, requesting updates on both incidents.

“Turkish gendarmes and armed forces in charge of border control routinely abuse and indiscriminately shoot at Syrians along the Syrian-Turkish border, with hundreds of deaths and injuries recorded in recent years,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Arbitrary killings of Syrians are particularly egregious and part of a pattern of brutality by Turkish border guards that the government has failed to curb or investigate effectively.”

Since the beginning of 2023, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has recorded 11 deaths and 20 injuries along the Syrian/Turkish border caused by Turkish border guards. Human Rights Watch independently documented and verified two such incidents.

In early March 2023, Human Rights Watch obtained nonexhaustive data from an organization monitoring hostilities in Syria, that documented 277 individual incidents between October 2015 and April 2023. The monitors recorded at least 234 deaths and 231 injuries, the vast majority of which occurred while victims attempted to cross the border. Twenty-six incidents involved children, with at least 20 killed and 15 injured. Significantly, at least 6 people who were not attempting to cross the border were shot dead and another 6 were injured. The organization requested not to be named out of concern that its humanitarian work could be negatively impacted by Turkish authorities.

Turkey’s land borders are protected by army border units of the Turkish Armed Forces. Gendarme units, also on duty at the borders, operate under the authority of the land forces command. There are also gendarme stations near the border charged with regular rural policing activities. In documenting the abuses, the majority of cases recorded involved the Turkish Armed Forces, with 28 of the 273 incidents recorded involving Gendarme units.

Turkey has taken in about 3.5 million Syrians, hosting more refugees than any other country. Turkey has granted many of them temporary protection status, and sought to provide them with basic services, including medical care and education. However, Turkey’s generous hosting of large numbers of Syrians does not absolve it of its obligations to respect the rights of others seeking protection at its borders. In October 2022, Human Rights Watch also documented Turkish authorities’ deportation of hundreds of long-time Syrian beneficiaries of temporary protection, including by forcing people to sign voluntary departure forms.

While Turkey is entitled to secure its border with Syria, it must do so in compliance with international law and in particular its human rights obligations including respect for the rights to life and bodily integrity, and the absolute prohibition on torture or other inhuman or degrading treatment. Turkey is also required to respect the principle of nonrefoulement, which prohibits the return of asylum seekers to territory where they face the threat of persecution, torture, or threats to life and freedom, including by rejecting them at borders without considering their claims.

Since a contentious 2016 deal with Turkey under which the European Union pledged €3 billion and political concessions to Turkey in exchange for stepped-up efforts to curb migration and refugee flows to Europe, the EU has doubled its financial support for Turkey’s migration management to €6 billion despite documented abuses by Turkish authorities against refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers. Donor governments in Europe and beyond that provide significant financial support to the Turkish government to assist Syrian refugees should demand a thorough and effective investigation into allegations of abuse including unlawful killings and torture of asylum seekers and migrants on Turkey's borders.

The Turkish government should urgently issue standard instructions to all border guards underscoring that firearms are only to be used when strictly necessary as a last resort in response to a threat to life, that no one crossing or who has crossed the border should be mistreated but that all should be given access to medical aid if needed. Adopting a zero-tolerance policy for violations, enforced through effective investigations and appropriate sanctions, should ensure that all border guards scrupulously respect these core legal obligations.

The Turkish authorities should also urgently conduct a full review of their border security policy, Human Rights Watch said. This should be similar to the review of policing and security policy in the area affected by devastating earthquakes which has been under a state of emergency since February 9 and where law enforcement officials sent to police the region have beaten, tortured, and otherwise ill-treated people they suspect of theft and looting.

“Violence by Turkish border guards against Syrians along the border is a longstanding problem that has gone largely unaddressed,” said Williamson. “The Turkish government needs to take urgent and effective measures to end the unlawful killings and torture of asylum seekers and migrants on its borders, and provide justice for past abuses.”

Between August 2015 and June 2018, Turkey erected a 3-meter-high wall topped with razor wire along most of its 911-kilometer border with Syria to combat smuggling and irregular border crossings. Since then, Turkish border guards have routinely violently blocked Syrians trying to flee hostilities and dire conditions, shooting at, beating, and summarily expelling them back to Syria. In November 2015, April and May 2016, February 2018, and November 2022, Human Rights Watch documented Turkish border guards’ use of violence against Syrian and other asylum seekers, migrants, and smugglers on its border with Syria.

Among the 277 violations along the border monitored by an independent organization, violations occurred across 80 distinct locations. Most of the fatal incidents were in Idlib governorate, 68.38 percent, the majority of which is under the control of Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, a coalition of Islamist armed groups that Turkey has some influence over. The others included Al Raqqa governate with 12.39 percent and Al Hasakeh with 12.39 percent, both largely controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed Kurdish-led armed group, and Aleppo governorate with 6.84 percent, northern areas of which are under the control of Turkey and the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army or the SDF. The largest number of incidents involving injuries – 43.72 percent – occurred in areas within the Aleppo governorate.

Of the 234 deaths and 231 injuries, the data indicates that 225 died and 177 were injured by Turkish border guards using weapons, and 9 died and 54 were injured due to physical assault at the hands of Turkish border guards.

Syrians are facing one of the worst economic and humanitarian crises since the conflict began in 2011, battling a fuel crisis, cholera outbreak, and rising food insecurity. Northwest Syria was severely affected by the February 6, 2023 earthquakes and recent floods. There, a population of about four million, including at least 2.6 million displaced people, almost entirely rely on humanitarian aid.

Source:Human Rights Watch