Turkey has "all but closed its borders" to Syrian refugees, many of whom say they have been beaten, detained and expelled by Turkish border guards while trying to escape the devastating civil war that has sent millions fleeing Syria, nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Monday.
The U.N. refugee agency says Turkey has registered more than 2 million Syrians as refugees since the conflict began nearly five years ago. Although traffickers have continued to help refugees cross into Turkey through smuggling routes, HRW said Monday that Ankara had stepped up border enforcement at unofficial crossing points in July after closing its last two official crossings in March of this year to all but those with urgent medical needs.
Those official crossings have not been re-opened, HRW said, citing "nongovernmental agencies in Turkey close to the Syrian border."
"Turkey’s border closure is forcing pregnant women, children, the elderly, the sick, and the injured to run the gauntlet of Turkish border officials to escape the horrors of Syria’s war," HRW’s Gerry Simpson, a senior refugee researcher, said in a statement issued by the group.
Al Jazeera is trying to independently confirm that Turkey has shut its official border channels. HRW's report appeared to contradict comments made earlier this month by Fuat Oktay, the head of The Turkish government’s disaster management agency AFAD, who said the country wouldn’t shut its borders to those fleeing Syria.
"An open-border policy is the main policy we have been following since the beginning of this crisis," Oktay told Reuters.
But at the same time, Oktay said Turkey — which has become a launching point for refugees trying to make their way to European countries via the Mediterranean Sea — wasn’t promoting the services available to Syrian refugees in the hope that they would be dissuaded from crossing borders.
"Any individual would like to stay in his or her country ... [we] promote them to stay in their own country," Oktay said.
While HRW said that Turkey "deserves credit" for it efforts in hosting millions of refugees — and spending what the country's government said was $7.6 billion to do so since Syria's war began — Ankara is "obliged to keep its borders open to people seeking asylum," the rights group said.
The Syrian conflict, which started with protests against the government of President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 and spiraled into a civil war, has left more than 250,000 people dead and displaced millions of others, according to the United Nations.
For its report HRW interviewed 51 Syrian refugees who made it to Turkey, and detailed their tumultuous journey. Some related accounts of pregnant women, as well as elderly people and children, being injured in Syria while trying to navigate the crossing route’s difficult terrain in the dark.
Other refugees — some beaten by border guards — described being caught as soon as they crossed into Turkey, and being detained overnight at a military base before being sent back to Syria along with hundreds of others, the rights group said.
"The police caught most of us. One of the guards hit me on the back of my head and in my ribs with the butt of his rifle and I fell over and started to bleed. Then another guard kicked me in the head and broke my glasses. It hurt so much I vomited. I don’t know why they attacked me," one man from the southwestern Syrian city of Daraa, who traveled with a group of 20 others, told HRW.
Many of those interviewed said stepped-up Russian airstrikes against anti-Assad rebels in northern Syrian provinces of Aleppo and Idlib over the past several weeks had given them no choice but to flee.
"We heard that 50 people died in an airstrike in a village three kilometers from our home. That was the last straw. We were suffering from a lack of electricity and gas and no jobs and no schools for our children, but the fear of being killed from the air was too much," one Syrian woman told HRW.