“Fourteen days into detention, they started to take groups of five young men out of prison every day. We did not know what happened to them. On my turn, they took me to the interrogation room. The interrogator asked me a few questions and then said: ‘sign this paper. It is for your release.’ I checked the document thoroughly and realized that it was the approval of ‘voluntary return’ to Syria. I refused to sign it and asked for a lawyer. The interrogator refused. I informed them of my situation and that I had a kimlik [Temporary Protection Identification Document]. But they refused to listen. I insisted that I would not sign the document. So, they returned me to prison. Two days later, a security force handcuffed me and coerced me to sign the ‘voluntary return’ document. Then, they transferred us to the Jarabulus Border Crossing and handed us to the 9th Division of the Opposition Syrian National Army (SNA). The division, detained, interrogated, beat, and humiliated us. After this, they asked us to pay them money in exchange for our release.”
The Turkish authorities raided the house of the witness and returned him to Syria against his will in May 2021. The witness had established a stable life in Turkey and even started his own business once he entered Turkey in 2016. He was one of the many Syrian refugees, whom the Turkish authorities detained and ultimately forcibly deported back to danger, even though they had a kimlik, the chief purpose of which is ensuring the safety of refugees.
Since mid-2018, Turkish authorities have been carrying out a wide range of arbitrary practices against refugees, whose status as refugees is established by the kimlik the Turkish government provided them with. Refugees were detained at deportation camps adjacent to the Turkey-Syria border and later were forcibly deported to Syrian territories. In Syria, Turkey-affiliated armed opposition groups beat and maltreated dozens of the refugees and even detained them for varying periods.
In the deportation camps, the Turkish authorities hold refugees in appalling conditions and force them to choose between long-term abject detention in the camp or signing a “voluntary return” document. Syrian media activist Munib al-Ali was held in a detention camp on the charge of “provoking hatred and animosity and perpetrating discord” under Article 2016 of the Turkish Penal Code. Al-Ali was placed in the Oğuzeli Deportation Center in Gaziantep, with his file coded G87. Al-Ali was coerced to choose between detention for a year or signing the “voluntary return” document. He was ultimately returned to Syria even though he had a kimlik.
As documented by Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) and other local and international rights organizations, in some cases Turkish authorities exploited the language barrier between their employees and Syrian refugees. They took advantage of the detainees’ inadequate command of the Turkish language and asked their affiliated interpreters to trick the refugees into putting their thumbprint on the “voluntary return” document, alleging it is a release paper. One of the deported refugees told STJ that the Turkish authorities played on his lack of proficiency in Turkish and asked him to sign documents, supposedly of his release. Later, he learned that he was deceived and made to sign the “voluntary return” document, which facilitated his deportation to Syria.
For the purposes of the report, STJ reached out to a total of 21 deported refugees. All the witnesses stressed that the deportations had adversely affected their lives. The majority lost their jobs and/or had their bank accounts frozen after the Turkish Government canceled their kimlik and gave them five-year-entry bans. The most devastating outcome has been the fragmentation of several families. Husbands and fathers were sent to Syria, while wives and children remained in Turkey. Deprived of their breadwinners, those left behind were forced to fend for themselves.
Out of the 21 interviewed witnesses, STJ recorded that only seven did not have a kimlik, which is the main pretext on which the forced returns were carried out.
In Syria, several of the deported refugees were subjected to blackmail and extreme violations, including detention and torture at the hands of the SNA and the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Both the SNA and the HTS operate border crossings with Turkey.
The interviewed witnesses told STJ that the deportations perpetrated by Turkish authorities did not target male refugees only. The witnesses said that the Turkish authorities carried out family-level deportations, detaining mothers and children under grim conditions, and later forcibly returning them to Syria.
In addition to deported refugees, STJ reached out to three employees at the border crossings in the Turkey-supervised Euphrates Shield and the Peace Spring strips. The sources recounted that the Turkish authorities deliberately deported refugees through the HTS-run border crossing of Bab al-Hawa, even though they knew that several of those deported are from Aleppo’s northern countryside and are on bad terms with the HTS. Thus, the Turkish authorities risked the lives of these refugees and made them vulnerable to financial extortion and/or arrest by the HTS forces. The sources added that the Turkish authorities deported a small batch of refugees to their birthplaces in Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê, in response to the appeals the refugees filed when they were in the detention centers.
The deportations garnered the attention of serval Syrian influential figures, who decried the arbitrary practice. Scholar Ali al-Qaradaghi, Secretary-General of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, on 21 December 2021 addressed the suffering of Rohingya and Uighur Muslims, stressing that the “forcible deportation of refugees is haram (forbidden)” and described the deportations as a “crime and absolutely forbidden”. Specific to the deportations of Syrian refugees from Turkey, the Anadolu Agency (Arabic) cited a fatwa by al-Qaradaghi. The scholar said that “deporting refugees, especially against their will, is absolutely forbidden and is a crime. He added that “Helping refugees reach safety or keeping them safe” is farida (obligation) under the Islamic Sharia. The scholar also emphasized that “advocating the cause of those subjected to injustice is an ethical and humanitarian duty, enforced by Sharia as well. And that enabling the oppressors and helping them inflict injustice amounts to partaking in the crime, which is an act punishable by God.”
The deportations reverberated locally, stirring 16 Turkish organizations to respond in an official form. On 1 November 2021, the organizations issued a joint statement, calling the Turkish authorities to stop the deportation proceedings against Syrian refugees, on the charge of “posting provocative videos” in the context of the banana crisis, whereby the banana became the newest symbol for the growing tensions between some Turkish people and Syrian refugees. The organizations highlighted the legal implications of the deportations, as Turkish authorities continue to violate Article 33 of the Refugee Convention of 1951, which states that “No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
Turkey is also bound by the international customary law of non-refoulement, which prohibits the return of anyone to a territory where they would be at the real risk of persecution, torture or other ill-treatment, or a threat to life. Turkey also may not use violence or the threat of violence or detention to coerce people to return to places where they face harm. This includes Syrian asylum seekers, who are entitled to automatic protection under Turkish law, including any who have been blocked from registration for temporary protection since late 2017.
Addressing the claims of safety in Syria, which the Turkish authorities are using as a pretext for the deportations, on 21 October 2021, Chair of the UN Syria Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro, delivered a speech before the Third Committee of the General Assembly, warning that “This is not a time for anyone to be thinking that Syria is safe, for its refugees to return home. Instead, we are seeing an upsurge in fighting and violence.”
Despite this, January 2022 was marked by group deportations of tens of Syrians, most of whom had not committed any crimes. Instead, many carried kimliks, work permits, and student paperwork. STJ continues to investigate these cases and will soon publish our findings in another report.
The cost of these deportations, both from Turkey and Europe, have often been deadly. Most recently, Turkish media, associated with the government, reported that 19 bodies had been found of refugees who died from the cold after Greek police arrested, stripped, and returned them to Turkey.
Border Crossing Statistics on Deportations
The media outlets affiliated with the Turkey-Syria border crossings are primary sources for leads on deportations, particularly statistics they publish on the numbers of refugees forcibly deported to Syria. The numbers are obtained from crossing employees, who receive the refugees from Turkish authorities and register their names, before granting them access to Syrian territories, which are under the military control of HTS and other armed opposition groups.
The published statistics exclude refugees who enter Syria either on holidays, to spend the Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr with their families, or for medical reasons. The second group includes individuals and/or their companions who seek healthcare in Turkish hospitals.
Additionally, the statistics do not cover Syrian individuals arrested and returned to Syria while attempting to enter Turkey illegally. On 15 February 2021, STJ published a report that documents dozens of cases of captured Syrians, who have been beaten, tortured, and maltreated in the custody of the factions in control of areas adjacent to the border strip.
STJ tracked the statistics published by the official media outlets of three major border crossings, Bab al-Hawa, Bab al-Salameh, and Tal Abyad.
On its official website, the Bab al-Hawa Border Crossing, connecting Turkey to the HTS-held areas in Idlib province, recorded that the Turkish authorities forcibly returned 100872 Syrian refugees, among them women and children, between 2019 and 2021.
Media outlets run by the Bab al-Salamah Border Crossing, which connects Turkey to the Euphrates Shield strip, encompassing Jarabulus, Azaz, and al-Bab, published similar statistics. However, the outlets provide the numbers under the label “people who voluntarily returned” and distinguish this group from the group who returned “after trying to enter Turkey illegally.” The outlets are likely working under the directives of the border officials, who must be avoiding mentioning the issue of deportations openly, concerned over the growing Turkish military influence in the area. The crossing’s administration documented the forcible return of 47310 persons to Syria between 2019 and 2021.
One of the sources STJ interviewed in November 2021 estimated the number of people forcibly returned through the border every month. The source said:
“Every month, approximately 400 people are deported from Turkey to Syria through the Bab al-Salameh border crossing. The majority are forcibly returned. Over the course of my work, I noticed that barely 25% of the deported people returned voluntarily and because it was what they wanted. Regardless, most people were forced to return.”
The Tal Abyad Border Crossing, which links Turkey to the Peace Spring strip, started publishing data nearly a year after Turkey occupied areas across Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê. Like the administration of Bab al-Salameh, the administration of the border labels the deportations using the term “voluntary returns”, fearing to use open and clear-cut tags to describe the situation, given the Turkish presence in the area. The border documented the deportation of 9344 refugees to Syria between mid-2020 and 2021.
For further details, STJ reached out to one of the border’s officials. He narrated:
“The border did not receive many deported/forcibly returned refugees because the deported were chiefly people that Turkish authorities consider problematic, for security or criminal reasons. During our work, we noticed that Turkey did not deport people to the Peace Spring Strip because they consider it a safe zone and would not want anything to cause problems there.”
“Deportations and the border crossings through which the deported would be sent are decided by the Department of Immigration in Ankara. The department often chooses Bab al-Hawa because it is a humanitarian crossing and it leads to Idlib, which is not under Turkey’s control.”