Deported Syrians told Human Rights Watch that Turkish officials arrested them in their homes, workplaces, and on the street, detained them in poor conditions, beat and abused most of them, forced them to sign voluntary return forms, drove them to border crossing points with northern Syria, and forced them across at gunpoint.
“In violation of international law Turkish authorities have rounded up hundreds of Syrian refugees, even unaccompanied children, and forced them back to northern Syria,” said Nadia Hardman, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Although Turkey provided temporary protection to 3.6 million Syrian refugees, it now looks like Turkey is trying to make northern Syria a refugee dumping ground.”
Recent signs from Turkey and other governments indicate that they are considering normalizing relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In May 2022, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey announced that he intends to resettle one million refugees in northern Syria, in areas not controlled by the government, even though Syria remains unsafe for returning refugees. Many of those returned are from government-controlled areas, but even if they could reach them, the Syrian government is the same one that produced over six million refugees and committed grave human rights violations against its own citizens even before uprisings began.
The deportations provide a stark counterpoint to Turkey’s record of generosity as host to more refugees than any other country in the world and almost four times as many as the whole European Union (EU), for which the EU has provided billions of Euros in funding for humanitarian support and migration management.
Between February and August, Human Rights Watch interviewed by phone or in person inside Turkey 37 Syrian men and 2 Syrian boys who had been registered for temporary protection in Turkey. Human Rights Watch also interviewed seven relatives of Syrian refugee men and a refugee woman whom Turkish authorities deported to northern Syria during this time.
Human Rights Watch sent letters with queries and findings to the European Commission, the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs, and the Turkish Interior Ministry. Human Rights Watch received a response from Bernard Brunet, of the EU’s Directorate-General for Neighborhood and Enlargement Negotiations. The content of this letter is reflected in the section on removal centers.
Turkish officials deported 37 of the people interviewed to northern Syria. All said they were deported together with dozens or even hundreds of others. All said they were forced to sign forms either at removal centers or the border with Syria. They said that officials did not allow them to read the forms and did not explain what the forms said, but all said they understood the forms to be allegedly agreeing to voluntary repatriation. Some said that officials covered the part of the form written in Arabic with their hands. Most said they saw authorities at these removal centers processing other Syrians in the same way.
Many said that they saw Turkish officials beat other men who had initially refused to sign, so they felt they had no choice. Two men detained at a removal center in Adana said they were given the choice of signing a form and going back to Syria or being detained for a year. Both chose to leave because they could not bear the thought of a year in detention and needed to support their families.
Ten people were not deported. Some were released and warned that if they did not move back to their city of registration they would be deported if found elsewhere. Others managed to contact lawyers through the intervention of family members to help secure their release. Several are still in removal centers waiting for a resolution to their case, unaware why they are being detained and fearing deportation. Those released described life in Turkey as dangerous, saying that they are staying at home with their curtains closed and limiting movement to avoid the Turkish authorities.
Deportees were driven to the border from removal centers, sometimes in rides lasting up to 21 hours, handcuffed the whole way. They said they were forced to cross border checkpoints at either Öncüpınar/Bab al-Salam or Cilvegözü/Bab al-Hawa, which lead to non-government- controlled areas of Syria. At the checkpoint, a 26-year-old man from Aleppo recalled a Turkish official telling him, “We’ll shoot anyone who tries cross back.”
In June 2022, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said that 15,149 Syrian refugees had voluntarily returned to Syria so far this year. The local authorities who control Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam border crossings respectively publish monthly numbers of people crossing through their checkpoints from Turkey to Syria. Between February and August 2022, 11,645 people were returned through Bab al-Hawa and 8,404 through Bab al-Salam.
Turkey is bound by treaty and customary international law to respect the principle of nonrefoulement, which prohibits the return of anyone to a place where they would face a real risk of persecution, torture or other ill-treatment, or a threat to life. Turkey must not coerce people into returning to places where they face serious harm. Turkey should protect the basic rights of all Syrians, regardless of where they are registered and should not deport refugees who are living and working in a city other than where their temporary protection ID and address are registered.
On October 21, Dr. Savaş Ünlü, head of the Presidency for Migration Management, responded by letter to Human Rights Watch's letter of October 3 sharing this report's findings. Emphasizing that Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, Dr. Ünlü rejected Human Rights Watch's findings in their totality, calling the allegations baseless. Setting out the services provided by law to people seeking protection in Turkey, he underscored that Turkey “carries out migration management in accordance with national and international law.”
“The EU and its member states should acknowledge that Turkey does not meet its criteria for a safe third country and suspend its funding of migration detention and border controls until forced deportations cease,” Hardman said. “Declaring Turkey a ‘safe third country’ is inconsistent with the scale of deportations of Syrian refugees to northern Syria. Member states should not make this determination and should focus on relocating asylum seekers by increasing resettlement numbers.”
Human Rights Watch focused on the deportation of Syrian refugees who had been recognized by Turkey’s temporary protection regime but whom authorities nevertheless deported or threatened with deportation to Syria in 2022. All 47 Syrian refugees whose cases were examined had been living and working in cities across Turkey, the majority in Istanbul, before they were arrested, detained, and in most cases deported. All detainees are identified with pseudonyms for their protection.
All but two had a Turkish temporary protection ID permit when they lived in Turkey, commonly called a kimlik, which protects Syrian refugees against forced return to Syria. Several said they had both a temporary protection ID and a work permit.
Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Migrants in Turkey
Turkey shelters over 3.6 million Syrians and is the world’s largest refugee-hosting country. Under a geographical limitation that Turkey has applied to its accession to the UN Refugee Convention, Syrians and others coming from countries to the south and east of Turkey’s borders are not granted full refugee status. Syrian refugees are registered under a “temporary protection” regulation, which Turkish authorities say automatically applies to all Syrians seeking asylum.
Turkey’s Temporary Protection Regulation grants Syrian refugees access to basic services including education and health care but generally requires them to live in the province in which they are registered. Refugees must obtain permission to travel between provinces. In late 2017 and early 2018, Istanbul and nine provinces on the border with Syria suspended registration of newly arriving asylum seekers.
In February 2022, Turkey’s Deputy Interior Minister Ismail Çataklı said applications for temporary and international protection would not be accepted in 16 provinces: Ankara, Antalya, Aydın, Bursa, Çanakkale, Düzce, Edirne, Hatay, Istanbul, Izmir, Kırklareli, Kocaeli, Muğla, Sakarya, Tekirdağ, and Yalova. He also said residency permit applications by foreigners would not be accepted in any neighborhood in which 25 percent or more of the population consisted of foreigners. He reported that registration had already been closed in 781 neighborhoods throughout Turkey because foreigners in those locations exceeded 25 percent of the population.
In June, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu announced that from July 1 onward, the proportion would be reduced to 20 percent and the number of neighborhoods closed to foreigners’ registration increased to 1,200, with cancellation of temporary protection status of Syrians who traveled in the country without applying for permission. Many interviewees explained that they could not find employment in their city of registration and could not survive there but could find work in Istanbul.
Rising Xenophobia in Turkey
Over the past two years, there has been an increase in racist and xenophobic attacks against foreigners, notably against Syrians. On August 11, 2021, groups of Turkish residents attacked workplaces and homes of Syrians in a neighborhood in Ankara a day after a Syrian youth stabbed and killed a Turkish youth in a fight.
In the lead-up to general elections in spring 2023, opposition politicians have made speeches that fuel anti-refugee sentiment and suggest that Syrians should be returned to war-torn Syria. President Erdoğan’s coalition government has responded with pledges to resettle Syrians in Turkish-occupied areas of northern Syria.
Most of those interviewed were arrested on the streets of Istanbul, and others during raids in their workplaces or homes. The arresting officials sometimes introduced themselves as Turkish police officers, and all demanded to see the refugees’ identification documents.
Under Turkey’s temporary protection regulation, Syrian refugees are required to live in the province where they first register as refugees. Seventeen of these 47 refugees were living and working in their city of registration, while the rest were living and working in a different province.
Five refugees said they were arrested because of complaints or spurious allegations from neighbors or employers, ranging from making too much noise to being a terrorist. All refugees said these accusations had no foundation. Four of them were acquitted, released, or deported; one man is still being investigated.
On arrest, Syrian refugees were either taken to local police stations for a short period or directly to a removal center, usually Tuzla Removal Center in Istanbul. Other removal centers included were in Pendik, Adana, Gaziantep, and Urfa. In all cases, Turkish officials confiscated the Syrians’ telephones, wallets, and other personal belongings.
The authorities refused refugees’ requests to call their family members or lawyers. One man who asked to speak to a lawyer said an officer at the police station said, “‘Did you commit any crime?’ When I said ‘no,’ he said, ‘Then you don’t need to call a lawyer.’”
All said the Turkish authorities kept them in cramped, unsanitary rooms in various removal centers. Beds were limited and interviewees said they often had to share them. Refugees said they were usually divided according to nationality and were generally held with other Syrians. Boys under 18 were detained with adult men.
Migrants and refugees held in a basketball court for hours while waiting for a cell in Tuzla Removal Center in June 2022. © 2022 private
While some removal centers had better conditions than others, all interviewees described a lack of adequate food and access to washroom facilities, as well as other unsanitary conditions. In Tuzla, where the majority of interviewees passed through, Syrians described being held outside in areas described as “basketball courts” for hours on end while waiting to be assigned a space, which was usually inside a cramped metal container.
“Ahmad” described conditions at Tuzla Removal Center, where he was detained alongside unrelated children in overcrowded metal containers:
There were six beds in my cell and two or three people had to share each bed, and in my cell, one kid was 16 and one was 17. At first there were 15 of us [in the cell] but then they added more people. We stayed 12 days without taking a shower because they didn’t have one.
Beatings and Ill-Treatment
All interviewees said Turkish officials in the removal centers either assaulted them or they witnessed officials kicking or beating other Syrians with their hands or wooden or plastic batons. “Fahad,” a 22-year-old man from Aleppo, described the beatings in Tuzla Removal Center:
I was beaten in Tuzla…. I dropped my bread by accident and I tried to pick it up from the floor. An officer kicked me and I fell down. He started to beat me with a wooden stick. I couldn’t defend myself. I witnessed beatings of other people. In the evening if people smoked they were beaten. They [the guards] were always humiliating us. One man was smoking … and five guards started to beat him very hard and they made his eye black and blue and beat his back with a stick. And everyone who tried to intervene was beaten.
“Ahmad,” a 26-year-old man from Aleppo, said Turkish police arrested him at his workplace, a tailor shop in Istanbul, and took him to Tuzla Removal Center where he was severely beaten on multiple occasions:
I was beaten in Tuzla three times; the last time was the harshest for me. I was arguing about the fact that I should be allowed to go out of the doors of the prison, I should have been allowed time for breaks. So they [the guards] cursed me and insulted me and my family. I said I would complain to their director. I was beaten on my face with a wooden stick, and they [the guards] broke my teeth.
Ahmad was eventually deported to northern Syria through the Bab al-Salam border crossing and is now staying in Azaz city, currently under the control of the Turkey-backed Syrian Interim Government, an opposition group, as he cannot cross into Syrian government-controlled Aleppo city because he is wanted by the Syrian army. “I fled the war [in Syria] because I am against violence,” he said. “Now they [the Turkish authorities] sent me back here. I just want to be in a safe place.”
“Hassan,” a 27-year-old former political prisoner and survivor of torture from Damascus, was arrested at his house when his neighbors complained about the noise coming from his apartment. He spent a few months being transferred between various removal centers. At the last one, he was told to sign a voluntary return form. When he refused to sign, Hassan said, “I was put inside a cage, like a cage for a dog. It was metal … approximately 1.5 meters by one meter. When the sun hit the cage it was so hot.”
When he was first arrested, Hassan managed to contact his wife before his phone was confiscated. She found a lawyer who helped secure his release.
Forced to Sign “Voluntary Return” Forms
Many deportees said Turkish officials – either removal center guards, or officials they described as “police” or “jandarma” interchangeably – used violence or the threat of violence to force them into signing “voluntary” return forms.
Human Rights Watch gathered testimony indicating deportees were forced to sign “voluntary return” forms at removal centers in Adana, Tuzla, Gaziantep, and Diyarbakır, and a migration office in Mersin.
“Mustafa,” a 21-year-old man from Idlib, was arrested on the streets in the Esenyurt neighborhood of Istanbul. After several days in a removal center in Pendik, he was transferred to Adana, where he was put in a small cell with 33 other Syrian men for a night. In the morning, Mustafa said, a jandarma officer came to take detainees separately to another room:
When my turn came, they took two of us into a room where there were four officials: a jandarma, a plain-clothed man, the [Adana Removal Center] migration director, and a translator. I saw three people sitting on the floor under the table who had been taken earlier from our cell and their faces were swollen.
The translator asked the man who was with me to sign some papers, but when he saw one was a voluntary return form he didn’t want to sign. The jandarma and the plain-clothed guy started beating him with their hands and their batons and kicked him. After about 10 minutes they tied his hands and moved him next to the men already on the floor under the table. The translator asked me if I wanted to taste what the others had tasted before me. I said no and signed the paper.
Mustafa was later deported from Cilvegözü/Bab al-Hawa border crossing and is now staying in al-Bab city in northern Aleppo province.
Syria Remains Unsafe for Returns
Most people interviewed said they originated from government-controlled areas in Syria. They said they could not cross from the opposition-controlled areas of northern Syria to their places of origin for fear Syrian security agencies would arbitrarily arrest them and otherwise violate their rights. Those deported to northern Syria told Human Rights Watch they felt “stuck” there, unable to go to home or to forge a life amid the instability of clashes in northern Syria.
“I cannot go back to Damascus because it is too dangerous,” said “Firaz,” 31, in a telephone interview, who is from the Damascus Countryside and was deported from Turkey in July 2022 and is now living in Afrin in northern Syria. “There is fighting and clashes [in Afrin]. What do I do? Where do I go?”
In October 2021, Human Rights Watch documented that Syrian refugees who returned to Syria between 2017 and 2021 from Lebanon and Jordan faced grave human rights abuses and persecution at the hands of the Syrian government and affiliated militias, demonstrating that Syria is not safe for returns.
While active hostilities may have decreased in recent years, the Syrian government has continued to inflict the same abuses onto citizens that led them to flee in the first place, including arbitrary detention, mistreatment, and torture. In September, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria once again concluded that Syria is not safe for returns.
In addition to the fear of arrest and persecution, 10 years of conflict have decimated Syria’s infrastructure and social services, resulting in massive humanitarian needs. Over 13 million Syrians needed humanitarian assistance as of early 2021. Millions of people in northeast and northwest Syria, many of whom are internally displaced, rely on the cross-border flow of food, medicine, and other lifesaving assistance.
Turkey is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the European Convention on Human Rights, both of which prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and inhuman and degrading treatment. If Turkey detains a person to deport them but there is no realistic prospect of doing so, including because they would face harm in the destination country, or the person is unable to challenge their removal, the detention is arbitrary.
Turkey’s treaty obligations under the European Convention, the ICCPR, the Convention Against Torture, and the 1951 Refugee Convention also require it to uphold the principle of nonrefoulement, which prohibits the return of anyone to a place where they would face a real risk of persecution, torture or other ill-treatment, or a threat to life.
Turkey 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. It is important that it also applies to refugees who have sought employment outside the province in which they are registered. Children should never be detained for reasons solely related to their immigration status, or detained alongside unrelated adults.
EU Funding of Turkey’s Migration Management
The implementation of the March 2016 EU-Turkey deal, which aimed to control the number of migrants reaching the EU by sending them back to Turkey, is based on the flawed premise that Turkey would be a safe third country to which to return Syrian asylum seekers. However, Turkey has never met the EU’s safe third country criteria as defined by EU law. The recent violent deportations show that any Syrian forcibly returned from the EU to Turkey would face a risk of onward refoulement to Syria.
In June 2021, the Greek government adopted a Joint Ministerial Decision determining that Turkey was safe third country for asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Somalia.
Turkey’s removal centers have been constructed and maintained with significant funding from the European Union. Prior to 2016, under the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA I and IPA II), the EU provided more than €89 million for the construction, renovation, or other support of removal centers in Turkey. Some €54 million of this funding in 2007 and 2008 was for the construction of seven removal centers in six provinces with a capacity for 3,750 people. In 2014, it provided another €6.7 million for renovation and refurbishment of 17 removal centers. In 2015, the EU provided about €29 million for the construction of six new removal centers with a capacity for 2,400 people.
Following the first €3 billion committed to Turkey as part of the EU-Turkey deal of March 2016, the EU’s Facility for Refugees in Turkey (FRiT) provided €60 million to the then-Directorate General for Migration Management to “support Turkey in the management, reception and hosting of migrants, in particular irregular migrants detected in Turkey, as well as migrants returned from EU Member States territories to Turkey.” This funding was used for the construction and refurbishment of the Çankırı removal center and for staffing 22 other removal centers.
The EU provided another €22.3 million to the DGMM for improving services and physical conditions in removal centers, including funding for “the safe and organized transfer of irregular migrants and refugees within Turkey,” and €3.5 million for “capacity-building assistance aimed at strengthening access to rights and services.”
On December 21, 2021, the European Commission announced a €30 million financing decision to support the Turkish Interior Ministry’s Presidency of Migration Management’s “capacity building and improving the standards and conditions for migrants in Turkey’s hosting centers … to improve the management of reception and hosting centers in line with human rights standards and gender-sensitive approaches” and to ensure “safe and dignified transfer of irregular migrants.”
To the Turkish government:
End arbitrary arrests, detention, and deportation of Syrian refugees to northern Syria.
Ensure that members of security forces and immigration officials do not use violence against Syrians or other detained foreign nationals and hold any officials using violence to account.
Independently investigate actions to force, deceive, or falsify the signing or imprint of migrants’ fingerprints on “voluntary return” forms.
Allow the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to freely access removal centers, monitor the process of obtaining Syrians’ permission to return them to Syria to make certain it is voluntary, and observe interviews and removal procedures to ensure that police or immigration officials do not use violence against Syrians or other foreign nationals.
To the European Commission:
Publicly clarify that Turkey is not a safe third country under the criteria set out in Article 38 of the EU Asylum Procedures Directive.
Press Greece to repeal the Joint Ministerial Decision deeming Turkey a safe third country, and should it fail to do so in a reasonable time frame, pursue legal action.
Publicly call on Greece to re-examine all inadmissibility decisions based on the safe third country concept in relation to all Syrian asylum seekers.
Ask the European Union’s Agency for Asylum to prepare a new Turkey Country of Origin report relevant for safe third country designation and ensure that this includes the situation of third country nationals in Turkey, including people transiting through or seeking international protection in Turkey.
Make any EU funding of removal centers contingent on full and unhindered access of UNHCR and EU monitoring staff and other independent observers, including access to interview detainees to assess the voluntariness of return.
Develop a public human rights impact assessment and press Turkey to allow an independent reporting mechanism to ensure that EU funding for border management and for Turkey’s removal centers does not contribute to or perpetuate human rights violations.
Report publicly, including in the context of the annual report on Turkey, on Turkish authorities’ actions to deport Syrian refugees unlawfully and to force or coerce the signing of “voluntary return” forms in removal centers, including those which received EU funding.
Publicly call on Turkey to stop the deportations and allow UNHCR to monitor whether detained Syrians wish to remain in Turkey or voluntarily return to Syria.