Border killings and deportation: is Turkey really safe for refugees?

By Yavuz Yazvuz

Since the “refugee-swap” deal was signed between the Turkish government and the EU in March, a key concern voiced by rights groups has been whether Turkey qualifies as a safe third-country: if it does not, then the deal and the dealmakers may have violated international law. Recent killings of Syrians crossing into Turkey have heightened concerns that this may be the case.

The treatment of Syrian refugees on and within Turkey’s borders has called into question its classification as a safe third country. Source: Henry Ridgwell, Voice of America News / Wikimedia Commons

The treatment of Syrian refugees on and within Turkey’s borders has called into question its classification as a safe third country.
Source: Henry Ridgwell, Voice of America News / Wikimedia Commons

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), in the first three months of 2016 alone, at least 16 Syrian refugees were shot dead by Turkish border guards. The watchdog reported a further eight Syrians, and possibly more, shot dead in a single incident in mid-June. Such incidents heighten ethical and legal concerns that have dogged the EU-Turkey refugee deal since its inception.

Confronted with the most serious displacement crisis since World War II, the deal was designed to curb the influx of asylum-seekers into the EU. It provided for the return to Turkey of refugees crossing to the Greek islands and came to be known as the “refugee-swap deal.” For each refugee sent back to Turkey, one refugee would be legally accepted into the EU.

The deal contributed to a certain decline in irregular arrivals into Europe at first: according to the EU border agency Frontex, irregular arrivals in Greece dropped number by as much as 90 percent between March and April. One effect of this was to push refugees to take more dangerous flight routes such as the one through Libya to Italy. The organization Watch the Med, which monitors refugee movements across the Mediterranean, recorded 400 deaths on this route on May 27.

Even before such results became evident, the deal drew criticism from rights groups questioning the assumption that Turkey is a safe third country. Their assessment may be borne out: Turkey seems to be failing in its duty to protect those asylum seekers who are not taken into the EU.

A bad start for refugee law

International organizations and human rights groups criticized the EU-Turkey deal on the basis that it violates international law, specifically because of Turkey’s controversial de-facto classification as a “safe” third country. International refugee law stipulates that EU countries can only legally send asylum-seekers to countries deemed to be safe.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Regional Refugee Coordinator for the Refugee Crisis in Europe, Vincent Cochetel, voiced his doubts about the deal early on. Cochetel stated that “[t]he collective expulsion of foreigners is prohibited under the European Convention of Human Rights.” Amnesty International’s was one of the harshest criticisms: John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Director for Europe and Central Asia stated that “Turkey is not a safe country for refugees and migrants, and any return process predicated on its being so will be flawed, illegal and immoral.” Human Rights Watch also expressed concerns about how “safe” Turkey is for refugees by saying that “Turkey does not meet the […] basic conditions for a safe country of asylum.”

For a state to meet these conditions, it must offer a genuine chance for effective protection, and guarantee that the refugees will not be sent back to their country of origin or another country where they might face risks to their lives and liberties. This is the non-refoulement condition, and is enshrined in the 1951 Geneva Convention of the Status of Refugees, to which Turkey and the EU member states are signatories.

Because the EU-Turkey deal is based on Turkey being considered de-facto a safe country, the EU itself risks violating international law as the principle of a safe third country paves the way for expulsion of non-Syrian asylum seekers from Europe to Turkey without an individual assessment of the conditions they leave under. This not only breaches the principle of non-refoulement, it is also a violation of the right to seek asylum.

Forced expulsions, shootings

Considered in these terms, criticisms from international organizations towards Turkey’s treatment of refugees or asylum-seekers are beginning to seem prescient. In April, Amnesty International documented forced returns of Syrian men, women and children, rounded up and expelled “on a near-daily basis” since January. The organization also reported around 30 Afghan asylum seekers forcibly returned just hours after the deal came into effect.. Human Rights Watch reported Syrians being ill-treated and pushed back over the border in November 2015, when the deal was still being negotiated.

Added to this is the recorded incidence of border guards shooting at Syrians trying cross to Turkey from Syria, including the latest killings of Syrians fleeing from Jarabulus in mid-June this year. The SOHR reported that of the eight Syrian refugees shot dead, three were children. Despite denials from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the eyewitness account of a Syrian woman who told an activist of her ordeal in a video released to the BBC suggest that the allegations of border guards shooting to kill are true. This kind of incident is not a recent phenomenon – rights groups have been reporting abuses and shootings by border guards since at least 2013.

While this is the most pressing problem Turkey has to deal with in its fulfilling its duty to safeguard refugees’ lives, it is not limited to the border itself. Despite EU leaders’ claims that the bloc is sending refugees into an environment where they are safe from threats to their lives, there is evidence to suggest that Turkey has been unable to sufficiently protect the lives of refugees. Four Syrian journalists were killed in Turkey by ISIS from October 2015 to April 2016, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. This begs the question of Turkey’s ability to protect refugees within its borders, further casting doubt on its reliability as an EU partner in dealing with Syrian refugees humanely and in accordance with international law.

Between the border and a hard place

Refugees who continue their lives in Turkey already grapple with harsh conditions, especially when it comes to work. The severity of the conditions they face has lead to the expansion of child labor and increasing exploitation. Although a law enabling the legal employment of Syrian refugees was enacted in January this year, work permits are only granted to those who have had a Turkish identity card for at least six months and who have a contract with their employer. On the surface this appears a positive step, but the increase in undocumented employment during the years of refugee influx into Turkey before this law was introduced, presents a serious obstacle to most refugees. The majority had no possibility of working legally up to now and thus do not have identity cards or contracts. Employers have also proved unwilling to provide such contracts, preferring the flexibility of hiring illegal workers.

It is evident that despite all its generosity in welcoming more refugees than any other country, Turkey’s claim of providing the basic level of safety for them remains controversial. This also applies to the refugees who are returned in the context of the agreement between EU and Turkey, who are reportedly being detained indefinitely in poor conditions.

In spite of the declining number of refugees trying to reach Europe through perilous networks, and persistent concerns over their wellbeing under the agreement between the EU and Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling AK Party have been using the deal to score political points internationally and at home. The government has also utilized the agreement to avoid the international community’s oversight of Turkey’s worsening human rights record, as arrests of lawyers, journalists, and academics continue, against the backdrop of the renewed conflict with the outlawed PKK.

Under these circumstances, it is questionable whether Turkey can – or should – bear the burden of hosting Syria’s refugees alone. Despite the voices raised by rights groups, international organizations and even Greek courts denouncing Turkey’s status as a safe country, the question of how long the EU will keep passing the buck instead of resolving the worst refugee crisis in 70 years more humanely continues to loom large.

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