With tension mounting in Idlib, people trying to flee across the border are being given the choice of detention or waiving their right to asylum
Tareq* can recall in detail each of the 22 times he climbed over the concrete border wall, dodged a flurry of bullets, and sprinted as fast as he could – until Turkish border guards caught him and turned him back.
On his 23rd attempt, the soldiers drove the 26-year-old Syrian to a police station called Branch 500 in Hatay. There they presented him with a choice: either stay in prison – for how long, they wouldn’t say – or sign a paper and walk free.
“It’s not like they’re physically putting a gun to your head, but you have no other option,” Tareq says. He signed and the next day he was driven across the border and dropped back where he had started, in Idlib.
It was only when he yet again crossed from Syria into Turkey that he understood the paper’s significance. The Turkish authorities told him what he had signed at Branch 500 waived his claim for asylum protection.
As uncertainty hangs over Syria’s final rebel-controlled enclave, where government and rebel forces are currently in a tense standoff, a Guardian investigation has found that undocumented Syrian refugees in Turkey face arrest, detention and deportation back to the war they fled. Some claim to have been coerced into signing statements saying they were returning of their own free will.
Human rights groups say this is in violation of international law, which prohibits refoulement – sending refugees back to war zones.
“These are clear-cut unlawful deportations because they are refugees – and sending them back amounts to refoulement,” says Gerry Simpson, of Human Rights Watch in Geneva.
Turkey currently hosts more than 3.5 million Syrians – the highest number of refugees in the world – and has long boasted of an “open-door policy” towards Syrians. Now, as Russian and Syrian government forces close in on Idlib province, those trying to escape what is expected to be a bloodbath have found the doors to Turkey closing.
“We will not take responsibility for a wave of migration that may follow attacks in Idlib,” interior minister Süleyman Soylu told reporters in September.
The refugee issue is hotly debated both domestically and amid tense relations with the EU, which gives billions of euros in aid to Turkey for its refugee population. President Tayyip Erdoğan supports hosting Syrians, while opposition parties call for sending them home.
But Turkish police have stepped up checkpoints and raids, arresting Syrians without documents or permits to travel outside the cities where they registered. Provincial authorities have effectively halted registrations for new arrivals, leaving them unable to work legally or even visit a hospital, and vulnerable to arrest.
After having been deported to Syria once already, Ashraf* is now in Istanbul, where he is working as a black market labourer and living with the constant fear of arrest. “I told the officer, ‘Please don’t send me to Idlib. I don’t know anyone there. At least send me to my city, to Daraa,’” says Ashraf.
Shown a “voluntary return form” used by authorities in Branch 500, Ashraf says he recognises it as the same one the police had made him sign before deporting him to Idlib.
Even those with proper documents can be caught up in the system. Samer Tlass, 42, a lawyer from Homs, worked legally at a Syrian NGO in Gaziantep until June 2017, when he was caught in a police raid and taken to Oğuzeli removal centre.
Tlass said authorities at Oğuzeli told Syrians that if they signed voluntary returns, they could leave for Syria the next morning. Tlass refused. After 45 days, he was handed a deportation order for “working without a permit”.
“It’s ironic, I even used to give training on this to Syrians, about the law, and their rights,” Tlass says. “What they are doing is against the law.”
In a letter to the Guardian, Turkey’s migration directorate denied that any deportations were carried out, stating that no Syrians are denied the chance to register or face arrest if they fail to do so.
“According to the prohibition of refoulement, Syrians in our country are not deported in any way,” the letter says.
The Guardian spoke to several Syrians who described the Oğuzeli removal centre in detail. Prison-like, it was converted from a school into a detention facility with EU funding. It now houses 750 people, with detainees held six to a cell. Conditions have been the subject of lawsuits that reached Turkey’s constitutional court. Sources detained there described how buses regularly came and went moving groups of 20-30 people in from other cities and out towards the nearby border.
Turkey typically detains foreigners slated for deportation in one of 19 provincial removal centres managed by the interior ministry. Turkey grants blanket protection to Syrians, even if they have entered the country illegally. Migration officials said that “under no circumstances” are Syrians held in centres. However, the ministry’s own 2017 figures say that more than 50,000 Syrians were apprehended as “illegal migrants”.
Detainees are entitled to legal aid but lawyers working on Syrian cases say that since they are in administrative detention, they can do little except appeal to move the case to an open court – by which time their clients are often gone.
“In many cases, detainees can’t afford the lawyer’s fees, so they just give up and sign the voluntary return form,” says Samer Deyaei, one of a group of Syrian lawyers campaigning for the Oğuzeli detainees.
A UNHCR spokeswoman, Selin Ünal, says that so far this year the UN agency knows of more than 100 detainees at Oğuzeli who were scheduled for deportation to Syria.
“117 is the number of people we are aware of – who reached us,” says Ünal. “There could be any number – we have no idea because we don’t have regular access to these removal centres.”
Each voluntary return form has space for three signatures – one for the person returning, one for authorities, and one for UN staff, the only international observers of the process. UN staff say they try to ensure they are free from coercion, but are restricted.
Authorities claim that 250,000 Syrians have opted to return, and that Branch 500 is the sole facility where they are processed.
UNHCR admits that its staff have overseen only a fraction of those – 11,193 in total – and handed over all asylum registrations to Turkish authorities earlier this month.
A spokesperson for Hatay’s governor admits that undocumented Syrians have been deported after being caught crossing the border “or in cases of crime”, declining to elaborate further.
In October 2016 Turkey amended its temporary protection law to permit deportations in instances where an administrative court deems someone a threat to public order, security or health; or a terror suspect.
“Turkish people commit crimes and they face due process – Syrians commit crimes as well, and for some of them this due process requires them to be deported,” says Harun Armagan, MP for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) . “The number of people being deported is very low.”
Deyaei said Turkish authorities should close legal loopholes that result in people being sent back into a war zone.”
“Of course, Turkey has laws that stipulate what to do with criminals and terrorists,” Deyaei says, “but I’m talking about people who maybe were in the wrong place, wrong time, or have some problem with papers and end up faced with two options: either sign the form or stay in prison – of course this is alarming.”
Turkish courts have sometimes intervened when there is a risk of refoulement, but once the migration directorate issues a deportation order, it is final, Deyaei says. But for Samer Tlass, the only way out was with a visa to France, which he was only lucky enough to get because he had connections with civil society groups abroad.
“When I was imprisoned in Syria for three years, I knew I was guilty for going against the government – but in Turkey I was imprisoned for no reason,” says Tlass. “This is an injustice.”
Shawn Carrié and Asmaa Al Omar