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HRW Calls on Turkey and Iraq to Open Borders to Syrian Refugees

[Human Rights Watch logo. Image from hrw.org] [Human Rights Watch logo. Image from hrw.org]

[The following statement was issued by Human Rights Watch on 14 October 2012.] 

The Iraqi and Turkish authorities should immediately re-open border crossings where more than 10,000 Syrians have been stranded for weeks and allow all those wishing to seek asylum to cross without delay, Human Rights Watch said today. Tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing recent fighting – including in Syria’s Aleppo, Idlib, and Deir el Zor provinces – are attempting to use the crossings to reach Iraq and Turkey quickly and safely.

Since the second half of August 2012, Iraq and Turkey have unlawfully prevented thousands of Syrians from entering their countries through these crossing points. Each country has allowed only a limited number of people to cross, either based on medical emergencies or on arbitrary limits. Blocking people from crossing international borders to claim asylum – whether through formal or informal crossing points – breaches international law, Human Rights Watch said.

“Over 10,000 desperate Syrians fleeing the terror of aerial bombardment and shelling are stuck on the Iraqi and Turkish borders, many living in miserable conditions,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugees researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch. “Iraq and Turkey should keep their borders open at all times to people fleeing threats to their lives and other forms of persecution.”

Human Rights Watch said that Turkey deserves credit and support for hosting almost 100,000 refugees in 14 camps and thousands of other Syrians who live outside camps, but that it is required to keep its borders open to people who want to claim asylum. Donor countries, including the European Union, should provide generous financial and other support to Turkey to establish further camps for Syrians fleeing the conflict, Human Rights Watch said.

On 6 and 9 October, Human Rights Watch met with dozens of Syrians in Syria who were stranded near the Turkish border, all of whom said they fled aerial bombardment and shelling and that they had been stuck at the border for weeks after Turkish border guards said that they could not cross. Some said border guards told them they could not cross because Turkey’s refugee camps were full.


A senior Turkish official told Human Rights Watch that because its refugee camps were at capacity, Turkey was making sure some aid was getting to Syrians inside Syria near Turkey’s border who in Turkey’s view were not in danger of getting caught up in fighting and only needed assistance.

The 1951 Refugee Convention, customary international refugee law, and international human rights law require all countries to respect the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits rejection of asylum seekers at borders that expose them to threats to their lives or freedom.

Human Rights Watch said that Turkey’s obligation to allow anyone to seek asylum meant that a lack of space in refugee camps or assisting Syrians on the Syrian side were not valid reasons for delaying Syrians’ access to Turkey to claim asylum. Syrians should be temporarily accommodated in Iraq and Turkey while they are screened and then allowed to move freely or taken to camps.

“Neither Turkey nor Iraq has any excuse for forcing Syrians to live in difficult and degrading conditions and to risk their lives in places where they risk being bombed from the skies,” Simpson said. “Both countries – if necessary, with additional international help – should immediately provide Syrians with shelter on the safe side of the border before finding a longer term solution for them.”

Sixteen hundred Syrians are living under the gaze of Turkish border guards in a Syrian olive grove next to the border fence close to the Syrian town of Atma, near the Turkish town of Reyhanlı. Appalling conditions caused by heavy rains around 5 October caused thousands of others to leave. Some returned to their home areas, while others took shelter in Atma. According to a number of these people, bad conditions caused by heavy rains led the Turkish authorities to allow about 1,000 to cross into Turkey between 5 and 7 October.


“I was next to the border fence for three weeks,” said a man who had moved into a school in Atma. “Conditions were bad but then it rained and there was water everywhere, in the tents, where we went to the toilet out in the open…I couldn’t stay there with my family so we moved to the school…I am still on the waiting list for people who want to cross to Turkey.”

Overcrowding in Atma’s schools and homes has also led some of the displaced to move to a newly opened camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the nearby Syrian village of Qah, established by Syrians with international funding, local donations, and support from the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), a Turkish nongovernmental group.

Another camp houses 5,500 Syrians inside Syria approximately 50 meters from the Turkey-Syria border crossing at Öncüpınar/Bab al Salaam near Kilis in Turkey. The people living there say they have regularly protested in large numbers at the border fence, unsuccessfully pleading with Turkish border guards to allow them to cross to Turkey.

According to displaced people and local aid workers in Syria, Turkey allowed between 1,000 and 1,300 Syrians to cross near Reyhanlı/Atma in late September and early October, and about 2,000 to cross at the Öncüpınar/Bab al Salaam between late August and early October.

Local aid workers told Human Rights Watch that both countries are allowing the injured and others with urgent medical needs to cross, although in some cases Iraq denied them entry.

As of 8 October, just under 100,000 Syrians in 14 camps had received “temporary protection” in Turkey. Thousands more entering Turkey with passports have been given 3-month visas – which many are believed to have overstayed – that allow them to move freely in Turkey but do not entitle them to any form of support.

On 20 August, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, told the daily newspaper Hürriyet that the UN should establish camps inside Syria, saying Turkey was struggling to look after tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and suggesting that Turkey could accept no more than 100,000.

A senior official in Turkey’s Foreign Affairs Ministry told Human Rights Watch he was aware that large numbers of Syrians are on Turkey’s borders but that he couldn’t confirm they had been prevented from crossing. According to the UN refugee agency, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that in early October there were 12,000 Syrians – 8,000 at the Öncüpınar/Bab al Salaamand 4,000 at the Reyhanlı/Atmaborder crossings – waiting to cross into Turkey who were “being gradually admitted.”

The official also said Turkey was supporting Turkish aid groups taking aid into Syria for Syrians near the border who Turkey believes are not in danger and need only humanitarian assistance. He also appealed to donor countries to help Turkey open more refugee camps to enable Turkey to continue to receive Syrians fleeing their country.

In late September, Human Rights Watch also spoke by phone with Syrians stuck on the Syrian side of the Iraqi border in the Abu Kamal area, opposite the Iraqi town of al-Qaem. They said that they and thousands of others have not been allowed to cross into Iraq since mid-August. UNHCR says that since mid-September, Iraq has allowed only around 100 Syrians to cross each day, while Syrians stuck on the border and aid workers put the number at around 125.

In late August, Iraq’s Ministry of Displacement and Migration told Human Rights Watch that the border was closed pending expansion of Iraq’s al-Qaem refugee camp, which as of 3 October was sheltering around 5,500 Syrians. Other statements by senior officials implying that al-Qaeda operatives would cross with refugees into Iraq suggest that security concerns have driven the recent change in policy. Nevertheless, according to a local aid agency, between 24 September and 10 October an average of about 125 people were allowed to cross every day.

Under Iraq’s new policy, no Syrian men of military age may cross, though in practice some families are allowed to bring one man of military age with them. A local aid official and an official from the Ministry of Displacement and Migration told Human Rights Watch that local authorities and the ministry oppose the order to block military-age men from entering Iraq because it separates hundreds of families, but that their hands are tied because the order comes from senior officials in Baghdad.

As a result of the new policy, the vast majority of those who cross are women and children and some urgent humanitarian cases including wounded, sick, and elderly people.

Almost all Syrian internally displaced people who spoke with Human Rights Watch near the Turkish border said they would immediately cross into Turkey if the border were open because they could not return to the violence engulfing their homes. Only a few said that as long as humanitarian conditions improved they preferred to stay in camps on the Syrian side so they could periodically check on their homes. Displaced people trying to cross the border into Iraq expressed similar views.

Human Rights Watch said that aid agencies are free to set up camps inside Syria. However, given the current widespread and unpredictable violence in Syria camps risked getting caught up in possible future Syrian military attacks in border areas against the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).

A Syrian aid worker in one of the schools in Atma sheltering IDPs told Human Rights Watch, “There is no security, no safety here. If they are hitting border areas in Jordan, and Lebanon, and Turkey, no area is safe in Syria.”

Displaced people in Bab al Salaam in Syria told Human Rights Watch that Syrian fighter planes had flown overhead during the previous two weeks. On 3 October, Syrian mortar fire killed five Turkish civilians and wounded 10 others in the Turkish town of Akçakale, prompting Turkey to return fire on 4 October. The same day, Turkey’s Parliament authorized military operations against Syria and NATO condemned the attack.

A local Syrian working with the displaced in Abu Kamal near the Iraq border said, “Everyone here is worried about the fighting and that we might be bombed. We do not know where they will bomb next. It could be anywhere.”

“Syrians are fleeing appalling violence in increasing numbers only to find themselves stranded in insecure areas,” Simpson said. “Turkey, Iraq, and all other countries where Syrians seek refuge should not deny them protection.”

On the Turkish Border

Syrian aid workers and Syrians stranded on the border told Human Rights Watch that during the last two weeks of August, Turkey closed its border with Syria near the Turkish town of Reyhanlı and the Syrian town of Atma, as well as at the Öncüpınar/Bab al Salaam border crossing near Kilis. Since then, Turkish border guards have only allowed limited numbers of Syrians to cross. Syrian activists who visited crossing points near Karkamış and Yayladağı on the Syrian side of the border also told Human Rights Watch that hundreds of Syrians were stranded there.

Over the past two months, the majority of Syrians fleeing increased fighting in Aleppo and Idlib governorates have tried to cross into Turkey through these border points as they are close to the affected areas. Human Rights Watch visited the first crossings at Reyhanlı and Öncüpınar and confirmed that Syrians were stranded on the Syrian side of the border.

Reyhanlı/Atma Border Crossing

On 9 October, Human Rights Watch met with Syrians at the Reyhanlı/Atma border post that have been unable to cross into Turkey since mid to late-August.

According to local aid workers, 1,600 Syrians are living in makeshift tents set up in late September in olive groves, 100 meters from the border crossing. They live without toilets, running water or electricity and with only basic health services. They depend on a handful of aid agencies for limited food and bottled water. Many told Human Rights Watch they want to remain there to make sure they are first in line to cross if the border is re-opened. Others said they have nowhere else to go.

When the first tents were pitched in late September, approximately 5,000 people were living under the trees but the heavy rains between 5 and 7 October forced 2,500 to leave. Some went home and others to Atma, where they took refuge in schools or with local residents. A number of people said the heavy rains led the Turkish authorities to allow around 1,000 to cross into Turkey between 5 and 7 October.

Some of the displaced and some aid officials also told Human Rights Watch that in late September Turkey invited the Turkish media to film Turkish border officials allowing a few hundred Syrians to cross. But according to Syrians working with the displaced in Atma, hundreds of additional refugees attempted to cross and then were forcibly returned to Syria once the media left.

“We thought we could stay in Turkey,” one displaced person interviewed by Human Rights Watch said. “But after the journalists left the Turks told us only the most vulnerable people could stay and they forced hundreds of us back across the border fence. People were falling over and stepping on each other. It was chaos.”

Two schools now shelter about 1,000 people while about 15,000 are living in the homes of Atma residents in cramped conditions. Syrians assisting the people in the schools said that thousands would immediately cross to Turkey if they could. Many told Human Rights Watch they were waiting to cross.

The Free Syrian Army registers the displaced in two schools in Atma and near the border, and determines who may cross if the border is re-opened. FSA and aid officials said 5,500 were on the list as of 9 October. Those who have waited the longest are first in line to cross if the border opens, although emergency priority is given to the elderly and those with medical needs or other vulnerabilities. Some people trying to cross the border told Human Rights Watch that it was hard to get high up on the list without paying a bribe or using connections.

Because of the poor conditions on the border and overcrowding in Atma, Sheikh Omar Rahmoun, a Syrian from Halfaya Hama, began in early October to set up a makeshift camp on the edge of the Syrian village of Qah, a few kilometers from Atma.

A Syrian aid worker said that through donations from Syrians and Libyans they rented and leveled land from local residents with the capacity to shelter 5,000 people. IHH, the Turkish humanitarian group, has also provided prefabricated containers to serve as washrooms and latrines.

Human Rights Watch witnessed some of the first families arriving in the camp on 9 October. A few had come from the makeshift camp in the olive groves, and some said they had given up trying to cross. Others had just fled artillery and air strikes at home and said they were hoping to cross to Turkey. Some local charity workers said that those in the Qah camp are taken off the border crossing waiting list, while others said that those who wanted to cross could still register.

Öncüpınar/Bab al Salaam Border Crossing

On 6 October, Human Rights Watch met with Syrian displaced people and aid workers on the Syrian side of the Turkey-Syria border at the Öncüpınar/Bab al Salaam border post, where thousands of people have been unable to cross since mid-August. Most said they had been in the camp for weeks.

Mohammed Nur, the spokesperson of the Azaz media office working at the border, told Human Rights Watch that in mid-August IHH started to construct a camp next to the border, where the Syrian and Qatari Red Crescent, as well as Saudi aid workers and Syrian organizations, provide basic assistance. As of October 6, the camp housed 5,500 people, most waiting to cross to Turkey.

Aid workers in the camp said that since mid-August, Turkey has allowed 2,000 Syrians to cross in small groups at various times. As with the FSA border crossing waiting lists in Atma, people who have waited the longest are given priority for crossing, although the most vulnerable are given emergency priority.

One of the people in the camp told Human Rights Watch:

“There was a protest on 3 October and 200 to 300 of us were protesting at the border fence, pleading for them to let cross. The Turks ignored us. It was the seventh protest since I have been here.”

Camp residents told Human Rights Watch that the food in the camp was giving them diarrhea and making them sick. A doctor in the camp said he has ten percent of the medical supplies needed. He added:

“Most of the cases are of children and the elderly. Many are sick from the food because they prepare it in unsanitary conditions, so there are a lot of bacteria and they use a lot of spice, which people are not used to. There is also not enough water for bathing and children are playing in the dirt all day, and infect one another.”

The doctor said Turkey had allowed pregnant women to cross to give birth in Turkey but that Turkish officials then send the women with their babies back to Syria.

Tents in the camp are pitched under one of three hangers or out in the open. A woman said that her daughter was seriously injured after high winds dislodged one of the tents, which struck her head.

A number of people told Human Rights Watch that in the previous two weeks a number of Syrian fighter planes had flown overhead.

On 11 October, Human Rights Watch spoke with a senior Turkish official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who said he was aware large numbers of Syrians were near various parts of the Turkish border. He said Turkey had run out of capacity to look after any more people in the country’s 14 camps for Syrians and that Turkey was working hard to set up two more camps with a capacity to shelter 30,000 people, but needed international support.

The official also said that Turkey believed that many Syrians near the Turkish border were not in any kind of danger and only needed assistance. As a result, in early August Turkey introduced a “zero point delivery system,” helping Turkish groups to deliver assistance to Syrians inside Syria near the Turkish border. As of 11 October, those groups were collecting aid destined for Syria at five border crossings in Turkey: in Kilis (Öncüpına/Bab al Salaam), Gaziantep (Karkamış/Jarablous), Akçakale (Şanlıurfa/Tel Abyad) and Hatay (Cilvegözü/Bab al Hawa and Yayladağı/ al-Yamadiya).

On the Iraq Border

On 3 October, the UN refugee agency said Iraq was host to 36,500 refugees from Syria fleeing the recent conflict, just over 30,000 of whom are in northern Iraq under the jurisdiction of the Kurdistan Regional Government, which has allowed thousands of Kurdish Syrian refugees to cross into its territory.

As of late September, between 500 and 2,000 Syrian families trying to flee to Iraq were stuck on the Syrian side of the borderin the Abu Kamal area, opposite the Iraqi town of al-Qaem, waiting to cross into Iraq. According to local aid agencies, they have been stranded in the area since Iraq closed its border in mid-August and, on 18 September, introduced a daily limit, allowing between 100 and 150 Syrians to cross.

As a result of the new policy and the prohibition on allowing men of military age to cross, the vast majority of those who cross are women and children and some urgent humanitarian cases. On 5 October, UNHCR reported the Iraqi authorities continued to restrict entry to around 100 persons a day – generally women, children under twelve, and men over fifty – and that only 768 had been allowed to cross at the al-Qaim crossing in the previous week.

In late September, Human Rights Watch spoke with aid officials, refugees who recently crossed into Iraq, and with Syrians on the Syrian side of the border in and around the Iraqi town of Abu Kamal.

Many spoke of weeks of fighting in the area. According to media reports, on 8 September, a number of Iraqis were killed in al-Qaem after fighting on the Syrian side spilled into Iraq.

A displaced man who has been trying to cross since late August said:

“Just today, mortars landed around 100 meters from where I am staying in Abu Kamal town. Bashar’s forces control most of the town and there are snipers in the town too so you cannot move around, especially at night.”

Local residents told Human Rights Watch the Syrian military considers anyone, particularly males, from Abu Kamal to be pro-FSA and that displaced men from other parts of Syria waiting to cross into Turkey might be treated as FSA.

As of 8 October, fighting between the Syrian military and the FSA was ongoing in the Abu Kamal area.

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