Dozens of Syrian refugees have been deported to Syria by the Turkish authorities, putting them at risk of serious human rights abuses, Amnesty International has said.
The human rights group said about 80 Syrian refugees who were previously held at a detention centre in the Turkish city of Erzurum had been expelled in violation of the non-refoulement principle of international law, which bans countries from returning refugees to conflict zones where their lives are in danger.
It said another 50 more Syrian refugees were being held at the EU-financed detention centre following their participation in peaceful protests against being banned from entering Greece in September, and all of them faced deportation.
On Sunday the Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, will attend a special summit in Brussels during which the EU hopes to finalise a deal for Turkey to help stem the large numbers of refugees and migrants that have been travelling through its territory on their way to Europe.
Andrew Gardner, Turkey researcher for Amnesty International, said: “Refugees in Turkey are increasingly facing arbitrary detention and forced return to Syria as the government punishes those it perceives as jeopardising its lucrative EU deal.”
Many of the refugees held in Erzurum, the vast majority of whom are Syrians, were detained in September at the main Istanbul bus station and in Edirne, a city close to the Greek and Bulgarian borders, where they had been holding out in the hope of reaching northern Europe by land rather than risk the dangerous sea journey.
Without access to mobile phones or other means of communication, refugees held in the centre were unable to inform family members of their whereabouts. One Syrian woman told the Turkish daily newspaper Cumhuriyet that she was worried that her sister, an engineering student from Aleppo, would be deported to Syria without their knowledge.
Local human rights groups were alerted to the pending deportation of the Syrian refugees by an anonymous police officer. “I told [the refugees] to start a hunger strike or to start a fire inside the facilities in order to draw somebody’s attention,” the officer told local activists. “These people are already desperate, and now they are being further victimised.”
Amnesty documented several cases of Syrian refugees who were beaten in detention, and said the detainees were forced to sign documents prior to their deportation stating that they were leaving Turkey of their own free will.
“But these returns are anything but voluntary,” Gardner said. “Several people have told us that they did not understand what they were signing since the text was in Turkish and no interpreters were present. Some told us that they were locked in a room until they agreed to sign. In other cases police officers literally took their hand and used their fingerprints to act as signature.”
Amnesty said the refugees were denied legal representation or aid, making it impossible for them to challenge their detention and deportation.
It is not the first time that Turkey has deported Syrian refugees. In 2013, hundreds were forcibly returned to Syria following violent protests at a refugee camp in the south-eastern province of Şanliurfa.
Turkey is currently hosting around 2.2 million refugees, the largest such population in the world. Despite international praise for Turkey’s swift response to the influx of Syrians since the beginning of the war in 2011, human rights groups have repeatedly documented the country’s violation of the non-refoulement principle, with people trying to flee to Turkey routinely beaten, shot at and pushed back at the country’s border with Syria.