Hundreds of Syrian refugees who were registered for temporary protection in Turkey have been forcibly deported to Turkish-backed areas of northern Syria in recent months, leaving them in a precarious situation with no safe routes out.
According to Human Rights Watch, Turkish authorities arbitrarily arrested, detained, and deported hundreds of Syrian refugee men and boys to Syria between February and July 2023 Deported Syrians told the rights group 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.
The deportees are now stranded within a closed-off “safe zone” that extends across Raqqa and Hasakah provinces and is controlled by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army. Almost all routes out, including to other parts of northern Syria, are closed, except by way of smugglers.
Mohammad al-Omar, 30, was one of the deportees who spoke to Middle East Eye. He said he was arrested in Istanbul when he was on his way to see his new baby boy for the first time after receiving medical treatment for his kidney disease in the nearby city of Bursa. He was then sent to Tel Abyad, a town near the border with Turkey, where he is now living in a shelter for deportees. His wife and two young children are more than 1,000km away in Istanbul. His sister and extended family are over 200km away in Azaz, Syria. He cannot reach either group of relations.
“I don’t know anyone here, and my health is unstable,” Omar said. “My treatment has been suspended since I was arrested by the Turkish police, and my family is in Istanbul alone.”
Ahmed al-Ibrahim, 18, was another deportee who shared his story with Middle East Eye. He said he was arrested with 10 other young men from a youth hostel in the Turkish city of Konya in early July. The group was forced to sign voluntary return papers after being arrested.
“We were working in Turkey to help our families in Syria,” Ibrahim said. “We didn’t want to go back to Syria. We were afraid of the war and the militias there.”
The deportations come as Turkey faces increasing pressure from its own public and some European countries to reduce the number of refugees it hosts. Turkey is home to more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population in the world. The EU has provided billions of Euros in funding for humanitarian support and migration management to Turkey as part of a deal to curb irregular migration flows to Europe.
However, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to open the borders and allow refugees to head to Europe unless more support is given. He has also announced his intention to resettle one million refugees in northern Syria, in areas not controlled by the Syrian government, even though Syria remains unsafe for returning refugees.
Human Rights Watch said that Turkey’s deportation practices violate international law, which prohibits sending refugees back to places where they would face persecution, torture, or threats to their lives or freedom. The rights group urged Turkey to stop deporting refugees against their will and ensure that any returns are truly voluntary and informed.
“Turkey has generously hosted millions of Syrian refugees for years, but it cannot use them as bargaining chips or send them back to harm,” said Nadia Hardman, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Turkey should respect its international obligations and protect the rights and dignity of all refugees on its territory.”