The Turkish authorities have denied entry to injured Syrian civilians in need of immediate medical care, after fleeing the intense bombardment of the northern Aleppo countryside in the past two weeks, according to Amnesty International reports from the Öncüpınar/Bab al-Salam border crossing.
Amnesty International has also documented how Turkish security forces have shot and injured civilians, including children, who out of desperation have attempted to cross the border unofficially with the help of smugglers.
“People we spoke to painted a tragic picture of the desperate situation for the civilians who remain trapped between daily airstrikes and dire humanitarian conditions. Turkey’s highly selective practice is appalling - only severely injured people are allowed entry to seek medical treatment while everyone else fleeing the violence is left unprotected,” said Tirana Hassan, Crisis Response Director at Amnesty International.
“The fact that Turkey is even restricting access to sick and injured Syrians shows how its current border control policies are a far cry from meeting its international obligations to offer protection. The border must remain open to all those fleeing conflict in Syria especially the injured and sick civilians being targeted by daily airstrikes on their homes, hospitals, and schools.
“The international community should step up its support to Turkey and other neighbouring countries dealing with a massive refugee influx.”
Testimonies from doctors and Syrian families with injuries
Testimonies from doctors and carers who were permitted to cross with their injured relatives through the Öncüpınar/Bab al-Salam border gate, as well as witnesses and doctors inside Syria indicate that thousands of Syrians are stranded on the Syrian side of the border in dire conditions.
A doctor from Azaz described to Amnesty International the scramble to try to manage a sharp increase in injuries over past two weeks. Unable to adequately cope with serious but non-life-threatening injuries, they have transferred patients to the Syrian-Turkish border in the hope that they will be treated inside Turkey.
“Because several hospitals are no longer in operation, we are struggling to provide treatment. We do not have enough surgeons or equipment. We are sending the injured in local ambulances to the hospital at the Syrian border crossing in Bab al-Salam requesting that they be transferred to Turkey but most have been turned back because they do not suffer from severe injuries,” the doctor said adding that many other injured civilians remain in Azaz.
Syrian doctors explained to Amnesty International that once injured people arrive at the Bab al-Salam border hospital, Turkish medics select cases to be transferred for treatment in Turkish hospitals. Others are turned back if their injuries are not deemed life-threatening and in need of immediate treatment.
While Turkey has reportedly allowed a few dozen people with urgent medical needs in over the past two weeks, it has denied entry to individuals suffering from chronic diseases, such as cancer and those in need of dialysis, despite the fact that medical facilities in Syria do not have the medication or equipment to adequately treat such cases. Amnesty International could find no evidence to support the claim by the Turkish authorities that 10,000 Syrian refugees had been allowed to cross the Öncüpınar/Bab al-Salam border gate.
Witnesses and Syrian doctors also said that the Turkish authorities do not allow families of those with life-threatening injuries to enter together, in some cases allowing the patient and a carer but leaving the rest of the family, including children, behind. In at least two cases injured parents or children were separated at the border when families were not allowed to cross together.
One mother accompanying her severely injured 11-year-old son to Turkey told Amnesty International how she was separated from him at the border. Despite the boy being wounded in the leg along with her husband in an air strike, he was not permitted to cross the border with the rest of the family: “They [Russian and Syrian forces] had been bombing all day… My husband and 11-year-old son were injured by shrapnel in the legs when an air strike struck a few metres away on 8 February around 1am as we slept. They [Turkish authorities] only allowed me and my three children under five… to cross with my husband in the ambulance leaving my injured son behind because his injuries were not seen as life threatening.”
Another man told Amnesty International that his daughter who was injured by shrapnel in her back from an airstrike in Kal Jabrine on 15 February was not allowed to cross to Turkey with her husband and one-year-old daughter who were both severely injured. The father added that his son-in-law is in intensive care and his granddaughter died from her injuries, but Turkey still denied access to the mother.
Shootings at the border crossing
The doctor from Azaz and a paramedic also told Amnesty International that Syrians who tried to cross the Kilis border irregularly with smugglers have been shot by members of Turkey’s security forces. Over the past two months the Syrian hospitals in Azaz have received on average two cases daily of civilians shot attempting such crossings. In one case a child of around 10 years old was shot in the head. There is no evidence to suggest that armed groups are present in the border area which is also a considerable distance away from the frontlines. Amnesty International has documented many similar such cases during the past two years or more.
“The EU has prioritized ensuring that Turkey keeps refugees out of Europe at the expense of the immediate protection needs of thousands of Syrians fleeing intense, daily bombardments in Aleppo and elsewhere,” said Tirana Hassan.
Tens of thousands trapped
This latest influx of Syrian refugees to Turkey’s border again underlines the need for the EU and others to establish a credible resettlement programme from Turkey, which already accommodates more than 2.6 million Syrian refugees, more than any other country.
Some 58,000 people have arrived in the Bab al-Salam area in the past two weeks according to UN estimates, after fleeing an intense ground and aerial offensive on opposition-held areas of northern Aleppo by Syrian government and allied forces, including Russian armed forces, as well as of the Syrian Democratic Forces which include Arab and Kurdish non-state armed groups.
Some of the attacks appear to have targeted civilian residential areas as well as medical facilities, including in Azaz, north of Aleppo, and close to the border with Turkey. In addition, Amnesty International has reviewed video-clips and other images indicating attacks with inherently indiscriminate cluster munitions on civilian areas in northern Aleppo.
The consequences for those prevented from entering Turkey are aggravated by the lack of adequate medical care inside Syria as a result of ongoing bombings of hospitals and other health care facilities by Russian and Syrian government strikes. At least five medical facilities were hit in Aleppo in January and at least a further four medical facilities on 15 February alone.
“It is clear that countries neighbouring Syria, particularly Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, are under incredible strain from the influx of refugees. However, Turkey must not flout its obligations under international law by turning away injured refugees. Turkey, with the support of the international community including the EU, must grant them immediate protection from the daily bombardment that is happening just a few kilometres away.”
Turkey’s selective entry practices are worsening an already desperate humanitarian crisis at the border, where there has been a significant build-up of people in the past two weeks. Activists in Bab al-Salam told Amnesty International that some families who had fled after their homes were destroyed have resorted to sleeping in cars or on the streets despite the freezing conditions.
Most of Turkey’s official border gates with Syria remain closed. The Turkish authorities only allow seriously injured people, or those with an urgent humanitarian need – usually when fighting comes very close to the border, to cross. In practice this means that almost all Syrian refugees in Turkey have been forced to use difficult and dangerous irregular crossing points with the help of smugglers.
A local Turkish humanitarian organization said 110,000 internally displaced people were already sheltering in eight camps along the Syrian side of the Bab al-Salam border crossing even before the latest influx. A ninth camp is currently under construction but will not be enough to accommodate all the new arrivals.
The flow of people to the Kilis border crossing has reached crisis point. Turkey must open its borders to refugees.
Amnesty International has repeatedly called for the international community to alleviate the burden on Syria’s neighbouring countries through increased humanitarian assistance and resettlement places. Amnesty International is calling for 450,000 of Syria’s most vulnerable refugees to be resettled in Europe, North America and elsewhere by the end of 2016.
The organization believes that anyone from Syria seeking asylum should be considered to be in need of international protection due to the widespread human rights abuses being committed in the conflict including war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Turkey hosts more than 2.6 million Syrian refugees, making it one of the largest refugee hosting countries in the world. In mid-to-late 2015 following the large influx of refugees to the EU through irregular routes from Turkey, the European Union made a deal with Turkey to combat irregular migration across their land and sea borders.