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Survivors of Fatal Shipwreck Accuse Turkey of Illegally Deporting Them Back to Syria and Iraq

Some of the refugees who survived the sinking of a boat that killed at least 22 off Turkey told VICE News that they've been kept in grim conditions and then coercing them home, against international law.
Photo via AP

Turkish authorities coerced refugees detained after a fatal shipwreck to return to war-torn Syria and banned them from re-entering Turkey, several survivors have said, in an apparent violation of international law.

At least three families are now in the north of the country after being given the choice of return or indefinite detention in grim conditions, a number of those involved told VICE News. Many more claim to have also been threatened with deportation.

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They were part of a group of around 150 people being held at Düziçi camp in southern Osmaniye province after a boat on which they were attempting to reach the Greek island of Lesbos from Bodrum in western Turkey foundered and partially sank in the early hours of September 15, killing at least 22, including several children. A coastguard statement reported by local media said that 249 people were rescued during the incident.

Asya (whose name has been altered for her protection) told VICE News via phone late on Thursday that she had recently arrived back in her hometown of Aleppo with her family after spending four days in Düziçi and being given the choice of staying with no chance of leaving or returning to Syria via the Bab al-Salam or Bab al-Hawa border crossings. A number of others held with her gave similar accounts.

Aleppo has seen some of the heaviest fighting in Syria's brutal conflict and rebel-held areas are subject to constant bombardment from government forces.

Asya and her family elected to use Bab al-Salam, which links the Turkish town of Kilis with Azaz across the border in Syria. Before leaving Turkey, she says, they were issued with papers featuring their pictures and IDs indicating that they could not re-enter Turkey, then made to sign another paper promising not to come back.

After crossing the border, they then made a 19-hour journey, mostly by bus, to Aleppo via Afrin, which included passing through checkpoints held by Syrian al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra.

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'They said, "We are deporting you whether you like it or not, and you will not be allowed to ever come back to Turkey."'

Forcibly returning refugees to countries where their lives or freedoms are at risk, known as refoulement, violates both the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and 1951 Refugee Convention, which Turkey has ratified, Amnesty International says. This also applies to forcing refugees to return with the threat of indefinite detainment. The rights group adds that detaining the refugees in Duzici appears to be arbitrary, another violation of international law.

Turkey's Ministry of Interior has not responded to VICE News' request for comment. Amnesty has also issued an urgent action on the matter after the rights group spoke to an Iraqi man who has returned to Baghdad and is now in hiding.

"Forcing refugees and asylum-seekers back to conflict zones violates international law and shows a complete disregard for human life. They must release all remaining asylum-seekers and refugees from the camp and grant them protection," said Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International's researcher on Turkey.

The stricken boat itself, an old wooden craft that was packed with Iraqis and Syrians had been at sea for around an hour before being intercepted by a coastguard vessel, which allegedly fired shots in its direction. It subsequently began taking on water, and eventually sank before a larger ship arrived to rescue the survivors.

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Most of the group were held at a gendarmerie facility in Bodrum, where many reported being provided with no shelter and sleeping on the road. Two days later at least 150 were transferred the more than 600 miles to Düziçi against their will and with no idea where they were being taken.

Once there, many reported poor conditions in the camp and one man died of unknown causes. Asya described squalid trailers, each holding two families and containing only two mattresses, two pillows, and a small bathroom between them. Food rations, she adds, were meager.

'Trust me, the bombs of Aleppo are much easier than this'

"We lost our shoes and our suitcases when the boat sank, so the entire six days, my husband and kids were without shoes. It was so embarrassing for my husband to arrive back to Aleppo without shoes on his feet," she said.

"And it was so cold for the kids to walk around with no shoes. There was too much rain, and we were very cold. My kids were freezing." She begged guards for blankets, she added, but to no avail.

Some of the Iraqis in the group were released on the condition that they return home within a month. One man who spoke with VICE News by phone on his way back to Baghdad also described the camp.

"We had five days of mistreatment. There wasn't enough food. There were caravans to stay in, but no blankets. There were sick people with us. People who have heart disease, or diabetes would not receive their necessary medication. Last night, they let me go. And today another batch of Iraqis is leaving… They said, 'We are deporting you whether you like it or not, and you will not be allowed to ever come back to Turkey.' They said that knowing that we escaped our countries due to the oppression and war we were living under."

Amnesty also considers Iraq a country where people are at serious risk of human rights violations or abuses.

Others who spent time in the camp spoke of violations of privacy and abuse. Asya described one incident where a guard had intruded on her young daughter as they used a bathroom and yelled at them both. "This is a type of humiliation that I had never expected to experience in my life," she said. "Trust me, the bombs of Aleppo are much easier than this."

Naima Hammoud contributed to this report.