Turkey has been implementing strict enforcement measures since March 2015 to seal off its border with Syria and stop smuggling, illegal migration and terrorist attacks. While these measures failed to secure Turkey’s border, they forced desperate Syrians to use dangerous, illegal routes in search of a safe haven.
Entering Turkey illegally has been the only way for the majority of Syrians crossing over since 9 March 2015, when Turkish authorities closed the last two border crossings with Syria. The closing of Turkey’s border went nearly unnoticed as it was announced as a temporary measure. The Syrian opposition has also avoided criticizing Turkey because it is a strategic ally and because Turkey hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees, more than 3 million. Moreover, EU countries look favourably upon measures that might control the flow of illegal refugees, especially since Turkey is a central route through which Syrians have attempted to reach Europe.
Although these border gates were allegedly closed temporarily as a security precaution, the gates remained shut, making it impossible for Syrians to cross legally. On 13 August 2015, Turkey also began building a three-metre-high wall, reinforced with four-metre ditches, to physically secure its 900-kilometre border with Syria. Additionally, on 8 January 2016, Turkey started implementing visa restrictions for Syrians entering the country by air or by sea. This shows that the new procedures are not focused solely on security threats but also on preventing more Syrians from entering the country, which is a dramatic shift in Turkey’s previous open-door policy.
Despite these measures, Turkey has not been able to stop terrorist attacks on its soil. ISIS has been able to carry out multiple suicide attacks in different Turkish cities. Some of those attacks targeted Turkish citizens such as the attack on a wedding celebration in the southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep, which killed at least 54 people. Other attacks targeted Syrian activists and opposition figures living in Turkey.
Closing Turkey’s border has also turned Syria into a trap in which there is no place to turn to for refuge. Jordan has not allowed Syrians to enter for over four years except in rare, exceptional cases. Since January 2015, Lebanon has also made it extremely difficult for Syrians to enter and even more difficult to stay there legally.
Turkey is, therefore, seen by many Syrians as the only chance of starting a new, safe life. Thus, despite all the challenges and risks that come with entering Turkey illegally, many Syrians, especially residents of northern Syria, have continued to reach Turkey through smuggling routes. The current rate for a ‘less risky’ smuggling road to Turkey is $1,500 per person, which is a huge amount for the vast majority of Syrians. Therefore, people keep trying other smuggling roads that are cheaper and riskier.
Stories of families that crossed the border illegally to try to secure a safe refuge in Turkey show that they face more than just the prospect of being sent back. A friend of mine who works with a Turkish humanitarian NGO in Urfa, southeastern Turkey, told me he found two girls — seven and nine years old — while working near the Turkish border. They were crying and walking with no place to go after they had been separated from the rest of their family, which had been trying to cross illegally. He also told me another story about a mother who left her son in no-man’s-land when guards started shooting at them and she still does not know what has become of him.
It has also become increasingly common to read of people getting killed while trying make it to Turkey. Human Rights Watch released a report in April 2016 documenting cases in which Turkey used live ammunition to keep Syrian refugees from crossing to Turkey. Similarly, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the killing of between eight and 11 family members, including four children, who were shot dead by Turkish soldiers while trying to escape the fighting in northern Syria. However, Turkey continues to deny that it has been killing Syrians trying to cross into its territory.
The negative consequences of such actions go beyond internal displacement and refugees. They are also harming Syrian activists, journalists and civil society actors who have used Turkey as a base to receive training, to meet donors, and to advocate, network and coordinate. Such a loss will affect the present dynamics of Syria as well as its future.
It is important to acknowledge the generous hospitality Turkey has shown and continues to show Syrians. However, border security is no excuse for depriving Syrians of refuge and by no means does it justify shooting civilians when it is clear that all they seek is their own safety. It also does not exempt Turkey, and other regional and international actors, from their moral responsibility to provide Syrians with legal mechanisms to seek protection.
Haid Haid, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme.