Turkish border forces have begun shooting Syrians as they make their way across the border, according to a local human rights organisation. The country has previously been criticised for allowing free, illegal movement across its borders. The change of policy is thought to be a response to Western demands to do more to curb terrorist movements and fight Islamic State.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has documented sixteen deaths, including three children, at the hands of Turkish border officers over the last four months, The Times has reported.
However, a local smuggler from the border town of Kilis has told the paper that the true number is thought to be higher as those who fall on the Syrian side of the border are dragged back into the country to be buried within the war-torn country.
The lucky ones, he added, are those who are injured on the Turkish side of the border, as they are taken to Turkish hospitals and allowed to stay.
Among the cases documented by SOHR are that of a man and his child, who were shot at Ras al-Ain, about 100 miles to the north-east of Raqqa, on the Syrian-Turkish border in February.
A month later in early March, two migrants were shot crossing the border at Guvveci, which lies on the western stretch of the border.
The smuggler told The Times that people still cross the border but now they will “either be killed or captured”.
At the height of his trade he was making £500 a week shuttling illicit cigarettes, hashish and people back and forth across the border. Now, he says, business has completely dried up.
“Now I am searching for a job,” he said. “Maybe I’ll open a clothes shop. The smuggling trade is finished.”
Ankara has come under sustained criticism by the West for allowing her southern border to remain so porous for so long. Over the last few years millions of pounds worth of goods – cigarettes, drugs, oil, cars and weapons – have been crossing the border in both directions.
But Western governments are far more concerned about the constant flow of people. Since 2012 Syrians have been able to cross the border without passports, while the government has turned a blind eye to the thousands of foreign nationals streaming in and out of Syria in support of Islamic State.
Now Europe wants to see results on stopping the flow of migrants northwards, while America is demanding action on the fight against the jihadis.
A concrete border fence has gone up to replace flimsy rolls of barbed wire, and more security forces have been drafted in. The recent capture of ten Islamic State fighter, along with a cache of weapons, was lauded in the Turkish media as an example of the policy’s success.
According to The Times it was America’s threats to use the YPG – Kurdish militia – to take back Islamic State’s last remaining border stronghold which enraged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and prompted him to crack down on illicit border crossings.
At a private dinner in Washington earlier this week, Erdoğan ripped into the White House’s regional policy, slamming their support for Kurdish fighters in Syria. While American analysts consider the Kurds their most valuable proxies in the ground battle against Islamic State, Turkey views them as terrorists aligned with the militant group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who want autonomy.
“He kept coming back to that issue: Terrorists are terrorists — there are no good ones” one attendee of the dinner, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy. “He pretty much threw the administration under the bus.”
But the shootings also pose serious problems for European leaders who have recently struck a deal with Turkey which recognises it as a “safe third country”, meaning refugees can be returned there without fear of persecution.
They want to be able to return migrants who have travelled from Turkey to Greece by sea, in exchange from migrants living in camps within Turkey. Time will tell whether the solution will prove to be palatable to liberalised European leaders.