Amnesty International researchers on the ground at the Öncüpınar/Bab al-Salam border crossing report grim conditions for the thousands of refugees hoping to flee violence in Syria. Amnesty has called on both Turkey and the international community to take urgent steps in the face of this humanitarian disaster
The situation has become increasingly desperate as Russian and Syrian forces have pressed their offensive against Aleppo.
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,” Amnesty said.
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.
Heart-rending cases abound at the border. One mother described how she was separated from her severely injured 11-year-old son at the border:
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.
Amnesty “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.”
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.
Amnesty also highlights the culpability of the wider international community in this tragedy, arguing that crisis “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.”
“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, Crisis Response Director at Amnesty International.