Idlib - Twenty meters determined the tragic fate of Asmaa’s life on April 20, 2019, when the nine-year-old girl from Syria was murdered by Turkish border patrol.
“They were staring at us from above the wall,” says Asmaa’s mother, recounting the story of her daughter’s murder. The border patrol’s searchlights were so bright that she was unable to see their faces. They saw her 20 meters away from the wall and opened fire on Syrian land. The bullets struck her and other members of her family, and another nearby.
The children were injured, the mother was wounded, and Asmaa was killed.
One of the young men tried to speak to the border guards in Turkish, asking them to help the injured. Initially, the guards agreed but as soon as they approached while carrying the injured child, the soldiers opened fire again, murdering the young man against the backdrop of screaming children and devastated families.
For over 15 minutes, continuous bursts of shots were fired towards the families. The two families waited for two hours for aid to arrive, while Asmaa’s sister was in a critical condition. As for the rest of the family that lost their father, they had relatively minor injuries.
According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of Syrians cross this border on a daily basis to flee the constant warfare in the surrounding areas. They search for temporary safety for their children and pay what remains of their savings to cross the border.
However, those heading towards the borders are met with a difficult journey filled with death, looters and extortion. Some are arrested, tortured, humiliated, and forced to return to Idlib. Those who persist are either injured, beaten or killed.
The ARIJ investigator documented 21 cases of Syrians, including four children, who were murdered for attempting to illegally cross the Syrian-Turkish border.
This investigation follows the smuggling routes near the Syrian-Turkish border through three key points; Harem, Al-Alani and Darkush, all controlled by Tahrir al-Sham. The smuggling journey begins with a payment of USD50, which is shared by the authority’s office and its authorised representative.
From March 2011 to December 2019, 424 civilians were killed on the Syrian-Turkish borders, including 81 children and 52 women, according to data obtained from the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
The Turkish border control is responsible for 388 of those civilian deaths, including 78 children and 49 women; the Syrian Regime (between 2012 and 2013) for 33, including three women and two children; and the Kurdish Self-Administration for three, including 1 child.
The Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front) was established in late 2015 and became known as the “Border Security Office” of the so-called "border sector" designated to organize smuggling operations into Turkey along the Syrian-Turkish border.
Abu Jihad, a security guard for the Tahrir al-Sham, describes the checkpoints as a way to organize and facilitate matters in order to protect civilians from other smugglers scattered in the area.
According to a smuggler known as Abu Ahmed, there are between 2,000 and 3,000 smugglers operating in the area. Most of them originate from villages spread over the border strip, and provide two main services. They firstly help secure homes prior to someone’s trip and then they work as guides for those wishing to cross the border into Turkey. They are able to do so due to their knowledge of the area and its surrounding region.
According to Abu Jihad, the increased killings, violence, looting and abuse of women has incentivised the authority to implement a system to monitor those passing through. The system has organized and collated a list of people authorized to pass through the villages. Based on this list, the smuggler is responsible for the people with him and is thus held accountable in the event of any complaints.
The smuggler is responsible from the moment he is designated a list of names, to the moment they have safely crossed the border. If, say, the smuggler encounters someone whose name is not on the list, they are not responsible for their fate.
The procedures outlined suggest a level of comfort and organization, however these protocols are nothing more than a way to collect money from citizens without any actual protection or guarantees. Their work in the Syrian territories is limited to holding smugglers accountable for misconduct or complaints. As for protection from border patrol, neither the security forces nor the smugglers, who have the benefit of receiving financial compensation, bear any responsibility, says Salem Qadri, a former smuggler.
Qadri does not deny that some of the incidents that take place inside Turkish territory are often the result of an agreement between the Syrian smuggler and others on the Turkish side. Occasionally, according to Qadri, this occurs at the request of the Syrian smuggler, especially with regard to incidents of robbery and theft.
According to Al-Qadri and Abu Trad (another smuggler), the three offices (Al-Duriya, Al-Zawf and Al-Alani) designated to smuggling operations, which were created by the Tahrir al-Sham, charge $25 per person. This covers the cost of a “delegate”; an employee whose task is to coordinate between the smugglers and the finance offices which also belong to the authority. The delegate also receives a monthly salary, according to the smugglers’ testimonies.
According to statistics obtained by the investigator from the Salvation Government, 49,032 people went to the offices of the organization to settle their receipts during the months of September, October, November and January of 2019. Overall, this generated about $1,225,800 in receipts for passage only; an average of $300,000 per month.
The smugglers we met say that the numbers exceed that, especially since the service is canceled everytime people enter and are caught by border guards and returned to the crossing, which occurs frequently. Those caught at the border are returned through the Bab al-Hawa crossing, and are required to pay once more for a second attempt. Further, those who arrive late, are forced to re-pay the fee.
Musa Al-Saleh, someone who successfully crossed the Turkish border, says he does not understand the reason for paying these sums, which only increase the burden on civilians. He adds that those wishing to enter Turkey are forced to pay fees ranging from $400 - $1,800 to the smugglers, and face extra costs for food and shelter at the border villages while waiting for the appropriate time to pass.
Tariq Ali, who crossed to Turkey several times, says that most of those killed were in Syrian territories before they crossed the border. He wonders why the organization is not capable of protecting civilians inside the areas it controls. Additionally, if it cannot do so, why do they charge fees between $400 and $1,800 dollars each time, $50 of which are strictly for the organization.
The authority announced a solution for women who want to enter Turkey but do not have the official documents to prove their relationship to the rest of the family (such as marriage certificates). They allowed these women to purchase a “Mahrem” paper, which declares this relationship and allows them to travel. This was seen as another ploy to collect funds from vulnerable women who are subject to arrest at the borders in the absence of these documents. Women are not allowed to enter without a “Mahrem” or legal escort, and ultimately are forced to pay 1,000 Syrian pounds (approximately 50 cents) for every attempt at crossing the border.
Smuggler Salem Qadri explains, “people are not concerned with protecting women, what is important to them is collecting the money, which is often given without confirming the identity of the “Mahrem” by contacting the father or husband through WhatsApp.”
Abu Jihad says that these security measures are in place to protect women from kidnappings and other abuses. However, those interviewed for this investigation question these motives, and many wonder why they pay 1,000 Syrian pounds if the organization truly cares about their safety.
The total sum paid by civilians for cars and Mahrem documents can be estimated based on existing statistics which have documented the total number of people wishing to enter Turkey. Within four months, an estimated 5 million Syrian pounds (USD 2,285) were spent on securing cars. Additionally, 3,650,000 Syrian pounds (USD 1,666) were spent on obtaining the Mahrem documents. Groups unsuccessfully attempting to cross the border are also obliged to pay for a car for the journey back, which was estimated at four million Syrian pounds (USD 1,827).
By going undercover, the ARIJ journalist was able to verify the aforementioned fees relating to smuggling operations. Further, the information obtained confirms the authority’s awareness and knowledge of illegal smuggling operations.
Abu Jihad provides a different perspective and argues that “people will go to Turkey regardless of the risks due to the prospect of improved living conditions… no one can control the borders or prevent people from going. It was therefore necessary to regulate and organize these operations, instead of preventing and blocking them.”
Along the border strip adjacent to Turkey extending from the Bab al-Hawa crossing in Idlib’s countryside near the city of Sarmada, and reaching the town of Khirbet al-Jouz, checkpoints are scattered, preventing civilians and even smugglers from approaching the Turkish border. According to Salem Qadri, any smuggling operations not conducted in coordination with the organization are forbidden.
Qadri points out that there are some smugglers who bring people to the borders without the authority’s knowledge, but the majority of them coordinate their work with the finance offices through delegates. Smugglers not working with the organization fear the consequences of disobeying them. This is largely because civilians arrested by Turkish border guards during attempted crossings are handed over to the organization, and the authority searches for the smuggler responsible for them.
Qadri told ARIJ that one of his smuggler friends disappeared for 30 days, and then proceeded to inform Salem of his arrest and imprisonment. He was fined USD 300 and arrested for smuggling people without the proper receipts.
“There is no clear penalty for violating the rules, but normally the punishment varies around the aforementioned,” he added.
The crossings represent a source of power and funding for the organization, as its checkpoints can control the borders and prevent the residents from accessing them. Moreover, the organization justifies this control through a saviour narrative; that they are helping civilians escape their harsh living conditions.
Ahmed, displaced from Idlib’s countryside, lost his three year old niece Belsan in late 2017 as a result of an overdose of sleeping pills, which are given to young children in order to calm them during the crossing attempts and to prevent attention from Turkish border forces.
Ahmed says that his niece died during a failed attempt at crossing the border. He says they went to the office and demanded accountability from the pharmacist who mixed the hypnotic with a dose of anti-cough syrup. They were referred to a court affiliated to the authority and a case was filed against the pharmacist, but according to Ahmed, the authority did not take any action against him and his pharmacy remained open.
There are no statistics tracking deaths amongst children due to the drug. However, Salem Qadri confirms that this is not uncommon and points out that smugglers force those wishing to cross the border to give young children sleep-inducing drugs, otherwise they refuse to smuggle them.
Shortly after Belsan’s death, the Idlib Pharmacists’ Union confirmed the incident in a statement and indicated that another child had died for the same reason. The statement warned against dealing with pharmacies run by unspecialized people, and demanded that the perpetrators be held accountable.
Passengers who are arrested inside Turkish territory are subjected to degrading treatment. They are left outdoors regardless of the weather conditions, and a large portion of them, especially young men, are subjected to severe beatings and insults by the guards.
Ahmed Al-Ali, who attempted to cross into Turkey, says that death is more merciful than the nights he spent in the “detention camp,” as he described it. There is no food, drink or heating, and everyone is often crammed into cars and taken to the nearest border point, where they are tortured, beaten, insulted, and left in the main square to be mocked by the guards.
He says that sometimes the guards are openly racist towards them and rarely allow them entry into rooms or provide access to heating while they wait for deportation and transfer back to the Bab Al-Hawa crossing. However, they are not transferred back without being forced to sign a “Voluntary Return Waiver” which deprives them of protection in the event of successful entry for a period of five years. Thus, the returnees lose all the fees paid to the smugglers and offices as well as the ability to attempt re-entry. According to a statistic published by the Bab al-Hawa crossing administration, the number of deportations in 2019 amounted to 63,848 people.