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Refugee deaths increasing in south-eastern Turkey, new report finds

REFUGEE deaths are increasing in Turkey’s south-eastern Van province, according to a new report, which has called for government action.

The Refugee Solidarity Network, a coalition including rights groups and trade unions, warned that the Turkish state’s attitude to refugees as primarily a people-trafficking problem has given authorities in the border area the green light to treat them as “a security issue.”

A delegation visited the province, which sits on Turkey’s border with Iran, over a two-day period in November and interviewed public officials, who described the torture and ill-treatment of refugees as “a great humanitarian tragedy.”

One official explained that his and his colleagues’ humanity was being tested by law-enforcement officers who threaten to detain them on the grounds that they support human trafficking if they help refugees on arrival in Van. He told the delegation that even the slightest help — such as giving a piece of bread to the refugees — could be considered a crime.

But the refugee crisis is the responsibility of the whole of Turkey, he said, and many in the West are unaware of the tragedy.

It is unclear how many refugees have died in Van province, but the Refugee Solidarity Network said that at least two were killed and 18 injured in a motor accident on the day of their arrival.

And at least 60 people were known to have drowned after a boat carrying migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran capsized in Lake Van in June, the second incident on the lake in six months.

The delegation was blocked from visiting a burial site for unidentified victims, which is said to be the largest refugee cemetery in the world. And the group was prevented from laying carnations in memory of those who lost their lives in the Lake Van tragedy, security services citing a year-long ban on public activities and protests.

The Refugee Solidarity Network said that action against organised people smugglers is weak, with those who are punished released after an average two-month period.

By contrast, people living in border villages accused of aiding refugees are at risk of harsh punishment and are regularly shot at by both Turkish and Iranian security forces. At least eight residents of Van have been killed in the last three months, the report stated.

And many refugees die in the freezing cold, the report said. Often their badly decomposed bodies are not found until the snow melts in the spring. Thirty-seven were found in 2019.

The delegation called for stringent protection measures and for refugees to be granted safe access to Turkey, with efforts made to address the root causes of the crisis in their home countries.

Sexual abuse and harassment of women is commonplace, the report said. Last month the Morning Star reported of an Iranian woman who was raped by officials in a detention centre. Two men were quizzed over the allegations, but most incidents are unpunished or unreported.

The fact that refugees from African countries try to cross into Turkey via Van is evidence of an international people-smuggling network, the report said, with border officials acting in collusion.

And the report warned the Turkish government against using refugees as a “means of extortion against Europe.” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regularly threatens to open Turkey’s borders and send refugees into the European Union. In 2016 the bloc signed a shameful deal to keep Europe-bound refugees in Turkey.

Reliable statistics are difficult to ascertain, but the Interior Ministry says that 21,000 refugees have reached Van so far this year. According to data, some 16,000 were denied entry and about  4,500 entered the country illegally.

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