ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Ghada’s five children cried out in terror when police broke into their run-down Istanbul flat at dawn and ordered the 36-year-old Syrian’s family onto a bus, without saying why.
The family of seven from the northern Syrian city of Aleppo was among a group of refugees rounded up two weeks ago and sent to a detention center on the Asian side of Istanbul, where they passed several days guarded by police and surrounded by high walls topped with razor wire.
“It was as if we were criminals,” Ghada said, as she sat with her children in a basement apartment in a poor Istanbul suburb, where they now live with another family after being released from the detention center through the help of friends.
Aid organizations and rights group Amnesty International say Turkish authorities are rounding up scores, maybe hundreds, of Syrian migrants off the streets, sometimes targeting beggars, and sending them to detention centers.
The process has resulted in the deportation of some back to Syria against their will, they say. In a report this month, Amnesty said it had interviewed 50 refugee families who had been detained. It said more than 100 had been deported.
Turkey denies it is forcing any refugees back to Syria and says it is only rounding up Syrians affiliated with crime.
A senior government official, agreeing to speak about the politically sensitive issue on condition of anonymity, said refugees linked to criminal gangs were being settled in a camp in Duzici district of Osmaniye province, in southern Turkey, where their mobility is restricted to maintain public order. He described the measure as part of a “crackdown on organized crime” affecting less than 1 percent of Turkey’s 2.2 million Syrian refugees.
While much of the Western world woke up to the scale of the refugee crisis only this summer when hundreds of thousands of Syrians left Turkey for Europe, Turkey has had an open door policy to Syrian refugees since early 2011, spending more than $8 billion on humanitarian aid for Syrians.
It has built refugee camps considered to be among the best in the world and provided healthcare and education. But most refugees live outside the camps, where they are not permitted to work legally.
“The police knocked the door as if they wanted to break it. We got scared so we didn’t open it,” Ghada said of the raid. “Then they treated us like we committed a crime. They never told us why or where we were being taken.”
Aya, 25, whose family of four shares the tiny basement flat, separated by curtains from Ghada’s family, was also taken away and later released without explanation.
“We are no criminals, we didn’t do anything wrong,” Aya said, holding her toddler daughter who coughed in her arms.
She would rather stay in Turkey than have the family try its luck in Europe, which seems even more foreign.
“We already feel like outsiders here. If we go there we couldn’t imagine how it will be,” she said. “We are not beggars. We are people who work with dignity. We are poor but we don’t bother or hurt anyone.”
The detention center where the two families were held, a sprawling building in the working class suburb of Pendik in eastern Istanbul, is guarded by plain clothes policemen and riot police, who did not permit Reuters to enter.
An official at the door said it was used as “an accommodation center for Syrians before they are sent off to Osmaniye camp”, the location where the government says it houses refugees with ties to criminal gangs.
The center became active almost a year ago, said the owner of a nearby fast-food restaurant. At least two busloads of refugees are now brought there each week, he said. Once, he saw a man who tried to escape over the razor wire.
Syrians often come to secure the release of relatives held there, he said. Often they leave empty handed.
Ghada said Syrians at the center believed they would either be sent to Osmaniye or deported to Syria. Aid workers said that, once at Osmaniye, refugees are forced to either stay in the camp throughout their time in Turkey or sign a paper saying they are returning to Syria voluntarily.
Turkey’s treatment of Syrian refugees has gained international notice since around 500,000 refugees risked their lives at sea to reach Greece from Turkey this year.
Struggling to cope, the European Union asked Turkey to tighten its borders and limit departures in return for aid and renewed talks on admitting Turkey to the EU. If fewer refugees depart for Europe, that could increase pressure on the Turkish authorities to keep them off Turkish streets.
Volkan Gorendag of Amnesty International said the detentions seem to have increased since Ankara reached its agreement with Brussels. Europe had an obligation to ensure its Turkish partners were not abusing human rights, he said, describing it as “shocking that EU money is being used to fund an unlawful detention and return program”.
One aid official familiar with the detentions, said many of those being targeted had been begging in Turkey, a common way of earning a livelihood for refugees who are barred from seeking employment.
Dozens of families had already been apprehended in one busy Istanbul district, said the aid official, who declined to be identified.
“This is happening every day. If they take a person from a particular area then they will continue to clean out all of the neighborhood,” the official said.
Additional reporting and writing by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by David Dolan and Peter Graff