29th Nov 2023

Religious minority abused at EU-funded centre in Turkey: witness

  • A screenshot, shot at Kapikule, from a video in which where Turkish board guards are seen beating Ahmadi asylum seekers (Photo: Alexandra Foreman)
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People from a persecuted religious minority are facing abuse in an EU-funded Turkish detention centre, according to witness testimony.

They have been detained since late May after attempting to enter Bulgaria to seek asylum at an official border crossing point with Turkey.

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Alexandra Foreman, a British journalist and member of the persecuted group, said she was among those detained at the centre in Turkey. "I was kept out there for two weeks," Foreman told this website on Tuesday (27 June).

Foreman had been shooting a documentary on the plight of The Ahmadi Religion of Peace and Light, a Muslim offshoot that believes in reincarnation and does not oppose homosexuality.

She said some 104 members of the sect, including babies and children, are now currently at Turkey's Edirne removal centre, which was renovated with EU funding.

"We're hearing updates from them, which are just awful. They're not getting any food. They're not getting any medical care. They've been tortured in detention," she said.

A compilation of testimonies, forwarded to EUobserver, says staff at Edirne had also turned off the water for all men, women and children in the camp after they refused to sign deportation papers.

Similar accounts were highlighted in a Human Rights Watch report out last year, which detailed testimonies of people kept at numerous EU-funded Turkish detention centres.

The same report said people detained at Edirne were provided with inedible food. Others were forced to sign and finger print deportation orders, including a terrified 16-year old boy from Afghanistan, it said.

Given their faith, Foreman says Turkish guards are making aggressive remarks about homosexuality and are using "it as grounds to sexually assault some of the men."

The group comes from various different countries, including Algeria where they face prison due to their faith, according to Amnesty International.

Others face executions, says Ahmadi press officer Fayrouz Elkholi. "Some of the members in Iran were threatened by the authorities with execution if they don't recant their faith," she said.

A spokesperson from the Bulgarian branch of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) says none of the detainees has reportedly expressed a wish to apply for international protection in Turkey to date.

"We have received assurances that the applicable asylum legislation will be implemented if these individuals seek asylum in Türkiye," he said.

He also said the UNHCR is monitoring the case and are advocating for the group not to be deported back to the their home countries.

Those deportation orders, issued on 29 May, are now being appealed by lawyers, says Elkholi. "It is unknown when the courts will make a decision about it," she said.

The sect also do not feel safe in Turkey, noting the poor conditions and abuse at Edirne removal centre, she says. And Turkey won't give them refugee status due to its geographical carve outs of the 1951 Geneva convention.

Legal path for asylum cut off

A collection of NGOs, in a letter from earlier this week, says the group had also exhausted all efforts to gain entry to Bulgaria via humanitarian visas.

They had then tried to access Bulgaria by approaching the official crossing point at Kapikule, on the Turkish-side of the shared land border on 24 May and after having first notified authorities in Bulgaria and the EU's border agency Frontex.

But video footage, seen by EUobserver, shows them being aggressively pushed and manhandled by Turkish guards at the Kapikule. Gun shots can also be heard.

The guards refused to let them pass reportedly due to the lack of entry requirements to the EU. Approached for further comment, Turkey did not respond.

Tania Reytan-Marincheshka, director at the Sofia-based charity, Association on Refugees and Migrants, says Bulgaria has contradictory entry rules for asylum seekers.

"Asylum seekers who present themselves at the formal border crossing point to seek asylum in Bulgaria are not allowed entry unless they have a visa," she said, in an email.

She says this contradicts Bulgaria's asylum act, which says asylum seekers need only submit a verbal statement in front of a border guard.

And getting a visa to enter Bulgaria for people fleeing persecution while in another country other than their own is also excessively difficult, she said.

"So those who need protection the most have in fact no legal ways to enter the territory of an EU country to claim asylum," she said.

The Bulgarian visa rule also appears to contravene EU law, including provisions laid on out in the Schengen Borders Code and the asylum procedures directive.

A spokesperson from the European Commission says the rules mean people should be allowed to submit an asylum application with Bulgarian authorities when they arrive at external border with Turkey.

But this has to be done at the Kapitan Andreevo crossing point, under Bulgarian oversight, and not at Kapikule where Turkish authorities are in control.

The case further highlights the difficulties people face when trying to enter a European Union member state.

It is also likely among the reasons why others opt for increasingly dangerous smuggling routes. Those external borders continue to become more and more difficult to cross.

Bulgaria already has a barbed wire fence along the border with Turkey, amid reports Bulgarian authorities regularly push back thousands of asylum seekers annually.

It is now being further tightened up with EU-financed drones and other surveillance tech as part of a pilot project announced by the European Commission earlier this year.

Turkey's EU-funded detention centres ripe with abuse: NGO

Afghan and Syrian nationals are being abused at EU-funded removal centres in Turkey amid a lack of proper monitoring, says Human Rights Watch. The findings come at a time when Turkey is deporting large numbers of Afghans back to Kabul.

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