Under an agreement in March 2016, the EU pledged six billion Euro to Turkey to effectively trap millions of refugees within its country and stop them from entering the European Union.
This is not the only cash from the EU. It also pays Turkey for military equipment which is used at its borders with Syria and Greece to halt those wishing to seek asylum in the 28-member bloc.
'Billions for Borders', an investigation into EU contracts by Politiken and Danwatch (Denmark) in partnership with the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC), reveals that EU has supplied Turkey with 83 million Euro in armoured military vehicles and surveillance equipment for what witnesses say is aggressive patrolling of the borders.
These deals also risk the EU being complicit in possible violations of the international rights of refugees.
Reporters: Emilie Ekeberg (Danwatch), John Hansen (Politiken), Craig Shaw (The Black Sea), Francesca Sironi (L’Espresso), Hanneke Chin (NRC)
Kilis, southern Turkey. Sounds of shelling and gunfire can be heard in the background as 74-year-old Turkish villager Osman Kulte cuts the branches of a ripe olive tree and piles them on the street. The din of battle is from Syria, whose border lies only a few meters from his home village of Akinci.
Less than 50km away, in Afrin, Turkey wages a brutal war against Syrian Kurdish fighters.
But the sounds of conflict do not bother Kulte anymore. It now takes place on the other side of a seven-month-old, three-meter high concrete wall, a 2.5 meter deep trench and rows of fences topped with razor-wire.
“It’s not easy to pass them all,” says Kulte. “The military would spot refugees from the tower. They used to let Syrians cross, and turn a blind eye, but not anymore.”
Before 2016, there was no wall. The Turkish military tolerated, and even assisted with the exodus of refugees into Turkey from Syria, especially elderly women and children.
But this open border was also the subject of fierce criticism from the EU and U.S., who accused Turkey of allowing ISIS fighters to cross back and forth with impunity.
Times have changed.
Officially, the Turkish authorities claim the open door policy towards Syrian refugees continues. But as the government struggles to create sustainable solutions to integrate 3.5 million Syrian refugees inside its borders, politically it has become tougher.
On top of this is the EU’s policy of paying-off Turkey to contain the refugee exodus.
Turkey is feeling the pressure.
“Over 40 Killed Crossing Border”
Villages in the border zone were once rife with stories of bravery and hospitality by the Turkish military towards Syrians. These have now been replaced by tales of civilians being shot at, injured or killed, and of new, advanced tools employed for this job that include machine guns in remote-controlled watchtowers.
The Turkish Defense Ministry refused to comment on its tactics for preventive measures taken along the Syrian border. But since September last year, 42 civilians have been killed attempting to cross into Turkey from Syria, claims Rami Abdurrahman, the director of Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
A new report by NGO Human Rights Watch made similar claims that Turkey was blocking refugees from entering, and that between September 2017 and March 2018 “Turkish border guards shot at them or others ahead of them as they tried to cross, killing 14 people, including five children, and injuring 18.”
Turkey has been erecting a massive wall: 911 km long, 2.5 meters thick and topped with razor wire. It shuts down the entire northern Syrian border except inaccessible mountain areas and riverways.
Posting at strategic points along the wall are armed 15 metre-high observation towers loaded with sophisticated cameras, which spot anyone coming close.
It is claimed that the guns are fired only if incoming refugees ignore warnings.
In the border village of Kilis, 35 year-old Hasan Elibdin says: “There are rumors that some tried to cross through Gulbaba district [in Kilis], and they were shot at, and a few were killed.”
Seven years ago, Elibdin left Idlib in Syria with his wife and crossed into Turkey illegally, before settling near the border.
“Before the wall was built, if soldiers spotted people trying to cross illegally, at most, there would be a cat-and-mouse chase, and people would be caught and questioned,” he adds. “Now there’s absolutely no permission for anyone to cross now, soldiers can engage as they see fit.”
Patrol Vehicles Financed by EU
The citadels that guard the border have a name: smart towers. These won praise in the Turkish media for their high-tech surveillance capabilities, heat-sensor cameras and multilingual warning systems. There is also talk of remote-controlled machine guns.
If the wall and the towers fail to spot refugees trying to cross the border, the job falls to the high-tech Cobra patrol vehicles, enhanced with sensitive thermal imaging periscopes.
These patrol cars are financed by the EU.
Politiken and Danwatch’s investigation, in collaboration with EIC and The Black Sea, shows that the 28 EU countries paid for Turkey to purchase Cobra II model armoured military vehicles. The cost was 47.4 million Euro in total, with the EU contributing 75 per cent. The rest was paid by Turkey. Turkey’s biggest private defence firm, Otokar, won the bid in Spring 2017. The European Commission confirmed the number of vehicles bought as 82.
This EU-financed equipment looks for refugees trying to cross the border, where they could risk getting killed.
This is problematic, according to Professor Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen, research director of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law.
“If lethal rounds are fired at refugees trying to cross the border, this is an outright violation of human rights,” he says.
There is also another major issue.
Sealing off a border might be the right of a nation state, but preventing refugees from claiming asylum risks being unlawful.
If the border wall makes it impossible for Syrian refugees to seek asylum, adds Gammeltoft-Hansen, this is also a violation of the international law of non-refoulement. This is where a nation that receives asylum seekers must not let them return to a country where they would face persecution.
EU cash for Patrol Boats in the Aegean
Turkey’s Migration Management Authority did not respond to The Black Sea’s questions about the numbers of refugees crossing the border. But in their response to the recent Human Rights Watch report, they claimed Turkey had registered half a million Syrians in 2017 and 92,000 already this year. The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, however, tells EIC that Turkey’s numbers were of Syrians merely newly “registered” in the country, including the newborns and previously unregistered. The agency maintains that the Southern border is closed to all but those with immediate medical problems.
Despite the blocked route, some still take risks to reach relative safety in Turkey, including the danger of being shot dead on the way.
For those who want to go further and enter Europe, the passage through Turkey’s Aegean waters leading to Greece is no longer feasible. As a result of the EU-Turkey deal, the crossings have dramatically decreased.
To detect illegal crossings in the Aegean Sea and capture refugees in boats and dinghies, the EU gave 17.9 million Euro to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which bought six SAR class patrol boats for the Turkish Coast Guard from the Dutch defence and shipbuilding giant Damen. This company was subject to official investigations in the Netherlands for bribery last year.
The money for patrol boats came from the three billion Euro the EU provided to various NGOs and institutions to support refugees in Turkey.
According to Professor Gammeltoft-Hansen, the heavy measures to keep migration under control could shift the responsibility of law violations onto the shoulders of Turkey.
“If the Turkish authorities are violating conventions, EU countries could in principle be complicit by actively financing this type of border control,” he adds.
“Overkill solution” for Greece-Turkey Border
The EU has also paid Turkey fully for the purchase of 50 heavily armoured vehicles to patrol the Turkish-Greek border.
According to tender documents, the vehicles were to contribute to “the prevention of illegal migration, human trafficking, cross-border crimes and smuggling.”
One of the companies which considered bidding for the contract was puzzled by the disproportion between the purpose and the heavy armouring for the vehicles.
Tender documents show that this firm queried the technical requirements, describing them as “a clearly overkill solution” for the Greece-Turkey border, which is more secure than Turkey-Syria.
But the contracting authority in Turkey, the Central Finance and Contracts Unit (CFCU), overseen by both Turkish government and the EU, was adamant: heavy armouring was an absolute requirement.
The tender, worth around 29.6 million Euro, was won by defense and security firm, Aselsan, which is 84 per cent owned by the Turkish military.
In reality, however, Aselsan will only provide the technology and electronics. The vehicles are HIZIR, Turkish-made military grade war machines produced by vehicle manufacturer, Katmerciler. This company is owned by Ismail Katmerci, a former member of parliament from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party, the AKP.
Katmerciler also produces powerful TOMA water cannons which Turkish police and security forces employ against protestors.
The EU tender documents stipulate that the winning vehicles should have been on the market for at least a year. The HIZIRs, which were only recently produced and have yet to see deployment, do not fit this criteria.
President Erdogan himself is a fan of the HIZIR. Back in November 2016, he was present at the public unveiling of the prototype at a military fair. The EU then appears to have ignored its own regulations by ordering 50 of them for Turkey only six months later, in May 2017.
The monstrous HIZIRs are still undergoing explosion resistance tests, and have yet to be put into the field.
“EU does not supply military or lethal equipment to Turkey”
The EU funds these machines via existing Instrument for Pre-Accession (IPA) budget for Turkey, which is designed to bring candidate countries in line with the EU rules.
The European Commission tells EIC that border protection is an element of IPA and the funds were given to Turkey in this capacity. The commission also stated: “It is important to underline that the EU does not supply any military or lethal equipment to Turkey.” Both Cobra IIs and HIZIRs are, however, military grade vehicles that are used or have the potential to be used in conflict scenarios.
The European Commission adds that the agreement between Turkey and the Commission stipulates that, “after delivery, the supplied equipment will be used exclusively for border surveillance. Any other use or modification of the equipment requires the written authorisation by the Commission.” Such an agreement might not be enough to stop an aggressive regime hellbent on crushing its enemies.
Martin Lemberg-Pedersen, a professor of refugee studies in Aalborg University in Denmark argues: “There are no guarantees that the regimes only uses the equipment against refugees, which is already serious. It can also be used against their own population. It seems likely this European reluctance to receive refugees has made many European politicians willing to sacrifice the civic rights of the Turkish people in exchange for fewer asylum seekers.”
Sabri Sayan, a Turkish lawyer and the head of the Gaziantep-based Rights Initiative, agrees that the deal cut between Turkey and EU was unethical. “It’s against all principles of human rights to make a person’s life and hope subject to a business agreement,” he says.
“An Understanding with Turkey” over wall
Europe is quiet about the construction of what is already one of the world’s longest border walls. This could be because it leaves millions trapped in the warzone of Syria.
German magazine Der Spiegel reported in 2016 that, behind the scenes, German officials expressed an understanding towards Turkey regarding the construction of the wall. With the EU providing millions of its citizens’ taxpayer money to enhance its efficiency, this also implies a tacit agreement with Turkey’s method of managing migration.
Turkey in the past had been criticised by Western countries for not doing enough to protect its borders. The country was blamed by the US and the EU for allowing ISIS fighters and supporters from the west to enter Syria, and then exit hidden among the millions of refugees.
But the wall is unlikely to keep out terrorism from Europe.
“Officials keep referring to ISIS as the reason behind the building of the wall, but ISIS already operates in Turkey and Europe from its established cells, and they don’t rely on newcomers,” says Sabri Sayan of Rights Initiative.
Turkey is now also building a wall on its border with Iran, and plans to build one alongside Iraq.
“Is the country safer now?” he adds. “Rockets still fall on us. One can argue there are reasons to build a wall because of the war in Syria, but then why build a wall on the Iranian border? What is the threat there? It is just an extension of the government’s [anti-] Kurdish policy. Because the [Iran-Turkey] border region is all predominantly Kurdish.”
The wall also killed off small-time smuggling where local villagers made a bit of cash from the cross-border traffic of tobacco, flour, rice, sugar and alcohol, claims Sayan.
But this, he adds, enabled the large smuggling rings to prosper, including lorries going through border checks.
Europe’s involvement is felt among the Syrian refugees who now live near the border.
Khalid, 41, a former businessman from Syria now living in the Turkish town of Reyhanli, tells The Black Sea that he believes Europe was behind Turkey’s notable change of heart towards Syrians.
“It’s not Turkey taking control here, but Europe,” he says. “The deal Turkey signed with the European Union blocks Syrians by the Aegean and here, by the border. There wouldn’t be a wall if it wasn’t for European money.”
Khalid takes a deep drag on a tiny shisha he brought with him on the journey from the Syrian capital.
“I had a successful business in Damascus, then I lost everything as well as 70 people from my family. I got torn away from my roots, my memories,” he adds. “So, this wall is nothing compared to what I’ve lost.”
Despite this succession of tragedies, Khalid remains hopeful.
“I’m sure Turkey will remove this wall in the future,” he says. “Because the new Syria will be very different after the war.”
Main Opening Picture by Chris McGrath via Getty