Syrians attempting to flee violence and seek refuge in Turkey are facing indiscriminate fire by Turkish border guards, Human Rights Watch said Saturday.
Syrian asylum seekers leaving the brutality of Idlib province in northwest Syria "are being forced back with bullets and abuse," according to Lama Fakih, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division.
In just a month, from December 15 to January 15, about 247,000 Syrians were displaced to the border area, according to the United Nations.
"As fighting in Idlib and Afrin displaces thousands more," Fakih said, "the number of Syrians trapped along the border willing to risk their lives to reach Turkey is only likely to increase."
The Human Rights Watch report comes amid rising tensions along the Turkey-Syria border as Turkey's military has moved into northern Syria. The incursion has opened up another front in the long-running Syrian conflict, now stretching into its seventh year.
Human Rights Watch spoke to 16 Syrian refugees who were smuggled into Turkey last year. Of those, 13 said that Turkish border guards shot at them and other asylum seekers as they tried to flee Syria.
According to their accounts, 10 people were killed, including a child. At another border crossing, Turkish border guards fired warning shots into the air but did not target asylum seekers directly, the witnesses said.
Twelve families told the rights group that they were captured and held at an internally displaced persons camp before being sent back to Syria.
"Turkish border guards placed them in a large square where they would remain until the guards had collected enough people to send back to Syria. Three families estimated that the square could fit up to a thousand people and usually had hundreds in it," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Asylum seekers also must travel a dangerous terrain "littered with landmines, steep climbs, narrow paths along ravines, and valleys." The rights group said most families exhaust all their resources paying smugglers anywhere from $300 to $8,000 per person to reach Turkey.
Turkey is home to more Syrian refugees than any other country in the world, hosting around 3.5 million, according to Human Rights Watch. But the group said, "Turkey's generous hosting of large numbers of Syrians does not absolve it of its responsibility to help those seeking protection at its borders."
On January 20, Turkey launched a ground offensive across the border into northern Syria, which it dubbed Operation Olive Branch. Turkey said the operation, with the help of the Free Syrian Army, aims to clear Syrian territories of all terrorist groups and create a safe environment to facilitate the permanent return of Syrian refugees to their country.
Turkey has long fought Kurdish unrest in the southeastern part of the country. It's determined to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state across the border in Syria and has used military force in the past against Kurds and ISIS in the northern part of the neighboring country.