Turkey denied on Thursday it had rounded up and deported hundreds of Syrian refugees following unrest at a border camp, highlighting the strain the exodus from Syria's civil war is placing on neighboring states.
Witnesses said hundreds of Syrians were bused to the border after Wednesday's clashes in which refugees in the Süleyman Şah camp, near the Turkish town of Akçakale, threw rocks at military police, who fired teargas and water cannon.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry denied any Syrians had been forcibly expelled, saying around 50-60 people had returned to Syria overnight and that some of them may have been involved in the unrest, but that they left voluntarily.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) voiced deep concern at reports of deportations and said it had taken up the issue with Turkey. Such deportations would be against UN conventions governing the treatment of refugees.
"There has been a big deportation operation here, they got rid of lots of people. They kicked out two of my boys and three of my brother's sons. They came for my boys last night and told them to get their bags," one refugee at the camp told Reuters by telephone, giving her name as Saher.
"Today, a large number of guards came in with shields and they went around the camp forcing people out. I think around 300 families left today," she said.
One official at the camp said 600-700 people had been deported, including those identified from security camera footage as being involved in the violence, along with their families.
"The security forces are still looking at the footage, and if they see more, they will deport them," the official said.
A second Turkish official in the region put the number lower, saying about 400 had been sent home.
Turkey's Foreign Ministry said forcible deportation would be contrary to the rules Turkey has set for temporarily sheltering Syrians fleeing their country's civil war.
"Some people have returned since last night, the numbers are closer to 50 or 60, and yes some of these may have been involved in the provocations from yesterday, but they returned of their own free will," ministry spokesman Levent Gümrükçü said.
Suphi Atan, the Turkish Foreign Ministry official responsible for refugee camps in Turkey, told Today's Zaman that no one was forcibly deported from the refugee camps. He confirmed the Foreign Ministry spokesman's account that the Syrians who left Turkey returned to their country voluntarily, fearing prosecution at Turkish courts. But he put the number of Syrians returning to Syria at 200.
He noted that the Syrians left Turkey at the request of other Syrian refugees, who believe that this group are loyal to the Syrian regime and wanted them to leave the country.
Atan said that after facing pressure from other Syrian refugees and fearing prosecution, Syrian refugees told authorities that they want to leave. He said the group returned to Syria under the supervision of UN officials. “No one can be deported from camps. We have no authority,” he said.
Since the revolt in Syria began two years ago, more than 1.2 million Syrians fleeing violence and persecution have registered as refugees or await processing in neighboring countries and North Africa, the UNHCR says. They include 261,635 in Turkey, mostly staying in 17 camps, many of them teeming.
"UNHCR is very concerned with reports of a serious incident and allegations of possible deportations from Akçakale tent city in the past 24 hours," Melissa Fleming, chief spokeswoman of the UNHCR, told Reuters.
Its office in Turkey was seeking further information about Wednesday's incident and the alleged deportations.
Dozens of protesters threw stones and smashed the windows of a fire truck during Wednesday's unrest.
Camp residents said young men started the protest against living conditions there after faulty electrics set a tent on fire which injured three brothers aged 7, 18 and 19.
But a Turkish official said the unrest was triggered when guards turned away around 200 Syrians trying to get into the site, which is already full, home to 35,000 people and one of the largest such camps in Turkey.
Camps in Turkey for the most part have facilities such as electric heaters to protect against freezing temperatures and refugees receive three hot meals a day, better conditions than in camps in some of Syria's other neighbors.