ISTANBUL/ANKARA: 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 neighbouring states.
Witnesses said hundreds of Syrians were bussed to the border after Wednesday's clashes in which refugees in the Suleymansah camp, near the Turkish town of Akcakale, threw rocks at military police, who fired teargas and water cannon.
Turkey's foreign ministry said a group of 130 people, identified with the help of camera footage as being "involved in the provocations", decided to cross back into Syria voluntarily, either because they did not want to face judicial proceedings or because of repercussions from other refugees.
"Reports that this group was expelled across the border are incorrect," the foreign ministry issued in a written statement.
"As required by the temporary protection status and within the framework of the 'open door' and 'non-refoulement' principle, our country does not turn back Syrians wanting to come to Turkey or forcibly evict those in our country," it said.
The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR voiced deep concern at reports of deportations and said it had taken up the issue with Turkey and was seeking more information. Such actions would be against U.N. 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."
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.
"Deportations to Syria would be, if they occurred, against the principles of international law. So we are very much hoping this didn't occur," said Melissa Fleming, chief spokeswoman of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
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 neighbouring countries and North Africa, the UNHCR says. They include 261,635 in Turkey, mostly staying in 17 camps, many of them teeming.
The clashes on Wednesday lasted for four hours, with dozens of protesters throwing stones, smashing the windows of a fire truck and damaging administrative buildings.
Camp residents said young men started the protest against living conditions there after faulty electrics set a tent on fire, injuring three brothers aged seven, 18 and 19, one of whom later died in hospital, according to Turkish media reports.
The foreign ministry said a group of around 200 people at the camp began attacking security forces with rocks, "having made no complaints or requests" first, and in order to stop the attacks, security personnel took the "necessary measures".
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.
Another refugee, Sausan, 15 said six male relatives from her tent were rounded up and taken away on Thursday.
"A lot of people were crying and saying they had nothing to do with this, but the guards were very strict. Some of them were hitting the guys as they took them out," she said by phone.
"We have had no water or electricity for almost two days and given the situation, I'm worried conditions will keep getting worse ... I don't know where my relatives are, all I heard was that they were sent over the border into Syria."
Fleming said that while UNHCR registered refugees in the camps, Turkey was responsible for the distribution of relief items and the maintenance of law and order.
"We do remind refugees they have a responsibility to abide by the law in Turkey. The system in Turkish law for dealing with crimes that are committed should be used," she said.