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      Investigating the Fatal Sinking of a Refugee Boat and the Brutal Treatment of Those Who Survived

      Investigating the Fatal Sinking of a Refugee Boat and the Brutal Treatment of Those Who Survived Investigating the Fatal Sinking of a Refugee Boat and the Brutal Treatment of Those Who Survived Investigating the Fatal Sinking of a Refugee Boat and the Brutal Treatment of Those Who Survived

      Middle East

      Investigating the Fatal Sinking of a Refugee Boat and the Brutal Treatment of Those Who Survived

      By John Beck

      The boat has been hauled out of the water now — its aged hulk abandoned among luxury yachts in a private yard outside the southern Turkish resort town of Bodrum.

      Propped up on wooden chocks when VICE News found it, the deep cracks lining its 65-foot hull suggested that its seagoing days should have long been over. And for a while they were, decommissioned after more than 40 years ferrying tourists along the region's scenic coastline.

      But a smuggler acquired then refloated it, and on a dark mid-September night in 2015, ushered aboard more than 270 mostly Syrian asylum seekers — including children, pregnant women, the sick, and elderly — desperate to cross from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos and on to mainland Europe. The youngest passenger was born just a few days before setting off, the oldest well over 70.

      At least 22 of them never made it off again — drowned as the boat took on water in the Aegean Sea after being intercepted by the Turkish coast guard.

      The name "Ariciogullari" is painted in blue on each side of its bows. Loaded to more than four times its intended capacity for this fatal last journey, it sat so low in the water that these letters were submerged. Only the bare wooden sides and crudely boarded-over portholes emerged above the surface.

      Lifejackets and inflatable swim rings were still strewn across the upper deck, the only part to remain above water after it started to sink. A last few passengers clung together there waiting for rescue, the others having already thrown themselves into the sea to escape the foundering vessel.

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      The Ariciogullari in a Bodrum shipyard. (Photo by John Beck)

      The Ariciogullari's passengers were a mixed group. Largely Syrians of different creeds and backgrounds — Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Arabs, Kurds, and ethnic Armenians — with a smaller number of Iraqis, Afghans, and Iranians.

      They arrived in Bodrum via a variety of routes and means. Both legally and otherwise, directly from their homelands or after spending time in Lebanon, or elsewhere in Turkey, which has sheltered more Syrian refugees than any other country. All wished to join the more than 1 million people who crossed the Mediterranean to Europe last year, an unprecedented migration spurred primarily by the need to escape what was once the country of Syria, and which is now the worst humanitarian crisis in a generation. The seemingly intractable conflict has killed well over 250,000 people, created 4.6 million refugees, and internally displaced a further 6.5 million.

      Many, including Asya, a Kurdish primary school teacher who traveled with her husband and two young children, fled Aleppo. [The names of all survivors have been changed to protect their anonymity.] The northern city has been ravaged by some of the war's fiercest fighting so far, while regime aircraft, now joined by Russian planes, indiscriminately bombard opposition-held areas on a daily basis.

      Others, like Rima, fled the south, where rebel territory is devastated by airstrikes and sieges, and territory still in government hands is shelled in return. A determined well-dressed woman with dyed blonde hair and a still-ready smile, she traveled to Istanbul with her teenage children Nizar and Asil many months earlier after selling her home in Darayya — not worth much during the war.

      Turkey barred refugees from obtaining work permits until recently, so Rima and her family all worked repairing clothes, open to exploitation in the shadow economy. "We'd work for a day and stay at home for the rest of the month," she said later between draws on a cigarette and sips of tea outside a Bodrum cafe. "Customers wouldn't pay enough or sometimes wouldn't pay at all."

      The sea trip from Bodrum to Kos is short: about 15 miles from port to port, and less than half that from the closest peninsula. Advertisements around the Turkish town advertise a ferry crossing for 17 euros ($18.50), but that requires a passport and a visa, things very few refugees possess.

      This proximity made the route popular among asylum seekers, and a vast smuggling economy emerged in response. Criminal networks, mostly headed by Turks and aided by Syrian middlemen, make vast profits from this, charging more than $1,000 for a spot in an overloaded rubber boat steered by one of the passengers. Stores in the area now do a good business in (sometimes fake) lifejackets, most of which end up in enormous piles on the Greek side, as well as swim rings and other inflatables for those who can't afford them.

      While short, the journey is frequently still deadly. Dozens of the 3,771 people who died or went missing trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe in 2015 started in Bodrum and many thousands more were intercepted or rescued by the Turkish coastguard.

      The city's population swells many times over in summer months as domestic and international tourists head for hotels or holiday homes. Tanning bodies blanket its sandy beaches by day, and after sunset, Anatolian folk melodies compete with pulsing club music in the narrow streets rising from its yacht-filled harbor.

      By September, however, only a few holidaymakers remained, lingering in patches of sunshine and dotting the walls of its ancient castle. Refugees moved among them almost unnoticed, clutching whatever possessions they'd managed to carry or sitting quietly on seafront benches. All waited for a chance to reach Greece.

      Those who would board the Ariciogullari knew that this relied chiefly on finding a smuggler. Each eventually converged on a man identified here only as "MC" due to ongoing legal proceedings against him in Turkey, who survivors said ran a major smuggling operation from a hotel in the hills outside Bodrum.

      MC's is an ordinary-looking establishment; white walls, a small swimming pool, Turkish flags dangling outside, and bronzed lions flanking the gate. His appearance was just as unremarkable; a solidly built middle-aged Turk with cropped, receding grey hair and reading glasses dangling on a neck chain.

      He speaks a little Arabic alongside his native tongue, and has a Facebook page that, aside from revealing a fondness for an online version of tile-based game Okey, features photographs of his family posing with Turkish police and a picture dedicated to the force's "martyrs." There's also a verse written by nationalist poet Arif Nihat Asya backed by a Turkish flag and a wolf, a symbol often associated with a domestic neo-fascist militant group.

      He made little apparent attempt to hide his criminal ventures from authorities, and large groups of travelers routinely gathered in the street near his hotel prior to departing for Greece. Maya, a Syrian woman who stayed at his hotel with her family for a week before reaching Europe on another boat he organized, told VICE News that he often received visits from friends from within the local police department.

      There is no direct evidence of police collaboration in this case, but Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos said recently that Turkish smugglers may enjoy "support" from authorities, whereby border guards overlook operations, and even said Athens had evidence of help being provided.

      Online reviews of MC's hotel describe a charming welcome from him and his family. But his treatment of Syrians was far less sympathetic. Maya described him restricting travellers to 2kg (4.4lb) of luggage each and forcing them to dump the rest in black trash bags, snapping "you're refugees, not tourists," when they protested.

      She also recounted watching as a family clutching swim rings waited to leave the hotel for an attempted crossing in a small dingy. MC made them abandon most of their possessions, then demanded they leave the inflatables behind too. An argument ensued as the husband pleaded that his wife couldn't swim. MC took a knife and punctured all four of the tubes.

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      The Ariciogullari's stern. (Photo by John Beck)

      Nizar was already at the hotel when Rima and his sister Asil arrived. He'd come to Bodrum a month earlier in an attempt to secure passage for them all, and eventually taken up an offer from MC for an unpaid reception and housekeeping job in exchange for transporting his mother and sister to Greece, and eventually him too. With no other financial resources, he accepted.

      Rima was aware of the dangers of the sea crossing and, like most of those who ended up on the Ariciogullari, wanted to avoid the usual flimsy inflatable boat.

      But MC promised a tourist vessel, telling some that there would be only around 30 passengers on board and others that they would be taken from one port to the next without interference because he'd bought off the coast guard. They paid more for the privilege, more than 2,000 euros each.

      "We wanted to go by boat, not inflatable, because it's safer," Rima recalled. "We thought that then, even if the coast guard caught us, they would just take us back to port, we couldn't sink."

      Unbeknown to this group, MC had used — and probably further damaged — the Ariciogullari in a previous, unsuccessful attempt to reach Greece. Maya was aboard and described a helmsman who stank of alcohol absconding in an emergency dingy after an argument, forcing two of MC's young employees to take over.

      The engine burnt out a little way offshore, and the group only made it back to Turkey after Maya's husband, who had stayed behind because they didn't have enough money to go together, cajoled MC into sending some of his men in a smaller boat to pull them back to a rocky landing.

      Kim Clausen, a member of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)'s Greece-based search and rescue operations in the Aegean Sea, told VICE News he had seen more and more cases of smugglers using large decommissioned boats like the Ariciogullari. "Basically what we're seeing right now is that the quality of vessels coming over is very varied," he said. "And some of them are in such bad shape that we're surprised they're still floating."

      Clausen described one that arrived on fire and another with a deck so rotten that it collapsed under the weight of passengers; he also saw a large craft that capsized after running aground completely disintegrate in hours.

      For Asya, Rima, Asil, and the others, the order to move came on September 14. The weather was mild, with only a light breeze, and temperatures that barely dipped below 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit). It was a clear night but three days into a new moon, meaning the skies were black after sunset.

      MC arranged for that night's passengers to gather at various spots around Bodrum, including outside his hotel, where delivery vans arrived to pick them up. Ahmed, an Iraqi from Baghdad, described cramming with 30 or 35 others into a Volkswagen barely big enough for 10.

      In a separate, equally overloaded vehicle, Asya was utterly disorientated. "We stood there in total darkness... The van was completely packed, and we had no idea where they were taking us. I felt the story of the Austrian van was about to repeat itself," she said, referring to the 71 migrants who were found suffocated in the back of a refrigeration truck close to the German border.

      They were driven for around two hours, up then down twisting mountainous roads at speed, eventually arriving at the base of some peaks. None of the passengers knew where they were, and the men who drove them there prohibited speaking, smoking, or using phones, and, until everyone had arrived, even moving.

      There were seven or eight vans in all, each carrying at least 30 people — far more than MC had promised. "There were too many people," Asya recalled. "Ten times what we had expected."

      The smugglers then corralled them down narrow, steep, and rocky paths for around three hours. Laden with bags and suitcases, it wasn't easy, but Ahmed felt optimistic: "We walked," he recalled. "and hoped that this would be the last bit of oppression that we faced."

      Children, the elderly and sick struggled to keep their footing in the dark, sometimes stumbling and falling, but the group eventually reached the coast around 1am.

      The Ariciogullari arrived roughly three hours later. Even in the dark, the prospective passengers quickly realized MC had lied to them — it was in bad shape. Rima remembers panicked shouts and demands to return. But none of the passengers knew how to retrace their steps or had any means of leaving. "Even if we thought about going back, it was impossible from that mountain," she said.

      Eventually everyone began to clamber aboard. Lowest deck first, then the middle level, and finally the open observation area. Rima made sure that she and her daughter went last, higher, she thought, would be safer.

      There they strapped on their lifejackets and held each other. "We couldn't see anything. You couldn't see the face of the one next to you, only shadows," she said. They'd seen little more since stepping into the vans six hours earlier.

      The boat eventually pulled away from the shore around 4.30am, so heavily laden that the engine struggled to generate any momentum whatsoever.

      * * *

      The ocean was still, and as the Ariciogullari nudged its slow way through the gloom, relief began to spread among the apprehensive passengers. They had no maps, and kept their phones off in case a flash or signal alerted the authorities, but MC had told them it would take around two and a half hours to make landfall, so they kept track of time, reckoning on each minute taking them closer to Greece.

      After a little over an hour, a light appeared on the horizon, moving swiftly towards the boat. As it came closer, those on the top deck realized it was the Turkish coast guard, a small, quick patrol boat designated SG-11 with a standard crew of four.

      It quickly caught up and fixed the former tourist vessel in its searchlight. Startled, those aboard lay down in the vain hope that they wouldn't be spotted. The ruse failed and the officers aboard SG-11 ordered the Ariciogullari to stop through a megaphone. For five minutes, whoever was at the helm of the larger boat ignored the demands, Ahmed said, before eventually cutting the engine.

      Its alarmed passengers begged to be allowed to continue on their way. In reply, the coast guard demanded that the boat's captain give himself up. By that point whoever was at the wheel had already slipped into the crowd and few of those on board had even seen his face.

      The patrol boat circled, its wake causing the perilously overloaded Ariciogullari to roll and pitch — intentionally so, it seemed to some of those aboard.

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      A picture of one KAAN 15 class fast patrol boat SG-11 taken from aboard the Ariciogullari at dawn. (All other pictures provided to VICE News)

      Rima took the wheel herself in an attempt to steady the larger vessel, turning right, then left as it lurched sickeningly from side to side. Fearing that her mother would be mistaken as the boat's driver and prosecuted as a result, Asil took it herself, arguing that as a minor, she would be safe.

      Around this time, the survivors said, one of coast guard crew raised a long gun to his shoulder, aimed in the Ariciogullari's direction, then fired. Exactly what happened next remains unclear.

      All of those present interviewed by VICE News described hearing or seeing shots, but the boat was still shrouded in darkness, and the details are muddled by fear and confusion. Some saw it as a deliberate attempt to sink the already struggling boat, others a warning — perhaps after their movement in the coast guard's wake was mistaken for an attempt to edge closer to Greece.

      Ahmed remembers seven shots into the water and another three bullets into the bottom of the boat. Others reported a number of warning shots into the air, then four into the boat. Yet others said the fire was directed at the engine. When VICE News inspected the Ariciogullari some days afterwards, there were no obvious signs of bullet damage to the hull.

      The frantic passengers pleaded with the coastguard. Asil, fluent in Turkish, appeared to be the only one aboard able to converse with them properly and shouted for help. "I was asking them to come and rescue the children," she said. "But they weren't responding to my requests, just asking me to wait for a bigger rescue boat."

      Half an hour later, those on the bottom deck began screaming that the boat was beginning to take on water. Haidar, a young Iraqi man who had been one of the first to board was among them, crowded with dozens of others, including children.

      He described a steady leak of water that began around the time of the shooting, but quickly got worse as the boat rolled in the coastguard vessel's wake. "When we moved straight forward it was okay," he told VICE News. "But when we moved sideways, the water came in from both sides."

      The patrol boat continued to those aboard doing little more than taking photos and videos, according to Asya and others. "They kept going around us, causing more water to enter the boat," she said. "And watched us sink little by little."

      On the bottom deck, they tried to bail out, but the inward tide was too much. Water continued to rise around their legs and fear rose with it — hysterical screams sounded in the dark.

      Those below passed up children who were then held in outstretched arms so as to be visible in the coast guard searchlight — a plea for help and pity. Others started crowding to the already full upper deck.

      "There was an unbelievable state of panic, it was like another Titanic story," Ahmed said. "Water was rising and it was dark." Asil screamed again at the coastguard, asking in vain what they should do.

      When it became clear that the Ariciogullari was sinking, the patrol boat pulled closer and began to take some of the children on board. Men and women straddled the boats passing over their sons and daughters.

      Some were reluctant, hesitant to trust those who had recently shot in their direction. Asya refused to leave her children and was eventually allowed to accompany them, her husband staying behind.

      The coast guard took as many as they could fit. Everyone else remained where they were.

      The flow of water into the foundering vessel — steady until then — suddenly turned to a flood, rushing into the bottom deck with such force that those wearing lifejackets were dragged from their feet and smashed into the ceiling. In the terror that followed some escaped upwards to snatch a lungful of air. Others were trapped.

      Those in what had been the boat's galley had little chance, Haider said. "They were all gone, stuck in the kitchen, because it was full of water and there was only one, small way out."

      His cousin Mohammed was standing slightly higher up. "In two seconds the water came up to my chest and I just managed to get my head out to breathe," he remembered. "The others slammed into the roof and I didn't hear them talk any more."

      The Ariciogullari settled deeper into the sea, still rolling in the swell. On the top deck, Rima ordered those still on board from side to side to counteract the listing. "I was trying to get it balanced by telling people to go right or go left, and calm people down... everyone was confused and didn't know what they were doing," she said, adding that the coastguard vessel hadn't provided any help or instructions beyond waiting for a larger boat.

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      The foundering Ariciogullari around dawn.

      Another vessel eventually appeared in the distance. By then, however, the stricken Ariciogullari was already half submerged and people had begun leaping into the water to distance themselves as it went under.

      Asya watched, horrified, from the smaller coastguard boat in the now dawn light. "I saw men throw their children away from the sinking ship and jump into the sea after them" she recalled. "And with my own eyes, I watched them die."

      Her husband jumped into the water and began to swim to her. She thought he too was going to drown and stood helpless, trapped as if in an "unbelievably bad dream." Eventually he made it close enough to reach the rope she flung in his direction.

      The larger boat eventually arrived and took the survivors onboard until they were bunched up across every available surface. By then, the Ariciogullari was largely underwater, with just a handful of its passengers remaining on its top deck.

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      The last survivors of the Ariciogullari (in the main body of the image) climb aboard a rescue vessel (foreground).

      According to coast guard records, 205 Syrians, 26 Iraqis, 15 Afghans, and three Iranians made it off that boat alive. The rescue vessel waited in the now harsh sunshine as divers began to recover bodies from inside the wreck. They found eight children, 11 women, and three men.

      There may have been more. Many of those aboard the Ariciogullari thought the death toll was significantly higher.

      Other coastguard vessels arrived and as well as members of the press, some of whom took pictures that subsequently appeared in local media alongside inaccurate reports that the foundered boat had capsized.

      The coastguard personnel had little sympathy for the traumatized survivors, Asya said, adding that an Iraqi man wailing with sorrow because his only two children had drowned in front of him was beaten into silence. "The coastguard men told him to shut up, not to annoy them with his cries. But he couldn't keep quiet, so they hit him, quite severely."

      Around noon, SG-101 finally made for shore. Meanwhile, as news of the tragedy spread, MC is understood to have fled to Istanbul with the hundreds of thousands of dollars he made from this fatal voyage.

      The Turkish Coast Guard Command declined to comment directly on the incident when contacted by VICE News. A statement issued at the time described the boat being spotted first by an aircraft, which then dropped a search and rescue kit before five vessels arrived. It added that Mugla governor Amir Cicek traveled to the area himself and coordinated the operation.

      None of the survivors recalled seeing or hearing either a helicopter or plane until well after the initial coast guard interception, and all described the rescue itself consisting of two boats. A picture taken from the air as the Ariciogullari was sinking also reflects this.

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      The mostly sunken Ariciogullari as a coast guard diver searches the wreck for bodies.

      The rescue vessel returned to its Bodrum berth a little before midday, depositing the shocked and grieving cargo on a wharf outside the stone coast guard headquarters. They huddled there for a while, some still wearing their lifejackets, and worked out which of their number were no longer among them. Those whose phones had not been lost to the sea or soaked through then began to contact families of the dead — many had exchanged details of friends and relatives beforehand in case of any such tragedy.

      The still mostly submerged Ariciogullari was towed back to a shipyard outside Bodrum, where it hauled from the water and searched again for bodies.

      On the afternoon of September 15, police arrived and took the group to a nearby police facility, where some were fingerprinted and asked to sign documents written in Turkish. No one understood their meaning and a translator wasn't provided, but most did as they were told in the hope of a swift release.

      The police building was too small for this sudden influx. Rima and Asil were crowded into one of the few bunk bed-filled rooms with more than 30 others. But most slept outside on the concrete that night, shivering as the temperatures fell, then suffering in the next day's sun. "It was so cold, then so hot in the morning," Haidar recalled. "My lifejacket was my bed."

      Asya and her family had lost everything, even the shoes they'd been wearing. She pleaded with the guards for something extra to shelter her family. "My children were cold, so I begged for blankets — I even kissed an officer's hands asking him to let me keep them warm, but no one was listening."

      There was no milk for infants either, and food in general was scarce. Most of what there was had to be purchased from the guards.

      But the police seemed to care more about interrogations than well-being. The questioning began almost immediately, survivors said. There was no Turkish-Arabic translator on hand, so officers used Asil in many cases, quietly ignoring the fact that she was under 18.

      Their focus was on the identifying the smuggler, she said, adding that while those being questioned described a Turkish man, the police wanted to blame a Syrian or Iraqi. Haidar and others corroborate this, and describe being threatened with lengthy jail terms and deportation to Syria or Afghanistan if they didn't say what the officers wanted.

      The way many of the boat's passengers were treated in an internment center after they were detained breached international law.

      From downstairs in a cell, Rima says she heard detainees being physically abused in the interrogation room above. Others described violent treatment.

      Police then arrested more people, including residents and employees of MC's hotel, Nizar among them. They quickly let the Turks go, the survivors said, but held the Syrians and Iraqis.

      Nour, a Syrian, who had survived the sinking along with her sick brother and 72-year-old mother, told VICE News that when her brother-in-law arrived at the police station to bring her money for food, he too was detained and accused of being a smuggler.

      Meanwhile, guards denied her brother, who suffers from hemiparesis, the medication he needed and he had seizures as a result. He was also assaulted, she said. "They were taking him to the hospital, and on the way he started yelling at them, so they hit him," Nour said. "He's sick and he can't really control his temper. They knew, and they still did that."

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      The entrance to Duzici camp, where 150 of the detained asylum seekers were ultimately taken.

      After two days at the Bodrum station, police announced that they would relocate a group of around 150 Iraqis and Syrians.

      Some, including Asya, were told that they'd be transported to a facility half an hour away and then released. Others were given no information at all about their next destination, and as empty buses began to arrive, pressed together in the center of the yard and refused to move, fearful of where they'd be taken. Baton-carrying police reinforcements arrived and turned on them.

      "We didn't want to go on the buses... but they forced us, hitting even women, and taking their children away from them," Ahmed said. "They put the children on the buses first so that the women would have to follow."

      Shayma, a Syrian woman, described police handcuffing her husband, threatening to take her son away and hitting both of them as they were forced onto the buses. She sent VICE News a cellphone picture of her bruised and swollen arm soon afterwards.

      One man resisted more than most, Rima remembered. Police beat him so badly that he could barely walk to the bus afterwards.

      For reasons that were never made clear to those involved, not all of the survivors were taken away. The remainder — Rima and Asil among them — were kept in the police station's overcrowded cells for another three days then told they'd be bused to Izmir at their own expense and released.

      Before they left, they signed documents — different for each nationality — described by a translator as stating that they hadn't been harmed, before being ushered onto a minibus. Ten minutes into their journey, Asil was able to persuade the driver to let them and everyone else off just outside Bodrum, where Nizar was still being held.

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      Armed, gun-mounted vehicles, and riot police with shields on the perimeter of Duzici camp.

      Asya, Ahmed, and the 150 survivors who had been forced onto buses two days previously were not given release papers. Instead they were driven overnight with no idea of their destination. Police cars held position in front and behind their convoy and gave them no food or breaks until a woman fainted.

      After 19 hours, they eventually reached the remote Duzici camp in southern Osmaniye province, an austere arrangement of white portacabins in a fenced-off compound surrounded by armed guards and razor wire.

      The camp, run by the government aid agency the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency of Turkey (AFAD), was built to provide shelter for refugees but officers said the new arrivals would not be allowed to leave. This applied to other Syrians there already, including some who said they'd been detained elsewhere in the country and held ever since.

      Families were distributed two to a portacabin — each containing a couple of mattresses and pillows, as well as a small bathroom with unreliable water.

      The weather was wetter there and temperatures lower. But just as before, there were no blankets. "There was so much rain and we were very cold," Asya said. "And my children had to walk around with no shoes, they were freezing." She described begging the guards, and even the camp head for something to help keep them warm. Again, they refused.

      Others worried about even being able to feed their children properly on two small meals a day. Most supplemented their intake with water and cookies bought from a shop on the other side of a fence that charged far above market prices — the detainees ordered and passed money through the wire, and the products were passed back the following day. A father of six who said he was barely given enough to feed two children went on hunger strike.

      Among the group were the very young, pregnant women, and chronically ill individuals. The latter group requested medication, but said guards refused it.

      One man died, seemingly of natural causes. Camp residents sent VICE News photographs of his under-fed and half-clothed body lying on a pink and blue flower-patterned sheet. Others show him being carried from the camp to a waiting van in a bright green coffin, the sheet still hanging from the side.

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      The coffin being carried from Duzici camp.

      Once again, the survivors of the Ariciogullari were met with violence. Haidar described baton-led dispersals if they sat in a group of more than two or three.

      The despairing residents tried to protest their situation, to contact journalists and rights groups, to send out messages and pictures to anyone else who would listen, but they feared their detainment would have no end. "They won't let us go," a terrified Iraqi man told VICE News at the time. "They said that we would remain here with no one finding out about us, not even the UN."

      The camp guards then offered a simple choice: deportation or indefinite detention. Iraqis would be sent back to Baghdad by plane at their own expense, and Syrians with passports and money would pay their own airfare to Beirut.

      Syrians who had neither were given a choice of return through the nearby Bab al-Salam or Bab al-Hawa border crossings, which lead directly into areas held by opposition groups, including hardline Islamist factions, which have been ravaged by regular airstrikes and fighting.

      Despite the risks, many held in Duzici began to lose hope of release in Turkey and consider it.

      Asya and others couldn't stand the camp conditions any longer. "This was a type of humiliation that I had never expected to experience in my life," she said later. "Trust me, the bombs of Aleppo are much easier than this." She, along with others, agreed to return to northern Syria.

      Her family elected to use the Bab al-Salam gate, which links the Turkish town of Kilis with Azaz in Syria. Before leaving Turkey, she said she was made to sign papers she understood to mean that they were voluntarily leaving Turkey and would not re-enter. Amnesty International spoke with a number of other individuals unconnected with the Ariciogullari, who received similar treatment.

      After crossing the border, they then traveled by bus and car to the rubble of Aleppo. In peacetime it would have taken around 45 minutes, but now the journey lasts most of a day and involves passing through checkpoints held by Syrian al Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front. Asya's husband was still barefoot when he arrived back home, another painful humiliation.

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      Inside Duzici camp.

      The treatment of those held in Duzici breached international law, according to Amnesty International. Returning refugees to countries where their lives or freedoms are at risk, known as refoulement, violates both the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and 1951 Refugee Convention, which Turkey has ratified.

      This also applies to coercing refugees to return, such as with the threat of indefinite detainment, Anna Shea, a researcher and advisor on refugee and migrant rights with Amnesty International told VICE News, adding that returning refugees to Syria is "clearly a violation."

      Shea, who was able to make a closely monitored visit to the camp in November, added that the survivors appeared to have been arbitrarily detained, with no reason given and no apparent basis in Turkish law.

      As Europe struggles to cope with the influx new arrivals and pushes Turkey to close its borders, this kind of mistreatment also appears to be on the rise, with increasing reports of detentions, deportations, and denial of entry to those trying to flee Syria on a scale that Shea says has not been seen before.

      A spokesman connected with the Turkish Prime Minister's office told VICE News that in all cases of coast guard rescues, survivors would be given health checkups and provided with psychological care to deal with the trauma they had undergone, then given the option of staying in a camp. He denied any possibility of mistreatment or detention.

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      A child in Duzici camp holding a sign that reads: "Refugees not criminals, no one has the right to rob our freedom."

      Those remaining in Duzici were released in October, following pressure from rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the United Nations.

      The survivors of this tragedy have now spread far. Asya remained in Aleppo for a time, now under heavier bombardment than ever with the start of Russian strikes. Her home, as well as her husband's clinic were destroyed and they fled elsewhere. Ahmed, now back in Baghdad, said he had gone into hiding.

      Some have since made it to Europe, including Asil, who, after a long journey, is now safely within a welcoming country where she hopes to continue her studies. When her mother last spoke with VICE News she planned to join another son in Germany, but had run out of money and would have to work more to pay her passage.

      MC, the architect of this fatal journey, was eventually arrested, and is now imprisoned in the northwestern city of Bursa. But he was one of many unscrupulous smugglers operating in Turkey. And while the war in Syria continues, there will always be customers.

      Meanwhile, European leaders, desperate to halt the influx of asylum seekers, have continued to focus on a policy of deterrence — poor reception conditions, ever tightening borders and no rescue boats. But people are not deterred. More than 67,000 have made the sea crossing so far in 2016, up 20-fold on the same period last year. So far in 2016, 410 people who attempted the crossing are dead or missing.

      The outlines of a possible deal discussed last week would see one Syrian refugee resettled in Europe for every Syrian returned to Turkey from the Greek islands. But the UN, as well as a number of human rights groups have said returning asylum seekers to Turkey from Greece would be illegal, partly because it denies asylum seekers the right to an individual claim assessment.

      Turkey's treatment of the Ariciogullari's survivors, as well as its generally dubious human rights record, also calls into question the country's "safe" status.

      And until the European Union implements a formal resettlement scheme to assist and protect some of the world's most vulnerable, the tragedy can only continue. Smugglers will profit from misery, desperate thousands will take to sea in search of a better life, and the Ariciogullari's story will repeat, as it already has done, again and again.

      Additional reporting by Naima Hammoud

      Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck

      Topics: middle east, turkey, syria, refugee, coast guard, bodrum, migrants, european migration crisis, open water, human rights, migrant detention centers, people smuggling, war & conflict, crime & drugs

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