Rights group calls for action against soaring refugee deaths in Turkey's southeast

There have been an increasing number of refugee deaths in Turkey’s southeastern Van province, according to a new report by the Refugee Solidarity Network, a U.S.-based human rights coalition group.

The network has called for action over Turkey’s state-level handling of refugees as a "people-trafficking problem, “which, in turn, prompts border area authorities to treat them like a security issue,'' the U.K.’s Morning Star newspaper cited the report as saying.

The report follows a two-day visit to Van province, located on the border with Iran, in November. 

The province made international headlines this summer when In June, at least 61 people died in a shipwreck on Lake Van. The incident was the second of its kind in six months.

Located 50 kilometres from the border, the lake in recent years has offered a way for asylum seekers, particularly from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, to avoid police and gendarmerie checkpoints set up along roads heading west. The asylum seekers are looking to make their way into Greece, which they see as a gateway into western Europe.

The report shared personal accounts from Turkish officials, who have been threatened with detention for helping the refugees, with one official saying even providing a piece of bread to the group would be considered a crime.

The report also noted that the delegation was prevented from visiting a burial site for unidentified victims or laying carnations in memory of those who died in the tragedy.

Turkish citizens living in border villages accused of aiding refugees face harsh punishment and are regularly shot at by Turkish and Iranian security forces, it said, pointing to least eight Van residents dying under such circumstances over the past three months.

Moreover, Ankara is using refugees as a “means of extortion against Europe,” it said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened to push more refugees up against Europe's borders in defiance of a 2016 deal with the EU, which saw Turkey promised aid, visa-free travel for its nationals and accelerated EU membership talks in return for its help in reducing the flow of migrants crossing to Europe.

A total of 21,000 refugees have reached Van so far this year, according to Interior Ministry data, with some 16,000 denied entry and around 4,500 entering illegally.