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Syria’s War on Health Workers and Facilities Puts Children at Risk

For a snapshot of the slow-motion human catastrophe that is the Syrian conflict, look to the plight of internally displaced Syrians at the Rukban camp near the Jordanian border. As winter approaches, freezing weather, snowfall, and floods further endanger an extremely vulnerable population in Syria. UNICEF has documented the deaths of at least eight children in the camp over the past month due to a combination of “extreme cold and the lack of medical care for mothers before and during birth, and for new infants.” Those same factors have claimed the lives of an additional seven children – the majority of them infants – in the eastern Hajin area of Deir al-Zour province.

These deaths and the absence of adequate medical treatment that contributed to them speak to the long, malign impact of attacks on health facilities and workers during the conflict. The eight-year conflict has eviscerated the country’s health care system. From March 2011 through December 2018, Physicians for Human Rights corroborated 550 attacks on 348 separate medical facilities and documented the killing of 892 medical personnel in that same period. Ninety percent of these attacks were likely perpetrated by the Syrian government and allied forces. Syrians in both government- and opposition-held areas across Syria suffer from a lack of reliable and accessible health care as a direct result of the targeting and intentional strangulation of the medical system.

The result? A growing list of infectious diseases that were rare or easily treatable in pre-conflict Syria and have now become widespread. Over the past six years, outbreaks of diseases, including water-borne diseases such as Acute Jaundice Syndrome and vaccine preventable diseases such as measles, have become commonplace. After 15 years without polio in Syria, WHO officials confirmed a polio outbreak in 2017. In northeastern Syria, 845 new cases of acute bloody diarrhea were reported in November 2018 alone. Typhoid also continues to be a concern, as heavy rain and flooding increase the likelihood of water-borne diseases. Clearly, the destruction of Syria’s medical infrastructure has continued to have severe consequences on the Syrian population throughout the changing kinetic dynamics of the conflict.

This is an appalling and unacceptable status quo. These humanitarian crises are man-made. Physicians for Human Rights has called on all parties to the conflict to abide by international humanitarian law and international human rights law, and to prioritize the protection of civilian lives and the maintenance of civilian infrastructure. The special status of medical personnel and facilities must also be universally acknowledged and respected.

The international community has an obligation to hold all sides of the conflict accountable for these abuses and to seek to mitigate their longer-term impact. Failure to do so will only condemn more Syrian children to early graves.