Syria: Safety of Wounded and Medical Workers Must Be Prioritized

Wounded people and medical workers remain targeted and threatened in parts of Syria, preventing people from receiving life-saving emergency medical care.

Syria 2012 © MSF

A burned out medical center in Idlib.

PARIS/BRUSSELS/NEW YORK, MAY 15, 2012—Wounded people and medical workers remain targeted and threatened in parts of Syria, preventing people from receiving life-saving emergency medical care, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today, following recent visits to parts of Syria by MSF medical teams.

After reaching the governorates of Homs and later Idlib, MSF teams found patients and doctors at risk of attack and arrest. MSF first reported in early February on the abuse of health facilities and the targeting of patients and medical workers. All parties to the conflict must fully respect the safety and integrity of wounded people, doctors, and healthcare facilities, MSF said.

"Being caught with patients is like being caught with a weapon," said an orthopedic surgeon whom MSF met in a village in Idlib governorate. “The atmosphere in most medical facilities is extremely tense; health care workers send wounded patients home and provide only first aid so that facilities can be evacuated quickly in the event of a military operation.”

Read an MSF Surgeon's Account From Syria 

MSF also called for increased political and diplomatic efforts to ensure the safety of patients and medical workers, without the use of force.

"A number of Syrian colleagues are reported to be missing," said Marie-Noëlle Rodrigue, MSF’s director of operations in Paris. "The authorities and all parties to the conflict must ensure that medical workers can operate without fear of retribution and that wounded people can safely seek and receive immediate life-saving care, without resorting to inadequate improvised clinics for fear of arrest, or worse.”

MSF has been seeking official authorization for several months to work with medical personnel in the Syrian governorates most affected by violence. To date, none of the organization’s efforts, either directly with Syrian authorities or via various intermediaries, have succeeded.

While MSF has only a partial view of the medical situation inside Syria due to the lack of authorization to work in the country, the information obtained by MSF in Idlib is consistent with what it witnessed in Homs.

“We saw militarized healthcare facilities, meaning that access to medical care depends on which side you belong,” said Brice de le Vingne, MSF’s director of operations in Brussels. “Health facilities are being targeted, thus endangering patients and preventing healthcare workers from doing their jobs. Health facilities and pharmacies are looted and destroyed.”

During its short time in the Idlib area, the MSF team was able to perform some medical work.

"In one public hospital we worked as hard as we could for three days straight," recounted an MSF surgeon. "We operated on 15 wounded people and then had to pack everything up in 10 minutes after being notified of an imminent attack. Elsewhere in the Idlib region, an operating room was closed because it was simply too dangerous to perform surgery on wounded patients,” he said. “Doctors were threatened, and they discouraged us from setting up a medical facility because the situation was so risky,” he said, adding that he was told the hospital had been severely damaged.

“You can see medical equipment and supplies,” the surgeon recounted. “The resources and the infrastructure are there, but the fear and the risks of capture are so great that doctors hesitate to treat patients.”

Absent official authorization to operate inside Syria, MSF continues to support networks of Syrian doctors in Homs, Derah, Hama, Damascus and Idlib, delivering supplies and medicines from neighboring countries. MSF also treats those who were wounded or tortured in Syria at a surgical hospital in Amman, Jordan. Additionally, MSF is providing primary health care and psychological support to Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

MSF reiterates its call for authorization to work inside Syria. The organization stands ready to quickly mobilize its medical and surgical teams, and is determined to operate independently, providing care to anyone requiring it.