Talk Address Attacks on Syrian Health Care

Susannah Sirkin, director of international policy and partnerships at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), outlined the horrendous impact of attacks on health care workers and facilities in Syria during the final Human Rights Studies lecture series talk at UC Davis. PHR is an independent, non-governmental agency founded in 1986. Such attacks “can be called an epidemic because it is so widespread now,” Sirkin said in the May 4 talk.

While there have been targeted attacks on medical facilities and workers in the other places, the level of attacks in Syria is unprecedented, she said. PHR has documented 454 attacks on 310 medical facilities between 2011 and 2016, the vast majority (415) by the Syrian government and Russian allied forces on facilities in rebel-occupied areas. Nearly 800 people have been killed in these attacks.

“The attacks are systematic and planned,” she said. For example, four hospitals in one area were hit in two days so it unlikely those were accidental bombings, Sirkin said.

These attacks have had direct and immediate impact by destroying facilities and killing and injuring health care workers. They also have long-term impact. About 75 percent of the medical professionals in Syria have fled the country, she said, and those who were training in medical fields have had their studies interrupted.

“There will be damage to the health care system for a whole generation,” Sirkin said.

In some areas an “insane and amazing” network of makeshift facilities has sprung up and some doctors sneak back in to the country, but “these are in no way meeting the needs,” she said.

Sirkin also outlined other places where the medical field has been targeted:

• Kosovo – 100 health facilities were destroyed during a war in the late 1990s.

• Chechnya – During wars in the 1990s with Russian forces, 24 medical facilities were damaged, while doctors were arrested for treating opposition fighters and forced at gunpoint to treat military officers before others.

• Bahrain – medical workers have been arrested for treating demonstrators during the past five years.

• Turkey – a recent law has made “unauthorized emergency care” a crime. It is aimed at those who treat anti-government protesters.

The lecture series will start again in the fall and a Human Rights film series will also be presented at UC Davis and in Sacramento.

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science