Saturday, 25 April 2015

Why we support a No-Fly Zone

Cross-posted from Syria Solidarity UK.

Read more: A manifesto for Syria

Join us in London on the 26th of April to answer the call from Syria.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

In this UK election, let’s talk about emergency services.

Cross-posted from Syria Solidarity UK.

Rescued in in the Aegean Sea, September 6, 2014. Photo: Coast Guard Aegean Sea Region Command.

With a death toll close to that of the Titanic sinking, a week of disasters in the Mediterranean has forced UK and EU leaders to pay attention to the failure of their brutal policy of withdrawing rescue services.
The UK Government can and should also act immediately to fund initiatives such as the joint MSF/MOAS rescue mission.

These disasters have made clear what is necessary. Still there are attempts by UK and EU leaders to displace responsibility, to distract from the primary causes and thus avoid effective action.

This exodus is not caused by “human traffickers”, it’s caused primarily by war. The term “human traffickers” is misleading, conflating people-smuggling with enslavement. Those fleeing across the Mediterranean, while they may be exploited by boat owners, are not enslaved by them. They have not been kidnapped and sold into bondage, but have for the most part made a rational choice between trying to survive war, and trying to survive the sea.

Attacking smugglers is no more a good answer than withdrawing rescue services was.

It’s not that long ago that some Europeans were charging other Europeans who were fleeing genocide enormous sums of money to make an escape by sea. For example Denmark proudly remembers 1943, when almost all of Denmark’s Jews escaped the Holocaust with the help of their fellow citizens. Less emphasis is placed on the fact that many were charged amounts equivalent of up to £5,500 for places on boats making the relatively short crossing to safety in Sweden.

Where there is desperation there will be exploitation, so tackle the reasons for the desperation to stop the exploitation.

Another diversion in some responses to the Mediterranean crisis has been to blame the deaths on NATO’s intervention in Libya.

But note that Libyans themselves are barely represented amongst those fleeing. Syrians make up over a third of those entering the EU irregularly according to figures from Frontex, the EU’s border agency. The next largest national group are people from Eritrea. 67,000 Syrians sought asylum in Europe last year, most arriving by sea.

In contrast UNHCR figures show the current total of Libyan refugees and asylum seekers at under 6,000 worldwide—though the number seeking refuge abroad may yet rise significantly as UNHCR believe up to 400,000 Libyans are internally displaced.

The true role of Libya in the Mediterranean crisis is as a place of transit, though it is far from being the only one. Sailing from Libya has become easier since the fall of the Gaddafi dictatorship. Previously a deal between Italy and Libya resulted in the regime acting as Europe’s outsourced border guards, locking up people trying to flee on boats. Here’s a description from a 2010 report by PRI’s The World, describing the experiences of Daoud from Somalia:
Daoud tried to make the trip north aboard a smuggling vessel, but he was arrested as he tried to board, and sent to a prison in Tripoli, where he became seriously ill.

“I believe it used to be a chemical plant because all of us had skin rashes and the Libyan prison guards used to beat us at least twice a day,” Daoud said. “And that’s what created and forced us to break out of jail. My intention was just to get out of Libya and head to the seas and to see where my luck takes me.”

Daoud alleges that his dark skin color had a lot to do with how he was treated in Libya: “They directly called me a slave. So, it was horrible. They will tell you in your face.”

Jean-Philippe Chauzy is director of communications for the International Organization for Migration in Geneva. He’s traveled frequently to Libya, and said Daoud’s story is shared by many migrants there.
Daoud’s experience shows why this policy was morally unsustainable. The collapse of Gaddafi’s regime showed it was also practically unsustainable. Had NATO not intervened to protect civilians there, the likely result would not have been a more stable Libya, but a longer and more bloody revolution as we’ve seen in Syria, with many more desperate people fleeing to Europe’s shores.


The 900 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean were killed by British government policy, by Dan Hodges, The Telegraph, 20 April 2015.

Mediterranean migrant deaths: where British parties stand, Channel 4 News, 15 April 2015.

UK Election Notes: Foreign Policy Opportunities – Resettling Syrian Refugees, by Dr Neil Quilliam, Chatham House, 10 April 2015.

Restart the Rescue: Help stop children drowning in the Mediterranean, campaign by Save the Children.

Read more: A manifesto for Syria

Join us in London on the 26th of April to answer the call from Syria.

In this UK election, let’s talk about education.

Cross-posted from Syria Solidarity UK.

Above: From a Syria Civil Defence video of a bombed elementary school in Aleppo city, 12 April 2015. At least 10 people were killed and 30 wounded. Via EA WorldView.

Schools in opposition-held territory in Aleppo shut for at least a week following the deaths of at least five children in the April 12 air attack pictured above. See Syria Deeply and EA WorldView for more.

An overview of the war’s impact on education within Syria:
Education is in a state of collapse with half (50.8 per cent) of all school-age children no longer attending school during 2014- 2015, with almost half of all children already losing three years of schooling. There is a wide disparity in school attendance rates across the country as the conflict is creating inequality in educational opportunities. The conflict has generated increasing inequality between the different regions, while the quality of education also deteriorated. The loss of schooling by the end of 2014 represents a human capital debit of 7.4 million lost years of schooling, which represents a deficit of USD 5.1 billion in human capital investment in the education of school children.
From a UN-published report, Syria: Alienation and Violence, Impact of the Syria Crisis (PDF), March 2015.

Save The Children report that:
  • Basic education enrolment in Syria has fallen from close to 100% to an average of 50%.
  • In areas like Aleppo which has seen active conflict for a prolonged period, that is closer to 6%.
  • At least a quarter of schools have been damaged or destroyed.
  • Almost three million Syrian children are out of school.
  • In 2014, half of refugee children were not receiving any form of education.
  • Education programmes are underfunded by almost 50%.
From The Cost of War: Calculating the impact of the collapse of Syria’s education system on Syria’s future (PDF), March 2015.

There is also an education crisis for children who have escaped Syria’s dangers. According to UNICEF, there are an estimated 400,000 out-of-school Syrian children in Lebanon. For The Guardian, Maggie Tookey describes the difficulty of supporting education for refugee children in Arsal, on Lebanon’s border with Syria. And at Syria Deeply, Lamia Nahhas talks of the difficulties in establishing and sustaining schools for refugees in Al-Rihaniyeh, Turkey, and for internally displaced children in the Atmeh camp on the Syrian side of the border.

Lastly, have a look at these descriptions by Robin Yassin-Kassab and blogger Maysaloon of working on Zeitouna education projects for Syrian refugee children.

Read more: A manifesto for Syria

Join us in London on the 26th of April to answer the call from Syria.

Friday, 17 April 2015

In this UK election, let’s talk about healthcare.

Cross-posted from Syria Solidarity UK.

Aftermath of regime attack on the Hilal Hospital belonging to the Syrian Red Crescent in the city of Idlib,  March 29, 2015. Photo by Firas Taki/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

In Syria, healthcare personnel, medical facilities, and ambulances are deliberately and routinely targeted as part of the military strategy of the Syrian government, according to a recent report by the Syrian American Medical Society.

At least 610 medical personnel have been killed, and there have been 233 deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on 183 medical facilities. The Syrian government is responsible for 88 percent of hospital attacks recorded by Physicians for Human Rights, and 97 percent of medical personnel killings, with 139 deaths directly attributed to torture or execution.

For people in Syria, life expectancy at birth has plunged from 75.9 years in 2010 to an estimated 55.7 years at the end of 2014, reducing longevity and life expectancy by 27 per cent, according to a March 2015 UN report.

Restoring healthcare in Syria depends on ending the worst of the violence. Dr Samer Attar wrote recently recently in the Wall Street Journal of his experiences as a volunteer surgeon in Aleppo, saying “no amount of humanitarian aid will offset the systematic and sustained slaughter of civilians.”
Ask any doctor in Aleppo how to help them save lives and their first response is not more aid. They all say the same thing: “Stop the barrel bombs.” A year ago, I asked a doctor there what he would need if the bombings didn’t stop. “More body bags,” he said.


Syria: From bad to worse, by Aitor Zabalgogeazkoa, Head of Mission of the MSF team in Aleppo in 2014, MSF—Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders 7 January 2015.

Syrian Medical Voices from the Ground: The Ordeal of Syria’s Healthcare Professionals, February 2015 report(PDF) by the Syrian American Medical Society.

‘If the medics leave, the civilians will die’ – a UK doctor’s story from Syria, by Aisha Gani, The Guardian, 12 March 2015.

Syria: In a besieged hospital, sleeping and resting were an impossible luxury, by Dr. S, a young surgeon in a makeshift hospital east of Damascus, MSF—Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders, 13 March 2015.

Syria field post: ‘I had to do procedures I’d never seen. YouTube helped a lot’, by Lubna Takruri, The Guardian 16 March 2015.

Doctors in the Crosshairs: Four Years of Attacks on Health Care in Syria, Physicians for Human Rights report, March 2015.

Syria: Alienation and Violence, Impact of the Syria Crisis (PDF) by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research (SCPR), UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), UN Development Programme (UNDP), March 2015.

Aleppo Diary: The Carnage From Syrian Barrel Bombs, by Samer Attar, Wall Street Journal, 12 April 2015.

Read more: A manifesto for Syria

Join us in London on the 26th of April to answer the call from Syria.

In this UK election, let’s talk about housing.

Cross-posted from Syria Solidarity UK.

Damaged buildings in Jouret al-Shayah, Homs, Syria, on February 2, 2013. Photo by Yazen Homsy/Reuters.

The city of Homs, pictured above, has seen some of the worst physical destruction of the past four years, but it is not alone. A March 2015 UN report used satellite imagery to record tens of thousands of homes damaged or destroyed across Syria. Some were hit by shelling or air attacks, others were levelled when the Assad regime demolished entire neighbourhoods considered sympathetic to the opposition. As thousands of families were driven from their homes, satellite photos also recorded the growth of refugee camps in surrounding countries. Mass graves of many of those who didn’t escape were also recorded in satellite images.

Full report: Four Years of Human Suffering: The Syria conflict as observed through satellite imagery (PDF) By UNITAR/UNOSAT, March 2015.

Report excerpts: A bird’s-eye view of war-torn Syria, Washington Post, 20 March 2015.

Over half of Syria’s population have been displaced. Over 4 million refugees have fled the country, over 3.9 million of them to neighbouring countries. In the space of a year, Zaatari camp in Jordan became the world’s second largest refugee camp and Jordan’s fourth largest city. The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is equal to at least a quarter of Lebanon’s population prior to the crisis.

António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, says one-tenth of Syrian refugees require resettlement, but for now UNHCR have called on governments to provide places for 130,000 of the most vulnerable people. To date less than 85,000 resettlement places have been confirmed. Norway has pledged to resettle 2,500, Sweden 2,700, and Germany has pledged places for 30,000.

The UK resettled just 143 people up to February of this year.

Read more: A manifesto for Syria

Join us in London on the 26th of April to answer the call from Syria.

In this UK election, let’s talk about our shared history.

Cross-posted from Syria Solidarity UK.

Photo: Firemen at work in bomb damaged street in London, after Saturday night raid, circa 1941. Source: US National Archives.

Over 67,000 British civilians were killed in the Second World War. Around 40,000 of them were killed by air raids.

When Hitler’s air force attacked, pilots from several other nations joined in defending Britain, including experienced fighter pilots from Poland and Czechoslovakia: the 303 “Kościuszko” Polish Fighter Squadron was amongst the most successful squadrons fighting in the Battle of Britain.

Today, more civilians have been killed in Syria than were killed in Britain in World War Two. The vast majority of them have been killed by the Assad regime: over 95% according to records collected by the Violations Documentation Center in Syria.

Today, no international pilots have come to defend Syrian civilians from Assad’s attacks. The US-led coalition is intervening in Syria, but not against Assad. He is free to bomb cities and towns and villages with Russian-supplied helicopters and Iranian jet aircraft. Two in five of all civilians killed last year were killed by Assad’s air attacks. Over half the women and children killed in 2014 were killed by Assad’s air force.

This month marks 70 years since Anne Frank was killed in the Holocaust. The Anne Frank Declaration is intended to draw from her life lessons for the present, not just memories of the past. It says:
Anne Frank is a symbol of the millions of innocent children who have been victims of persecution. Anne’s life shows us what can happen when prejudice and hatred go unchallenged.

Because prejudice and hatred harm us all, I declare that:
  • I will stand up for what is right and speak out against what is unfair and wrong
  • I will try to defend those who cannot defend themselves
  • I will strive for a world in which our differences will make no difference – a world in which everyone is treated fairly and has an equal chance in life
Many leading British politicians have signed this Declaration, including David Cameron and Ed Miliband, but when we look at their actions on Syria, we have to ask how well they are living up to their pledge.

On the last day of Parliament, the Coalition Government announced that they were joining the US-led effort to train Syrians to fight ISIS. Earlier it was reported that if re-elected the Conservatives intended to join US-led strikes against ISIS in Syria. Whatever the merits of these policies, they contained nothing to defend Syrian civilians from their greatest threat: the Assad regime. Assad and his allies are responsible for over 95% of killings of civilians. Assad’s forces continue to target civilians with barrel bombs, chlorine bombs, and Scud missiles.

The legal basis for joining US-led strikes against ISIS in Syria would be collective defence of the Republic of Iraq, not the humanitarian defence of Syrian civilians. It would not live up to David Cameron’s promise to “defend those who cannot defend themselves.” For that he would have to back action to stop Assad bombing civilians.

As for how well Ed Miliband is living up to his promise: Since he signed the Anne Frank Declaration, Ed Miliband has been talking about his August 2013 decision to block joint UK-US action in response to the Assad regime’s mass killing of civilians with Sarin chemical weapons. But in his telling of the story there was no mention of the men, women, and children poisoned. In his telling there was no mention of standing up to Assad, only of standing up to Obama.

Ed Miliband said that his decision in August 2013 proved that he is “tough enough” to be prime minister: “Hell yes.” Many of his supporters seem to agree, and “Hell yes” t-shirts have been produced, celebrating Ed Miliband’s toughness in helping get a mass-murdering regime off the hook.

Not that those supporters see it in quite that way. Jamie Glackin, Chair of Scottish Labour, denied that there was any connection between Ed Miliband’s “hell yes” phrase and the August 2013 chemical attack: “It’s got nothing to do with that. At all.”

But it has everything to do with that. Ed Miliband’s chosen anecdote to show toughness was to point to the time he prevented action against a mass-murdering dictatorship, one that gave refuge to a key Nazi war criminal, that has tortured its citizens on an industrial scale, that is inflicting starvation sieges on hundreds of thousands of people, that has driven half of the population from their homes, four million of them driven out of the country as refugees, and that has continued killing civilians in their tens of thousands since Ed Miliband said “no” to action.
Anne’s life shows us what can happen when prejudice and hatred go unchallenged.

When asked about the consequent events in Syria, Ed Miliband avoided taking any responsibility. “It’s a failure of the international community,” he said. But we are the international community. The UK is a key member of the international community, one of only five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and one of only three functioning democracies amongst those five. When Ed Miliband blocked UK action, the consequences were critical.
I will try to defend those who cannot defend themselves.

Anne Frank was 15 years old when she was killed in the Holocaust. You can read more about her at the Anne Frank Trust, and  at the Anne Frank House museum.

According to a November 2013 report by the Oxford Research Group, Stolen Futures: The hidden toll of child casualties in Syria, 128 children were recorded amongst the killed in the Ghouta chemical attack: 65 girls and 63 boys.

Something of two of those girls, Fatima Ghorra, three years old, and her sister, Hiba Ghorra, four years old, is told by Hisham Ashkar here.

The names of 54 of the girls killed are listed by the Violations Documentation Center in Syria. For some, clicking on a name will give a little more information, such as a photograph of one in life, or in death, or their age.

Read more: A manifesto for Syria

Join us in London on the 26th of April to answer the call from Syria.

In this UK election, let’s talk about our shared future.

Cross-posted from Syria Solidarity UK.

Rescue in the Mediterranean. Photo: Amnesty International.

A British general election is about deciding how Britain is governed, about Britain’s future. But our future here, and the future of our children, doesn’t only depend on what happens within the borders of the UK, it depends on events in the wider world.

We can’t have a safe country in an unsafe world. We can’t build a caring home for our children if we care nothing for others. We can’t expect a prosperous future on these islands if we turn away from the rest of humanity.

Read more: A manifesto for Syria

Join us in London on the 26th of April to answer the call from Syria.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

A manifesto for Syria

Cross-posted from Syria Solidarity UK.

In this UK election, let’s talk about Syria.

For a peaceful, democratic Syria, a Syria without Assad and a Syria without ISIS, we support the calls by Planet Syria activists and Syria Civil Defence rescue volunteers for action to stop the violence.

Read more:

Join us in London on the 26th of April to answer the call from Syria.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Planet Syria: Signal received

The family were in Dorset earlier this week, so on Planet Syria’s day of global solidarity we sent our response from the Jurassic Coast via Twitter.

Planet Syria is a joint campaign by non-violent activist groups in Syria calling for an end to Assad’s air attacks in order to enable meaningful peace talks, even if that requires a no-fly zone. Read more at or on their Facebook page.

Before we left London for the sea, I helped prepare Syria Solidarity UK’s response.