Syrians are being subjected to multiple layers of siege. In the first layer, the military and other armed groups have surrounded and entrapped up to one and a half million people within the country. Most of Syria`s borders are closed to those fleeing violence, marking a second layer of siege. And finally, Europe is constructing higher fences and implementing abhorrent policies designed to keep refugees out. There is a chain of complicity in undermining people’s ability to seek refuge that runs from Syria to the European continent.
As a military tactic, the use of siege is intended to sever supplies and to prevent people from moving in order to force a defeat. This tactic of controlling aid and population movement can also be seen in the border control policies of states. While some states and armed groups use military checkpoints, snipers, and artillery to keep people entrapped, others close their borders, use higher fences, and implement policy obstacles to keep people out.
Syria is by no means the only country experiencing siege. Saudi Arabia has put in place a blockade on Yemen, restricting the flow of aid and the movement of people in and out of the country. The Iraqi army has put Fallujah and other cities under a military siege in its battle against the Islamic State. Israel’s blockade on Gaza is the longest-running siege in modern history, while the wall constructed in the West Bank literally encircles communities, creating a situation of perpetual siege. Like Europe, Australia is going to great lengths to push people back from its shores. Political opponents, separated by interests and ideologies, are united in their use of this tactic.
What does siege mean for those suffering its consequences? For people inside Syria, siege means being encircled primarily by government forces, starved, denied access to medical treatment or food, and prevented from fleeing violence. For Syria as a whole, siege means borders being sealed. It means being shot at or abused by border guards while trying to cross to safety. It means having no legal status in neighboring countries, where mobility for Syrians, and other refugees, is restricted. For refugees attempting to reach Europe, siege means running the dangerous gauntlet to enter “fortress Europe.” It means navigating a policy-made obstacle course and risking lives on an overcrowded boat to cross the Mediterranean.
The rhetoric of those responsible for siege creates a smokescreen to hide unjustifiable policies. The Syrian government and its allies are fighting “terrorists.” The US-led coalition does the same while also claiming to be against the “regime,” while Russia does the same while claiming to be in support of the “sovereign state.” Syria`s neighbors are “destabilized” and Europe seeks to close its borders for “national security” purposes. Refugees are referred to as a “burden”—void of context and history—that needs to be shared.
All of this rhetoric conveniently omits a set of fundamental facts: States have the responsibility to provide refuge to those fleeing catastrophe. There is also a responsibility to allow medical care and essential aid to reach those who need it, and to ensure that humanitarian aid is provided based on need instead of abused as a tool to promote a policy that underpins the crisis.
The consequences of the failures to fulfill these responsibilities are tangible and devastating. Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is supporting more than 150 medical facilities inside Syria, focusing on besieged areas. Around Damascus alone, these facilities saw 93,162 war-wounded in 2015 and recorded 4,634 war-dead. In areas under siege, MSF has documented forty-nine cases of death by starvation. Sixty-three medical facilities supported by MSF were shelled or bombed in airstrikes in 2015 alone. The unprecedented levels of violence directed toward the people of Syria show no signs of abating.
Syrians who manage to cross into neighboring countries face legal obstacles blocking them from accessing assistance. In Lebanon, for instance, refugees are no longer registered by the United Nations High Council for Refugees (UNHCR). Their precarious legal status means that many are afraid to move around for fear of being stopped at a checkpoint, arrested and deported. This pushes patients underground and results in severe delays in their ability to access treatment. And those who can be treated are the lucky ones. Palestinian refugees who were living in Syria but have sought refuge in Lebanon often fall through the cracks between different UN agency mandates—UNRWA for Palestinians and UNHCR for all other refugees.
In Europe, those landing on Greek islands are sent to lockdown centers where they are detained in overcrowded conditions. This amounts to inhumane and degrading treatment. Many of these refugees are caught in an uncertain holding pattern; some have been or will be sent back to Turkey under the recently signed deal between the European Union (EU) and Turkey. This deal is an attack on the right to seek asylum. It incentivizes border closure and pushes solutions for the global displacement crisis onto the countries neighboring Syria.
Huge financial and security resources are being channeled from Europe to these neighboring countries in exchange for stemming the flow of refugees. Humanitarian aid is being manipulated to keep people out of Europe and perverted as a crisis management tool of EU foreign policy. This turns refugees into a political bargaining chip and the subjects of multiple domestic and foreign policy interests. Resources are being provided not to address needs, but to prevent movement, which creates more needs.
Humanitarian aid is urgently needed for refugees and for those caught in conflict. However, the policy choices disguised as “humanitarian solutions” currently being peddled by states in response to the Syria crisis are self-serving and divert political attention away from lifting these layers of siege. A field hospital in Syria is useless to the person in need of the medical supplies that are systematically removed from aid convoys. A functioning hospital in a neighboring country is useless to people who cannot access it because they are too afraid to move without papers. A health clinic in Greece is useless to people trapped in a containment camp and sent back to places from which they fled.
What is needed are effective means to end the tactic of population entrapment and the denial of the flow of humanitarian aid into areas of conflict, from its inner layers in Syria, Palestine, Iraq, and Yemen, to its outer layers in Europe and Australia. In the case of Syria, this means allowing the free flow of assistance inside the country; it means neighboring countries opening their borders to those in need of refuge or asylum; and it means allowing for safe and legal passage to Europe. To achieve this, the chain of complicity needs to be challenged from the “anti-imperialist” Syrian government and its allies, to the “human rights” promoting European Union.