Do or Die: COVID-19 and Imprisonment in Syria

Publication: Policy Brief

The COVID-19 pandemic poses a dire risk to the tens of thousands of people imprisoned in Syria’s archipelago of prisons and detention facilities, many in conditions so ghastly that they constitute crimes against humanity. These facilities function as overcrowded torture chambers by design. Thousands have already died in detention due to such circumstances, and those still living are especially vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus.

Photo: Satellite image of Sednaya military prison (©Google/Maxar Technologies 2020)

If COVID-19 is permitted to take hold, the devastation among the prison population will be swift and fatal. Nor will it stop at the prison walls. What can be done to avert a catastrophe that threatens not only the up to 100,000 who may still be alive in detention, but also the war-weary Syrian population at large? This briefing outlines a two-step approach to averting the looming disaster, calling first and foremost for immediate and large-scale prisoner releases, because no prevention or mitigation efforts will succeed unless the challenges presented by overcrowding are addressed. While releases are underway, the living conditions of those who remain imprisoned must be radically transformed to safeguard health and prevent the pandemic from taking hold.

Download the full briefing here.

About the authors:

Tayseer Alkarim is a physician, humanitarian, and nonviolence activist with over a decade of field experience in emergency medical operations in conflict zones and low-resource settings. He is co-founder of First Consultant COVID-19, which is a grassroots initiative aimed at providing context specific advice for frontline health workers responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in low income and conflict-affected countries. He has extensive field experience in planning and responding to emergencies in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Uganda, Bangladesh and Pakistan, and with refugee crisis response in Greece, Jordan, and Turkey. He has published on health response and training of medical workers in conflict zones.

Hanny Megally is a senior fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a member of the UN Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. He was the Chief of the Asia, Pacific, Middle East and North Africa Branch at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, and previously worked at the International Center for Transitional Justice, Human Rights Watch, the Ford Foundation, and Amnesty International. He has more than forty years of experience in the field of human rights, transitional justice and conflict resolution.

Leah Zamore is a senior policy analyst at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, where she directs the Humanitarian Crises program. A human rights lawyer and scholar, she also co-directs the Experts Group on Global Refugee Policy. She is the co-author, with T. Alexander Aleinikoff, of The Arc of Protection: Reforming the International Refugee Regime (Stanford University Press, 2019).

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