The Freedom Across Borders conference organised by Syria Solidarity UK with Amnesty International UK, the Syrian Legal Development Programme, Dawlaty and Migrants Organise, is an opportunity for a wide range of human rights activists in the UK and Syrian human rights activists to meet and learn about each other’s work, and to explore opportunities for solidarity.
More information and registration links can be found at www.freedomacrossborders.org
Kellie Strom is an activist with Syria Solidarity UK, former secretariat to the APPG Friends of Syria, and editor of Syria Notes. In this guest blog post he reflects on his experience of campaigning and why we need to come together in solidarity.
When mass protests calling for freedom spread from Tunisia to Libya, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria in 2011, all the world took notice. But through the grim years of brutal repression that followed, many have turned away in despair. People fleeing for their lives have met with growing hostility and an emboldened right wing building walls to prevent them from reaching safety.
Illustration: Displaced people in Idlib sheltering under olive trees in May 2019; a sketch by Muzna based on a photo by Omar Khattab of People in Need
Campaigning on Syria is like entering a parallel world. The more you are immersed in a cause, the more distant you can become from the world view of others. I am sure people campaigning on other causes have a similar experience. Now we want to reach out beyond the Syria circle, to share our experiences of human rights campaigning on Syria, to learn from others, and hopefully to find strength together.
On 6th July we are joining with Migrants Organise, Amnesty International, Dawlaty, the Syrian Legal Development Programme, and several other organisations, for Freedom Across Borders, a one day conference in London.
We would like to invite you to join campaigning for refugees with campaigning for the rights of people still inside Syria. We want to campaign for legal accountability as well as support refugees and survivors. We come from an understanding that all our freedoms are linked, in Syria and in Ukraine, Sudan and Yemen, and here in the UK.
I remember when in the first half of 2015, we in Syria Solidarity UK were campaigning with others for refugees to be resettled in the UK, demanding safe routes for those fleeing violent repression. For a long time few wanted to hear. But then where the suffering of hundreds of thousands had seemed an abstraction, the media coverage of the death of one child, Alan Kurdi, made the crisis real for many people, and made the possibility of responding real as well.
Then in Autumn 2015, with more people joining in campaigning on refugee rights, we turned again to focus on campaigning in solidarity with people still inside Syria. Even in that moment of compassion, however, the border of Syria placed a limit on many people’s solidarity. One person for whom that wasn’t the case was Jo Cox. The most hopeful period in my time campaigning on Syria was when I helped support her work in the All-Party Parliamentary Group Friends Of Syria.
Jo was clear that empathy and solidarity shouldn’t end at a border. She was also clear that what was needed from the UK Government was a practical response centred on protecting civilians, bringing together humanitarian, diplomatic, and military policy.
When people are presented with endless images of suffering, but not with positive ways to respond, turning away is only natural. Reinforcing this, our political leaders now seem unwilling to risk political capital on Syria, so instead the message from the UK Government is that there is little we can do. But this simply isn’t true. The UK continues to be one of the world’s wealthiest countries, and is the closest ally of the US, the most powerful state intervening militarily in Syria.
To give one example of UK failure, Jo called for humanitarian air drops to civilians being besieged by Assad’s forces. Because of a lack of UK Government leadership nothing came of it, and in one town after another people in besieged areas across Syria were starved out and forcibly displaced to Idlib. There they once again must now flee from bombing, with thousands sheltering under olive trees along the Turkish border.
And there is one part of Syria still suffering a starvation siege: Rukban camp. The abandonment of the people there is if anything even more disturbing than the UK’s failure towards the besieged populations of Daraya, Moadamiya and Aleppo, of Madaya, Al Waer and Eastern Ghouta. A new report by Protection Approaches, Preventing While Protecting, takes Rukban camp as a case study in UK failure to protect.
Today as refugee and migrants’ rights campaigners rightly call for the extension of the UK commitment to resettle Syrian refugees, rightly call for the resettlement of lone child refugees, rightly call for an end to end indefinite immigration detention and an end to unsafe deportations, we still have difficulty finding ways to articulate and action solidarity for those on the other side of the Syrian border, those who are unable to cross and find refuge.
If the people seeking escape from bombing along the border with Turkey seem ignored, the people starving on the border with Jordan seem invisible. The borders are imprisoning them, and killing them.
Can our solidarity reach across those borders? Please join us on the 6th of July and help us work out how. Register now via Eventbrite here