The members of the Syrian NGO Syria Civil Defence, better known as the White Helmets, are important humanitarian first responders in the conflict in Syria.
In the early hours of Sunday (22 July), an internationally coordinated operation evacuated White Helmets and their families from southern Syria. In total, 422 persons were evacuated. Germany will take in eight White Helmets and their families.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has expressed his relief:
It is good news that, in close cooperation with our international partners, we have succeeded in safely evacuating many White Helmets from southern Syria. [...] It is a humanitarian imperative to provide asylum and protection to many of these courageous search and rescue workers, including in Germany. We are grateful to all of the partners who are contributing to this.
The security situation is critical – and Germany is part of the evacuation effort
Over the past months, the Syrian army has made ever greater territorial gains in the south of the country. For the White Helmets, this means that the areas in the region in which they can operate have shrunk. Most recently, many of them have faced danger for life and limb.
That is why, together with international partners, Germany has supported the evacuation of the affected persons, including by agreeing to take in a total of eight particularly threatened White Helmets and their families.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas:
Together with the United Kingdom, as well as our Canadian and American friends and partners, we have worked hard [to prepare for the evacuation], and we are now very grateful that these efforts were ultimately successful. Furthermore, we are grateful that some of these persons and their families can be granted protection in Germany.
The evacuated White Helmets are currently being cared for in Jordan. In a next step, all individuals who are to be taken in by Germany will be vetted by the security authorities, and they will undergo a visa application process. The plan is to admit them within three months.
Germany has provided a total of 12 million euros in funding to the White Helmets since 2016.
Who are the White Helmets?
The White Helmets have been active since 2013. The organisation comprises some 3000 unarmed civilian search and rescue workers who provide humanitarian assistance in areas held by the opposition. According to the White Helmets, they have saved more than 100,000 lives during the course of the conflict in Syria.
They perform their work based on a humanitarian pledge of allegiance, namely, to rescue the victims of air strikes regardless of their ethnicity, political views or religious beliefs. They recover the dead and wounded, provide the injured with medical care, fight fires and help to evacuate civilians.
For many people in Syria, the White Helmets have come to symbolise hope and civic courage. More than 250 of them have died in operations. The White Helmets have received many international prizes, including the so-called “Alternative Nobel Prize” and the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights.