Family of missing UK doctor says he entered Syria with £20 000 in medical supplies to provide aid

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 04 February 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f681
  1. Sophie Arie
  1. 1London

The plight of a UK doctor who went to Syria over two months ago to offer humanitarian aid remains unclear.

Abbas Khan, 31, was detained while working at a hospital in Aleppo in November, and his family has not heard from him since.

The family believes that he is being held at an air force prison in Damascus, but the Syrian authorities have said that they have no information about the missing doctor.

Khan, a father of two who had been training in the United Kingdom to be an orthopaedic surgeon, initially went to Turkey with an aid agency called Human Aid to treat injured refugees crossing the border from Syria.

Most aid agencies had pulled out of Syria some months earlier because of the increasingly dangerous situation, but Khan reportedly heard refugees’ stories of people dying on the streets for lack of medical assistance and crossed independently into Syria with two other doctors. He took £20 000 (€23 000; $32 000) worth of medical supplies with him, including 40 femoral nails, in a backpack, said his brother, Shah Khan.

“It was perhaps naive, but he just wanted to help,” Shah Khan told the BMJ. The family understands that Khan was operating in a hospital in Aleppo when he was called to attend a patient in the street and was arrested. It is not known what happened to the other two doctors, whose nationality is not known.

“Local media reports tried to associate him with the rebels,” Shah Khan told the BMJ. “But he had no political affiliations at all. We are Muslims from India; we have no connections with Syria.”

The family is frustrated that the Foreign Office has not done more to pursue Khan’s case.

A spokesperson for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said, “We are trying to do all we can,” but added that it was “difficult to make progress” because of the situation in Syria, where the UK does not now have a consular presence. The Foreign Office has warned against all travel to the country.

Khan is one of many doctors, mostly Syrians, who have been targeted in what aid agencies describe as a deliberate campaign by the state to destroy health services. The head of first aid for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the leading aid agency in Syria, was detained in Damascus last November, after the organisation set up several field hospitals in a rebel stronghold.1 He was released in January. Syrian authorities are not allowing aid agencies to work in government held areas.

A report issued by the International Rescue Committee in January,2 since the war began, said that Syria’s health system had been “destroyed” through a campaign of deliberate targeting of healthcare facilities and of “intimidation, torture, and the targeted killing of doctors and other medical staff in retribution for treating the wounded, including civilians.”

One Syrian doctor who fled to Jordan from the city of Hama told the International Rescue Committee, “If you’re found at a roadblock to have medicines or a supply of blood, it’s considered the equivalent of transporting weapons. As a doctor, you could be jailed or killed.”

Another Syrian doctor, now a refugee in Turkey, estimated that about 5000 doctors had been practising in and around Aleppo before the war. He believes that killings and displacement have reduced that number to 36.

Shah Khan has been told that many of the remaining healthcare professionals are charging high amounts for their services and that they may not have appreciated his brother offering care and supplies for free.

In a 26 January update the charity Médecins Sans Frontières said that it was increasingly difficult for health professionals to provide basic care to war wounded or to “women, who would previously have given birth in hospital [but who] now find themselves with little access to free medical services.”3 The charity’s field hospital in the Aleppo region is one of the few facilities providing much needed healthcare to pregnant women and newborn babies.

Deliveries of babies in the charity’s facilities rose from 56 in November to 150 in the first three weeks of January. But it warned that growing insecurity in the Aleppo region was weakening efforts to provide essential care.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f681