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Disappearances in Syria: the facts

What is a disappearance?

An ‘enforced disappearance’ is when a person is arrested, detained or abducted by the authorities, or by people acting with their authorization, support, or acquiescence. Those responsible then deny that the person is being held, or conceal their fate or whereabouts.

What is happening in Syria?

Thousands of suspected opponents of the government have been arbitrarily arrested and detained; many appear to have been subjected to enforced disappearance. Some remain missing – their fate or whereabouts unknown to their families, who are often in anguish and despair. Others who were subjected to enforced disappearance but eventually released after languishing for months in secret detention have told Amnesty International about the torture and other ill-treatment they endured.

When did disappearances start in Syria?

Enforced disappearances were a major human rights concern during the rule of Hafez al-Assad, who was president of Syria from 1971 until his death in 2000. The number of people subjected to enforced disappearance has sharply risen since the beginning of the crisis in March 2011.

How many people has this affected?

Local organizations report that thousands of civilians have been killed in the custody of Syrian security forces, and tens of thousands have been subjected to enforced disappearances since 2011.

How are people treated in detention?

Conditions in unofficial detention centres in particular have been described as catastrophic. Large numbers of people are held in very small spaces. There is not enough food or water – one detainee told us that others in his cell were so desperate for water that they drank from the toilet. Unsanitary conditions and a lack of medical care cause serious disease. Torture and other ill-treatment is rife: for example, people have reported being beaten with various objects as well as being placed in stress positions and then beaten, especially during interrogation.

What are families told?

The families of those who have been taken are often denied any information about their whereabouts or the reasons for their arrest or abduction. Some families have spent years without knowing where their loved ones are, or whether they are still alive.