Syrian 'White Helmets' Rescue Workers Set To Be Resettled In Britain

The Syria Civil Defense volunteers have been evacuated from Syria's southern border by Israeli forces.

Cover image provided by the Syrian Civil Defense

Rescue workers known as the White Helmets are expected to be resettled in Britain after an evacuation from Syria's conflict-scarred southern border.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said in a joint statement with the International Development Secretary that the "brave and selfless" volunteers required "immediate protection".

The UK had backed an international effort to rescue members of the group and their families from the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

They had fled as a Syrian government offensive in the south-west of the country intensified earlier this summer.

The Israeli military evacuated 422 defence volunteers and family members from a Syrian border area to Jordan.

Officially known as Syria Civil Defence, the White Helmets, had been stranded in the border area with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights following the latest Syrian government offensive in southwestern Syria.

Jordan agreed to temporarily house the evacuees, but its Foreign Ministry said Britain, Germany and Canada would resettle them.

Spokesman Mohammed al-Kayed said the Syrians would remain in a closed area for up to three months before moving on.

The Foreign Office is expected to help resettle the White Helmets and their families.

It is understood that the United Nations Human Right Council's procedures for identifying and resettling refugees would be used to decide who could come to the UK, while their placement would be resolved through the Government's vulnerable persons resettlement scheme.

Mr Hunt and Penny Mordaunt said in a joint statement: "Following a joint diplomatic effort by the UK and international partners, a group of White Helmets volunteers from southern Syria and their families have been able to leave Syria for safety.

"They are now being assisted by the UNHCR in Jordan pending international resettlement.

"The White Helmets have saved over 115,000 lives during the Syrian conflict, at great risk to their own.

"Many White Helmets volunteers have also been killed while doing their work - trying to rescue civilians trapped in bombarded buildings or providing first aid to injured civilians.

"White Helmets have been the target of attacks and, due to their high profile, we judged that, in these particular circumstances, the volunteers required immediate protection.

"We therefore took steps with the aim of affording that protection to as many of the volunteers and their families as possible.

"We pay tribute to the brave and selfless work that White Helmets volunteers have done to save Syrians on all sides of the conflict."

Syrian Civil Defence White Helmets
Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets (Image: SCD Handout)

The Israeli military said its actions did not reflect a change to Israel's non-intervention policy in Syria's war, now in its eighth year, where all the warring parties are considered hostile.

The Syrians would remain in Jordan for three months before moving on to the UK, Germany and Canada, the Jordanian Foreign Ministry's spokesman Mohammed al-Kayed said. Adding:

"The request was approved based on pure humanitarian reasons."

Raed Saleh, head of the Syrian Civil Defence as the White Helmets are also known, said a number of volunteers and their families were evacuated from a dangerous, besieged area and had reached Jordan.

On Friday US officials were reported to be finalising plans to evacuate several hundred Syrian civil defence workers and their families from south-west Syria as Russian-backed government forces closed in on the Quneitra province, along the Golan Heights frontier.

The officials said the White Helmets, who have enjoyed backing from the United States and other Western nations for years, were likely to be targeted by Syrian forces as they retook control of the south-west. Evacuation plans were accelerated after last week's Nato summit in Brussels.

Since the Syrian government offensive began in June, the area along the frontier in the Golan Heights has been the safest in the south-western region, attracting hundreds of displaced because of its location along the disengagement line with Israel, demarcated in 1974 after a war. Thousands of civilians had taken shelter near the frontier to escape the government offensive.

The Syrian government is unlikely to carry out air strikes there for fear of an Israeli response.

The White Helmets have typically operated in opposition-held areas across Syria, places where government services are almost non-existent, voluntarily risking their lives to save hundreds of civilian lives during government air strikes and bombardments.

The government and Russia view the White Helmets as "agents" of foreign powers and have regularly accused them of staging rescue missions or chemical attacks.

Over the last month, Syrian government forces aided by Russian air power have swept through south-western Syria to consolidate government control over this strategic corner of the country that straddles the border with Jordan and the frontier with Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

With its new advances, government forces are, for the first time since the civil war began in 2011, retaking this territory from the rebels and restoring their positions along the disengagement line in the Golan Heights.