Cancer patients head for Turkey after border closure protests in NW Syria

Referrals had temporarily stopped earlier in July after UN failed to agree on extension to cross-border aid mechanism.

Cancer patients are once again being allowed to cross the border from northwest Syria to Turkey to access essential medical care, after a vital crossing reopened.

The United Nations had said that the cross-border referral of cancer patients from the opposition-controlled area of Syria to Turkey would resume through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing on Wednesday.

The referral system had stopped after the devastating earthquakes that hit Turkey and Syria in February, but resumed again on June 5.

However, after the UN Security Council failed to agree on an extension to the authorisation necessary for Bab al-Hawa to be used for UN aid operations, the authorisation expired on July 10, and the crossing was closed.

The Syrian government – whose attacks on the opposition-held northwest have made it necessary for aid to be routed away from areas under government control – eventually gave permission for Bab al-Hawa to be used for aid delivery on July 13, and following several protests by activists and humanitarian workers in recent days, Turkey has now allowed those being referred for cancer treatment to cross the border again.

The protests reflected the desperation of cancer patients and their families in northwest Syria, which, having been torn apart by war for more than a decade, does not have facilities capable of fully treating patients, with a shortage of supplies, medication and medical staff.

Al Jazeera’s Nour Qormosh, reporting from the Turkey-Syria border, said that Turkey’s decision to open its borders, allowing the “most vulnerable” to seek medical aid, was “a glimpse of hope” for the patients.

Um Ahmed, the mother of a toddler with cancer waiting to be transported to Turkey, told Al Jazeera that her family had exhausted all their options to provide proper care for her son at the hospitals in Idlib, “but it was not enough”.

“He was very close to dying and I hope that the treatment in the Turkish hospitals will help him get better in the long run,” she said.

According to the UN, there are at least 4,300 active cancer cases in northwest Syria, with 600 diagnoses in Idlib this year alone, more than half of whom are children.

Radiography equipment will now be installed in two hospitals in northern Aleppo, Farhan Haq, the deputy spokesperson for the UN secretary-general, told reporters on Tuesday, in an attempt to improve care in opposition-held areas of Syria.

“Our partners are working to ensure that there is long-term capacity to operate these machines. Prior to this, there was no radiotherapy equipment in northwest Syria,” said Haq.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies