The debate over a potential Syrian Victims’ Fund has focused primarily on legal avenues, but determining the form of individual or collective reparations is just as important. What could an international fund deliver for the people most affected by violence?

Decisions around the form of reparations must take into account the voices of survivors, as well as of civil society organizations that have already been working to help victims. Reparations should help to restore the dignity of those who survived violence in Syria and should help those survivors wherever they now live. There are many shapes that an international fund could take, but survivors must be leaders in the process.

Since June 2022, the Global Survivors Fund (GSF) and the Association for the Detained and Missing of Sednaya Prison (ADMSP), which we each work for respectively, along with the Centre for Victims of Torture, have been implementing an interim reparative measures project in southern Türkiye for survivors of Syrian detention centers. Interim reparative measures projects are not reparation in the legal sense; that responsibility lies with governments. As non-profit organizations, we try to address the urgent needs of survivors with interim measures, with the hope that a State-led reparation programme will be created to fulfill the right to reparation. For Syrian victims, this hope lies in a Syrian Victims’ Fund.

What we see in our work is that there should be parameters put in place for any reparation program through a Syrian Victims’ Fund. The people we work with from Syria have survived atrocious crimes. They lost years of their lives to torture in detention centers or survived captivity by non-State armed groups. The message a victim receives in being subjected to these crimes is that they are not human, they have no dignity, and they have been abandoned. 

A Syrian Victims’ Fund needs to send the opposite message: one of dignity and belonging. In this way, repair can be impactful and even transformative. To do this, a fund must reflect on the forms and methodologies for delivering reparative measures.

Interim reparations rely on individual survivor input

The interim reparative measures project in Türkiye is the fourth of its kind by GSF. The work started with a study, which showed what challenges and opportunities exist for reparation for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. The study on Syria began in 2021, in partnership with ADMSP and Women Now for Development.

Early in the study process, it was decided that an interim reparative measures project was needed for Syrian survivors. The harms caused needed to be urgently addressed, especially for people who had been forced to flee Syria. In the absence of a State-led reparation program, the project would provide the opportunity to prove to the international community that reparation can happen outside of the country where violations took place.

We decided to focus on the area in Türkiye right across from the Syrian border, based on the assumption that the survivors with the most pressing needs are likely the people who could not make it further into Türkiye than a border town.

In Türkiye, GSF provided methodology and grants to ADMSP and CVT, who are working directly with survivors. A steering committee, made up of survivors and other stakeholders, oversees implementation of the project.

We are working with 820 survivors of detention, with experiences spanning from the 1980s to 2023. With a team of 18 case workers, survivors create their own package of interim reparative measures, including financial compensation and the possibility of psychological care or physiotherapy should a survivor need. With the financial compensation, we have seen many survivors decide to open a small business or support a small business they had already begun. Others have paid for their child’s university tuition or gone back to school themselves. Some survivors opted to use the money for expensive and long-standing medical issues, like replacing teeth they lost to torture and detention.

Most importantly, survivors decided for themselves. Survivors know best what will repair the harms they suffered. In co-creating their interim reparative measures, survivors become leaders of their own reparative journeys. The measures they receive depend on their own needs assessment. Trusting survivors to make their own decisions about their reparation reinforces their dignity, making the process of receiving reparative measures reparative in itself.

Each survivor, while a member of a collective group of victims, has an individual right to reparation. Collective measures, such as testimonial books and art exhibitions, can provide immense repair to victims by recognizing their victimhood, their resilience, and their hope, whilst weaving memory into reparative measures. However, it would be irresponsible to ask a person to turn their focus to group and justice-oriented activities unless they have already seen change in their personal life to repair harm; collective measures cannot supplant individual ones, they complement. 

This is why our project focuses first on individual interim reparative measures. Only when these measures have already been provided do we begin discussing collective measures with survivors. This ensures that above all, survivors start to reclaim what violations took from them, rebuild their lives, and act on their autonomy as human beings.

Programs must build trust and build community

After the program paid compensation to survivors, we have had the pleasure of seeing small businesses opened by survivors, visiting survivors in school, and hearing about their children and next steps. Survivors all share that this project has brought back their hope. They feel recognized and confident about their and their children’s future. While we cannot say for certain what the official impact of the project is without having completed our monitoring and evaluation process, there are a few observations we can share.

First, is that there is a feeling of repaired trust. In our visits, survivors expressed how they felt abandoned by other organizations before. People focused on legal documentation of survivors’ cases would come to take their stories and promise support, only to never be seen again. There was a lot of reluctance to join the project because survivors thought it would only be another instance of abandonment. 

On February 6, 2023, an earthquake struck southern Türkiye and northern Syria. Survivors’ lives became further devastated. Recognizing the need to act immediately and provide support in an emergency, we mobilized a payment to all survivors identified for the project so far. It was after this payment that survivors started to trust in us and the project. Following this payment, more survivors came forward to participate in the project. 

The project has also helped to build community by connecting survivors to one another. Encouragement and support from their peers is helping survivors overcome the stigma they face from the wider Syrian community. Detention, and especially sexual torture, was not previously talked about in group settings. Survivors are made to live in silence and shame, even though surviving detention is common among Syrians in Türkiye. It came as a shock to us in a recent focus group discussion when a survivor said the words “sexual torture” out loud. Coming together, recognizing their own abilities, and building a community has instilled a sense of pride and fostered solidarity. 

Despite these improvements for survivors, and the other impacts we hope to find in official measurements, more must be done. We, unfortunately, cannot afford to address all the harm done to survivors. And without the prospect of a State reparation program, the creation of an international fund for Syrian victims is the best offering on the table to reach victims.

Repair is possible

Our project is proving that repair is possible for Syrian survivors. We know the necessity of co-creation, of focusing on the individual, and of engaging in a multi-stakeholder approach to reparation. A Syrian Victims’ Fund must have survivors as decision makers.

Projects for repair should not be dictated by what States think is best. A potential fund should engage first and foremost with victims and their trusted civil society organizations, even though it could be a challenge to coordinate globally. The flexibility needed for such a fund could be seen in GSF’s methodology, which has been adapted for countries and survivors in all regions of the world. Our approach could be applied to many different groups of victims; the families of the forcibly disappeared and murdered, survivors of bombardments, survivors of the chemical attacks, all who were forcibly displaced, and every person subjected to detention. These people now live all over the world, and an international fund should have the goal of repairing every single person, no matter where they are. Only a concerted effort, co-created with survivors and civil society, could accomplish this. 

IMAGE: This picture shows an aerial view of internally displaced Syrians arriving with their belongings in a convoy of trucks, at a new housing complex in the opposition-held area of Bizaah, east of the city of al-Bab in the northern Aleppo governorate, built with the support of Turkey’s emergencies agency AFAD, on February 9, 2022, after leaving a nearby camp. (Photo by BAKR ALKASEM/AFP via Getty Images)