Syrian Kurd sets himself on fire outside UNHCR in Geneva

The incident occurred at 7.40am outside the UN Refugee Agency headquarters building on Wednesday. Keystone / Gaetan Bally

A man set himself on fire outside the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) headquarters in Geneva on Wednesday morning. The Syrian Kurd from Germany was transported by helicopter to a local hospital. 

This content was published on October 23, 2019
20 Minutes/Reuters/sb

The man reportedly covered himself in petrol and set light to himself outside the UNHCR headquarters building. 

“He is a Syrian Kurd, born in 1988 and a resident in Germany,” Geneva police spokesperson Silvain Guillaume-Gentil told 20 Minutes. 

The emergency services were quickly on the spot and reportedly managed to save his life. The online site said he was then quickly transported by helicopter from the Place des Nations square in front of the UN headquarters to Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV), which specialises in the treatment of burns. 

External Content

*correction: the man was airlifted to Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV), not Geneva University Hospital.

The incident reportedly took place at around 7.40am while many people were going to work at the building. 

“I was woken up by screams from the street,” a local resident told 20Minutes. “Repeated cries of distress, I saw that something was happening outside UNHCR. There were many police cars, an ambulance and firemen…later I saw a man leave on a stretcher.” 

UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic told Reuters: "We are saddened and shocked (about) an incident of self-immolation that happened in front of our Geneva headquarters this morning."

The man had set light to himself and then tried to enter the UNHCR building but security officers and medical services intervened, and the fire was extinguished, Mahecic said. The UNHCR headquarters is situated opposite a collective shelter for asylum-seekers, including Syrian Kurds.


The Kurdish man’s motives remain unclear. It comes amid a period of high tensions and violence in north-eastern Syria, following the US decision to pull 1,000 troops from the region, clearing the way for Turkey to move in on Kurdish-controlled territory.  

Trump's decision allowed Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to launch an offensive into the region to create a 20 mile (32 km) "safe zone" clear of the Kurdish YPG militia, but where refugees could be resettled. 

Following a ceasefire, Ankara and Moscow agreed on Tuesday that Syrian and Russian forces would deploy in northeast Syria to remove Kurdish YPG fighters and their weapons from the border with Turkey. 

According to the UN, more than 176,000 Kurds have fled their homes since Turkey launched its cross-border offensive. Some 80,000 children alone have been uprooted, UN officials said on Tuesday.

Demonstrations against the offensive have taken place in the cities of Geneva, Bern, Zurich and Lucerne in the last couple of weeks.

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