'A Human Flame': Syrian Kurdish Refugee Sets Himself on Fire Outside U.N. Building in Geneva

A Syrian Kurdish man set himself on fire outside the United Nations refugee agency headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland on Wednesday. The 31-year-old man, who lives in Germany as a refugee, committed the act at roughly 8 a.m. local time before trying to storm the building.

He was quickly confronted by security officers outside the U.N. building, Geneva police spokesman Silvain Guillaume-Gentil told journalists at a brief press conference, reported Reuters, before he was flown by helicopter to the specialized burns unit at the university hospital in Lausanne where he is receiving treatment.

"Given his state, it was impossible to ask him about his motive, but we imagine that it was the political situation," Guillaume-Gentil said. "He had a hard time expressing himself when help arrived."

The building where the Syrian Kurdish refugee set himself alight, home to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is located across the street from a shelter for refugees and asylum seekers that includes a number of Syrian Kurds.

"I saw the flames and the security agents from the building came and then a few minutes after that the police and ambulance," an employee of the UNHCR building told Reuters. "There are Syrians here [at the asylum centre], but I can't confirm (the man) was a resident."

A resident at the asylum center who witnessed the incident said that the man resembled a "huge human flame," adding: "I doubt he could survive that."

Syrian Kurd from Germany who set light to himself outside UNHCR in Geneva helicoptered to Geneva University Hospital pic.twitter.com/Gbzr2zB0Ih

— Simon Bradley (@sibradley1) October 23, 2019

The incident comes as Turkish and Russian forces prepare to enter further Kurdish-held areas of northeastern Syria. The invasion began following an October 7 call between Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump after which it was announced that U.S. troops would be withdrawn from The Syrian-Turkish border.

Following the move, Trump was widely criticized for seemingly betraying the Kurds who had been an ally in a five-year struggle against militants from the Islamic State group (ISIS). Since then, thousands of people have been displaced and dozens killed in the ensuing airstrikes and artillery fire.

Turkey is also accused of using white phosphorus-loaded munitions on civilian populations in the region and Newsweek published exclusive images documenting the alleged attacks on Monday.

The use of white phosphorus—a chemical that causes severe burns—is common in combat, such as in smoke grenades, but would be considered a war crime if used on civilian populations.

A spokesperson for the U.N.'s Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) told Newsweek they are investigating the allegations, but that it was too early to make an assessment regarding their credibility.

On Tuesday, Russia and Turkey reached an agreement establishing a Turkish "safe zone" within the Syrian border, giving Kurdish YPG fighters 150 hours to withdraw.

Kurds remain angry at their treatment, however, and multiple videos appeared earlier this week showing local residents pelting U.S. troops with rocks and rotten fruit as they withdrew from positions soon to be occupied by the Turks.

UNHCR Building
The building of the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) headquarters. Getty