Children of detainees in Syria’s Al-Hol camp languish in political limbo

IRBIL, Iraq. Women and children detained in Al-Hol, a sprawling camp of around 57,000 people in northeast Syria, endure squalid conditions and almost daily violence inflicted by its many extremist inmates who still cling to the extremist ideology of Daesh.

Violence is endemic inside the camp, where there have been at least 130 killings since March 2019, according to Save the Children. In 2021 alone, an average of two people per week have been killed, often with impunity and in full view of children.

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The overwhelming majority of these attacks took place in the main Al-Hol camp, which houses Syrian and Iraqi nationals. The Al-Hol annex, which has also seen its share of insecurity, is home to women and children from at least 60 other countries.

“We provide services, but ultimately it is still a camp and therefore inadequate as a housing project,” said Dr Alan Dahir, a Kurdish Red Crescent official who runs the site. . Arab News.

“Most of the children are orphans. Although I don’t think they have been forgotten, including foreign women, their respective countries have yet to come forward and claim them.

Imene Trabelsi, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross, which provides basic assistance to Al-Hol, said living conditions are well below international standards in terms of access to food, water, health care and education.

“There are children who have tragically spent their entire short lives in camps like Al-Hol, being born there and dying there without ever leaving the perimeter,” Trabelsi told Arab News.

“Tens of thousands more children are spending their early years – so important for their development – in such conditions, in full view of the international community and their own home states.”

In February last year, a fire engulfed part of the camp, killing at least eight people and seriously injuring many, including more than a dozen children. Due to the often extreme climate and lack of infrastructure, respiratory tract infections and malnutrition are rampant.

“Children are constantly exposed to dangers and their rights are often violated. The world cannot continue to look away while children breathe their first and last breaths in camps or grow up stateless and in limbo,” Trabelsi said.

QUICKFACTS

In February 2021, a fire ravaged part of Al-Hol camp, killing at least eight people and injuring many seriously.

Western governments have been reluctant to take back their citizens, fearing political backlash.

“This is one of the largest and most complex child protection emergencies of our time and it is high time to find the political will to act before more lives are lost. “

Al-Hol is home to people displaced by the conflicts that have rocked the region over the years. But its population suddenly skyrocketed in March 2019 after the defeat of Daesh in the last territorial stronghold of the Baghouz group in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor.

Thousands of women and children, many of them families of captured or killed militants, were trucked from Baghouz to Al-Hol in the nearby town of Hasakah, where most have since remained in Syrian Democratic Forces custody. supported by the United States.

“I hadn’t eaten in what felt like weeks at the time. We were literally left to eat grass,” said Ayman, a young Yazidi who was forced to fight with Daesh in Baghouz after being abducted as a child.

“We had nothing. I don’t know how I survived. I ended up in Al-Hol and was later rescued through the local efforts of those looking for Yazidi survivors.

When Daesh militants stormed into the Yazidi ancestral lands of Sinjar in northwestern Iraq in the summer of 2014, thousands of women and children were abducted and forcibly converted to the group’s distorted interpretation of Islam.

By the time the group was defeated territorially in early 2019, many of these former captives were either too scared to identify as Yazidis or too indoctrinated to separate from their former captors inside Al-Hol.

“I consider myself lucky,” Ayman told Arab News. “Some of my friends and women I know refused to be rescued. They had been so indoctrinated and traumatized that they had chosen to remain in the under-the-radar camp. I don’t know what happened to them now.

Aid agencies have long called on governments to support the safe, voluntary and dignified return of Syrian and Iraqi families from Al-Hol to their communities, and the repatriation of children of foreign fighters and their mothers to their countries of origin. origin.

“I have been pursuing this issue since 2018 and managed to bring around 40 people back to their home countries. Most were children,” Peter Galbraith, a former US diplomat, told Arab News.

Western governments have been reluctant to take back their citizens, fearing political backlash, expense and even security risks if authorities fail to successfully pursue suspected Islamist radicals.

“Part of the problem is that the UN and other NGOs say countries should take their citizens back, but the reality is that nobody really does,” Galbraith said. “There’s no point in continuing to scream about something and not getting there.

“For some countries like the UK, Canada and France, they find it less complicated and cheaper to keep their citizens in northeast Syria. Bringing them home and putting them on trial, convicting them, and then sending them to jail would cost thousands of dollars, instead of keeping them in the camp for a few hundred dollars.

As a result, thousands of children who ended up in the camp through no fault of their own were effectively abandoned by Western governments, left vulnerable to violence, disease and radicalization.

“Children end up paying for their parents’ mistakes,” Galbraith said. “Every man and woman who decided to join Daesh had free will in one way or another. Children brought or born here had no choice. They are now sentenced to life imprisonment.

“They are also at risk of being married off with children and being raised by the hardline extremist women who run the camps. An American orphan we rescued was being raised by a Somali extremist woman when we found him.

“Children are at risk of ending up in the hands of ruthless smugglers, human traffickers, who will do anything for money. Some Yazidi women, after all their ordeals with Daesh, ended up being trafficked into prostitution by these smugglers.

“Children should be removed and placed in villages or foster homes.”

Far from accelerating repatriation programs, Western governments have instead sought to outsource the problem to SDF-controlled prisons, neighboring Iraq’s rudimentary justice system, or cash-strapped Kurdish authorities and security agencies. aid operator Al-Hol.

The dangers posed by outsourcing the problem were amply demonstrated in January this year when Daesh remnants launched a massive and highly sophisticated attack on a prison in Hasakah where thousands of its former fighters were being held in SDF custody. .

Some reports suggest that 374 militants were killed in the attack, along with 77 prison staff, 40 SDF members and four civilians. Around 400 detainees are still missing, indicating that a significant number have escaped.

The incident was just the latest in a string of attacks and escape attempts at camps and prisons in the region, suggesting Daesh may be making a resurgence in an area where it was seen as a threat. exhausted strength.

Meanwhile, Al-Hol’s children are rapidly growing into adults, radicalized by their mothers and peers, and resentful of mistreatment. Unless their plight is urgently addressed and their psychological needs properly met, aid groups warn of extreme and lasting damage.

“Children cannot continue to live in such dire conditions,” said Sonia Khush, Syria Response Director for Save the Children, in a recent statement.

“The level of violence they experience daily in Al-Hol is appalling. The insecurity in the camp needs to be addressed effectively without adding more stress and fear to the lives of these children, and they urgently need access to more psychosocial support to cope with their experiences.

“But the only lasting solution to this situation is to help the children and their families to be able to leave the camp safely and voluntarily.

“It’s not a place where children can grow up.”

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