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UN urges 57 countries to repatriate their nationals in Syria immediately

“An unknown number” of foreign nationals have died whilst in squalid camps in northeast Syria, UN experts said on 7 February. They expressed grave concerns at the deteriorating security and humanitarian situation at Al-Hol and Roj camps, urging 57 countries whose nationals are held in the camps to repatriate them immediately.

Situation in the camps

Al-Hol and Roj in northeast Syria are the largest camps for refugees and displaced people, many of whom are wives and children of extremist fighters. Out of the 64,000 people in Al-Hol, more than 80% are women and children, with more than half of the children under aged 12. According to UNICEF, there are approximately 10,000 foreigners (those not from Syria or Iraq) in Al-Hol, of over 60 different nationalities. 

Special Rapporteur Fionnuala Ní Aoláin led the UN’s appeal to governments around the world to repatriate their citizens in the camps, expressing that many Western European countries could do more to bring them home. She said she has spent the last few years speaking to family members of loved ones in the camps, particularly the many grandmothers who are “literally watching their grandchildren starve on cell phones in Western countries that refuse to return their mothers and children.”

“Thousands of people held in the camps are exposed to violence, exploitation, abuse and deprivation in conditions and treatment that may well amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under international law, with no effective remedy at their disposal,” UN experts said.

An unknown number of foreign nationals have already died. Ms. Ní Aoláin dismissed claims that repatriating foreign nationals is not possible without the cooperation of non-State groups, such as the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF), arguing that it is not the case that wealthy Western countries lack the resources to rehabilitate and reintegrate their nationals who have been in Syria. The SDF, as the “de-facto” authority, she said, do not want these individuals in the camps and are also pleading for them to be taken home.

The call for urgent action follows increased violence in the camps since the start of the year. There have reportedly been 18 murders so far, with 12 in the first two weeks of January alone. According to a report by the Rojava Information Centre (RIC), at least half of the killings were beheading executions, with many of the attacks linked to ISIS. RIC researcher Charles Flunn told Voices of America that ISIS undoubtedly has a “lot of influence” with the camps, with a lot of the killings claimed by active ISIS members. “There seems to be internal courts and councils of ISIS members who decide the fate of these victims and others,” he said. UN officials warn that the killings indicate an “increasingly untenable security environment.” 

Lack of political will

Ms. Ní Aoláin did note that some states have been successful in repatriating their nationals, leaving no excuse for those countries with “just a handful” of detainees in Syria.

“We have other countries including the United States which has offered and supported many of these returns, we have many other countries willing to help. There is no viable excuse other than political will that explains the lack of returns in these places,” she said.

In a case in France, 55-year old grandmother Pascale Descamps, has been on hunger strike in a desperate appeal to the French authorities to repatriate her daughter. Her daughter, a 32-year old mother of four who is in Roj camp, was diagnosed with colon cancer at a hospital in Qamishli in November 2020. Ms. Descamps has been on hunger strike since 1 February, attempting to appeal to the French authorities to bring her daughter back for treatment, as her condition has worsened significantly since her diagnosis.

Speaking to French media outlet Libération, Ms. Descamps said that the doctor who gave her daughter’s diagnosis told her that she needed an urgent operation, but if it did not take place in a hospital, she would likely die. “He advised her to demand that she be repatriated”, Ms. Descamps said. “She’s constantly losing blood, her tumor has grown… she’s only able to consume liquids,” she added, and although ill-equipped camp doctors are checking up on her, “she currently isn’t receiving any medical treatment.” She is also worried for her grandchildren who are with their sick mother in Syria, with the eldest, 11-year old daughter, having to care for her siblings as their mother cannot. The children were taken with their parents in 2015 to join ISIS, and when widowed the mother then took her children to Al-Hol. Kurdish led authorities began moving “low risk” detainees from Al-Hol to Roj camp, where they now stay. Ms. Descamps has already appealed for her grandchildren to be brought home. 

So far, only 35 of an estimated 250 French children living in the camps have been repatriated. The appointment of French justice minister Eric Dupond-Moretti last year offered some hopes that there would be greater will to repatriate nationals in Syria, as he had previously stated that he believes all French detainees should be brought back home and adults put on trial for their suspected crimes. However, since his appointment only seven children have been returned to France. Mr Dupond-Moretti did say that the justice ministry is following the case of Ms. Descamps’ daughter “very closely”, but had doubts about whether the “current domestic political situation would allow for repatriations to happen.” 

Some countries have made significant efforts to repatriate and rehabilitate their nationals in Syria. Last week on 4 February, it was reported that Kazakhstan had repatriated a group of its nationals who had been fighting in Syria. The country’s National Security Committee and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with support from the US and other international partners, carried out an operation that brought home four men, one woman and seven children. The authorities said that the persons involved in terrorist activities will be prosecuted in accordance with national legislation and international commitments. Two orphans were among the children who were returned home, who will be transferred to the care of close relatives, with the government ensuring they will provide assistance to them as well as the woman and other children, who need rehabilitation and resocialisation programmes. 

The operation was sanctioned by Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as a continuation of Operation Zhusan launched by the country’s first president Nursultan Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev’s initiative was a three phase operation carried out between January and May 2019, repatriating 595 of its citizens in Syria, with the woman and children brought back to rehabilitation centres or adoption centres if necessary. They were given into the care of medical workers, psychologists and theologians before being resocialised back into their community. Thirty-three male fighters are being tried and sentenced, but will reportedly still undergo rehabilitation whilst serving their sentences. According to Kazahk officials, the total number of repatriated citizens is over 700, including 33 former ISIS fighters, 187 women and 490 children. Kazakhstan’s successful efforts to bring back their nationals from Syria has been based on humanitarian grounds. Yerzhan Ashikbayev, Kazakhstan’s deputy foreign minister, said that “given the number of women and kids, this is a humanitarian operation.”

“They were without access to their basic needs of food, shelter, clean water, health and education”, he added, and that Kazakh women and children were exposed to “different types of threats and violations, such as sexual abuse, exploitation and potential recruitment by terrorist groups.”

US officials praised Kazakhstan’s efforts to repatriate and rehabilitate its citizens from Syria. Deputy Coordinator for Countering Violent Extremism at the U.S. State Department, Chris Harnish, said that Kazakhstan was the first country to step up after the US called on other countries to take back their nationals in Syria. In an online event held by the Atlantic Council, he said they didn’t just “dip their toe in the water, they said ‘we’re going to bring back effectively as many Kazakhstanis as we could’”. US officials said that Washington played an important role in providing Kazakh authorities with assistance for effective rehabilitation programs for those who are returned home. 

As of October 2020, the US announced it had repatriated the last of Americans believed to be in Syria and accused of supporting ISIS. However, it is unclear whether there are still American children in the camps, who have yet to be brought home. In a heart-breaking Vice documentary in 2019, the father of two children taken to Syria by their now deceased mother desperately went to Al-Hol to look for his daughter and son. Bashirul Shikder had been in contact with the FBI, and was able to enter the camp with journalists from Vice and the help of the SDF, who undertook an operation to find his children in the camp, but were unsuccessful. There has been no news since on whether his children have been found and returned home, leaving concerns that many more children whose specific location is unknown may be stranded somewhere in Al-Hol.

The UK government has also failed to mount significant efforts to bring back British children from camps in Syria. IOHR’s Bring Children Home campaign has monitored the government’s actions.  There are thought to be at least 60 children born to British nationals in the camps, with the majority under 12. The UK Foreign Office has so far repatriated 4 orphaned children since 2019.

Valerie Peay, IOHR Director reflected that “it’s been 2 years since we appealed for the Home Office to help these vulnerable British children and their mothers and bring them home. We are talking about less than a hundred people. The UK has a responsibility to protect these children, regardless of the court of public opinion. It is time for action, not delaying until they are past the point of rehabilitation.”

British mothers in the camps are being stripped of their citizenship, as the government did with Shamima Begum, exposing them to further risk of reclamation by the Caliphate. Instead, mothers and children should be given effective rehabilitation programmes when they return, similar to Kazakhstan’s system. IOHR’s campaign calls on the government to bring UK children home immediately and safeguard their rights in doing so, discouraging the separation of mothers and children. It should also encourage other states to follow suit and repatriate as many children as possible.

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