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European Parliament calls for repatriation of children from Syrian camps

Resolution marking 10 years of the conflict also dismisses forthcoming presidential election in Syria as 'completely lacking in credibility'
A girl stands in the rain at the Roj camp in northeastern Syria on 4 March (AFP)

The European Parliament has called for the repatriation of children from European Union countries held in Kurdish-run camps in northeastern Syria since the collapse of the Islamic State group.

In a resolution on Thursday marking 10 years of conflict in Syria, the parliament also reiterated its opposition to any normalisation of relations with President Bashar al-Assad's government and dismissed forthcoming presidential elections in the country as “completely lacking in credibility”.

The parliament also called on EU states to continue to offer sanctuary to Syrian refugees, after Denmark earlier this month became the first EU member state to withdraw residency rights from Syrian refugees, after the government ruled that it was safe for 94 from the Damascus area to return home.

Noting that “Syria is not a safe country to return to”, it called on EU member states “to refrain from shifting national policies towards depriving certain categories of Syrians of their protected status, and to reverse this trend if they have already applied such policies”.

The resolution increases pressure on European countries to repatriate hundreds of children among about 12,000 foreign nationals - many of whom are suspected of links to IS - who have been held in the al-Hol and Roj camps since internationally backed Kurdish-led forces defeated the militant group in 2019.

It comes after Unicef last month called for repatriation and reintegration of all children being held in the camps, after at least three died and 15 were injured in a fire at al-Hol.

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Humanitarian and human rights organisations have previously raised concerns about “violent, unsanitary and inhumane” conditions in the camps that have led to the avoidable deaths of hundreds of babies and infants.

Kurdish officials say they lack the resources to manage the camps effectively, and have called on countries to repatriate their own nationals. US officials and senior soldiers in the region have also called for repatriations and have offered assistance to countries willing to take back their own citizens.

Most EU member states, and other western countries including the UK and Canada, have so far refused to implement policies to bring home their own nationals, although some have repatriated children, mostly orphans, on an ad hoc basis.

Belgium, however, said last week that it would begin the repatriation of all Belgian children being held in the camps under the age of 12, in compliance with a court order.

Repatriation: A country-by-country breakdown

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Most Western governments have refused to repatriate their nationals on the grounds that they do not have consular services in Syria and citing security concerns. Some have called for foreign nationals accused of links to IS to be tried locally.

Campaigners say governments are not being candid about the extent of their contacts with Kurdish authorities. They point to the ad hoc repatriation of orphans, the presence on the ground of NGOs and journalists, and visits to the region by Western envoys as proof that they have the capacity - but not the political will - to bring their nationals home.

Some countries have said they will take children but nor adult detainees. Kurdish authorities have refused these requests and campaigners say that separating children from their primary carers would breach their human rights. Some children have been repatriated with their mother's consent.

The following figures are estimates based on official figures, data provided by campaign groups and MEE's own research.

Australia: Eight orphans repatriated in June 2019. About 20 women and 48 children remain in the camps, and 12 men in prisons.

Belgium: Six orphans repatriated in June 2019. Six women and 10 children repatriated in July 2021. Up to 15 men, six women, and 7 children still detained.

Canada: One orphan repatriated in October 2020. Eight men, 13 women, 26 children still detained

Denmark: Two orphans repatriated. 12 Danish nationals and 30 children still detained. Dual nationals in Syria stripped of Danish citizenship

France: 28 children repatriated. About 450 French nationals, including about 270 children, still detained. Several French citizens sent to Iraq and sentenced to death.

Germany: Four children repatriated in August 2019, and a mother and three children repatriated in November 2019. About 50 men, 50 women and 150 children still detained

Netherlands: Two orphans repatriated. Dutch Supreme Court ruled in June that government is not obliged to repatriate 23 women and 56 children still detained. At least 13 Dutch men also detained

Sweden: Seven orphaned siblings repatriated in May 2019. About 40 adults and 50 children still detained

UK: At least four children repatriated. About 26 men and women and 60 children still detained. Many dual nationals in Syria stripped of British citizenship

US: Washington has called for the repatriation of all foreign nationals and has offered to help countries to take back their own citizens. All 27 Americans known to have been in Kurdish custody have been repatriated

The parliament's resolution was welcomed by human rights groups and by family support groups for those being held in the camps.

Families for Repatriation International, a network of families and support groups, said the resolution was a “positive step”, but called for the repatriation of the children's mothers as well.

“We need to keep building the momentum towards repatriation of all, including women without children and men in prisons,” FRI said on Twitter.

Yasmine Ahmed, the UK director of Human Rights Watch, said it was “time for European states to take action”.

The European Parliament resolution also said: “EU nationals suspected of belonging to terrorist organisations and detained in those camps should be tried in a court of law.” It called for the continuation of sanctions against Syrian government-linked individuals and entities involved in “repression”, and called for the prosecution of war crimes.

The parliament “strongly condemns all atrocities and violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, in particular by the Assad regime, but also by Russian, Iranian and Turkish actors, and calls on Russia, Iran and Hezbollah to withdraw all forces and proxies under their command”, the resolution said.