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Syria: UN experts call on 57 states to repatriate women and children from squalid camps

United Nations group of experts says countries of origin have primary responsibility to protect nationals in vulnerable situations outside their territories
Children hold onto water containers in al-Hol camp, Syria, 8 January 2020 (Reuters)

UN human rights experts have urged 57 countries to repatriate nationals believed to be languishing in Syria’s squalid al-Hol and al-Roj camps, where thousands are at risk of violence, exploitation and death.

Tens of thousands of women and children, most of whom are under the age of five, with alleged links to Islamic State group (IS) fighters have been detained, without due process, in camps run by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces militia in northeast Syria. 

Many of them are foreign women who travelled to Syria and Iraq to live under IS, and their children. However, the vast majority of countries with nationals in the camps have refused to repatriate their citizens and left them to Kurdish authorities to deal with, citing security concerns.

'The UK government's 'do nothing' approach to this issue is catastrophic from a security and human rights perspective'

- Maya Foa, Reprieve

Due to the large number of countries that have citizens in al-Hol and al-Roj, the UN experts called for collective and immediate action to avert irreversible harm to people vulnerable to dangerous conditions at the overcrowded camps, where 64,000 detainees and internally displaced people live.

“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,” they said in a letter to the 57 countries.

“An unknown number have already died because of their conditions of detention.”

Since the start of the year, an increase in violence in the camps has been reported, including the murder of 12 Syrian and Iraqi residents in the first two weeks of 2021 alone, which, experts say, only stresses the need for urgent action.

The letter also condemned the continued detention of women and children in the camps, who are held without legal process, saying it derails the progress of accountability and justice. It added that concerned countries have a responsibility to protect nationals living in vulnerable situations outside their territories.

"The UK government's 'do nothing' approach to this issue is catastrophic from a security and human rights perspective,” Maya Foa, director of UK-based rights group Reprieve, told Middle East Eye.  

"How many times do they need to be told that the situation in camps is untenable?” 

'Bring them home'

Describing repatriation as the only “workable solution”, Foa called on British ministers to heed the UN call and “bring these British women and children home".

Despite the small number of British nationals held in Syria, the UK is still dragging its feet on repatriation. Reprieve’s latest figures show that there are 58 Britons in northeast Syria, including 16 women and 33 children. 

In a report released in November, Rights and Security International (RSI) found that the supply of shelter, sanitation, basic living amenities and healthcare in the camps do not meet the basic acceptable standards, with children dying from preventable and treatable diseases.

“If governments do not act now and repatriate their nationals from the camps, vulnerable children and adults will continue to experience grave human rights abuses and, in some cases, die,” Emily Ramsden, RSI's legal and policy officer, told MEE.  

Data collection 

The letter also raised the issue of the data collection process taking place in camps, saying that personal information had been gathered from women and children in an environment where consent could not be freely given. 

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The data, it said, was also not collected in conditions where it was clear who would have access to the information and how it might be used, and it was alarming that the objective of the process might be used to identify nationals who may pose a security risk. 

“Information that could be further communicated and used by states of origin, as a basis for deciding the further course of action for their nationals,” the experts said. 

“This could include trial and repatriation, or children’s separation from their families, including that of male children for further detention.”

In December, a group of NGOs sent a letter to the Council of Europe's committee on counter-terrorism condemning its draft recommendation on the use of information collected in conflict zones as evidence in criminal proceedings related to terrorism, saying it highly compromises fair trial standards. 

“[The draft] reveals that European governments are now establishing a wholly unnecessary mechanism to weaken fair trial standards by lowering the standard of evidence needed to demonstrate an individual’s guilt in trials in Europe,” said the group, which includes Reprieve, Fair Trials, Amnesty International, International Commission of Jurists, Privacy International.

The group said the mechanism would allow information collected by military personnel, intelligence services and private actors to be rendered admissible as evidence in courts.

“We have serious concerns that these efforts will lead to unsafe convictions based on faulty, unreliable evidence extracted by military and intelligence personnel through to the use of coercion, mistreatment, and even torture,” the rights group said.