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Syria camps: Repatriations stall as instability brings new dangers for detainees

Five years after the defeat of the Islamic State group, the fate of tens of thousands of people - including 30,000 children - still arbitrarily held in camps and prisons remains unresolved
A woman carries a child as she walks through the al-Hol camp on 10 October 2023 (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

More than 55,000 people, including almost 30,000 children, remain detained in northeastern Syria five years after the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared victory over the Islamic State (IS) group.

Faced with an increasingly volatile security situation stoked by the regional fallout of the Gaza war, Turkish attacks against the SDF, fears of an IS resurgence, and uncertainty over the continuing presence in Syria of US troops, concerns are growing for the fate of the remaining detainees, many of whom are foreign nationals with no imminent prospect of being repatriated to their home countries.

UN human rights monitors, humanitarian NGOs, security policy experts, the families of the detainees, local Kurdish officials, and senior US soldiers are all among those now calling on countries to take responsibility for their citizens.

Presenting a report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva earlier this week, Paulo Pinheiro, chair of the International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, issued an impassioned plea highlighting the plight of the children stranded in the camps.

“As much as the world may wish to forget, in northeast Syria, five years after the fall of Baghouz, almost 30,000 children continue to be unlawfully detained in conditions amounting to cruel and inhuman treatment. Let me repeat: 30,000 children, detained for five years. Our call to all states is: release the children!” Pinheiro said.

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In its report, the commission warned that Syria was experiencing its largest escalation of hostilities since 2020 and described conditions in the al-Hol and al-Roj camps, where it said 46,000 women and children remained detained, as “appalling”.

It said 9,000 men and adolescent boys were being held in prisons, with many ill and malnourished. Prisoners were unable to challenge the legality of their detention and in some cases their circumstances were “tantamount to enforced disappearance”, the report said.

'Fewer repatriations shows that governments are turning their backs on these children. Governments ignore their duty, leaving children stuck in misery'

- Rasha Muhrez, Save the Children

The UN report noted complaints among camp detainees from the Middle East and North Africa about “the lack of repatriation efforts” by Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia.

Other countries for whom it said there was no indication of any repatriations included Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Turkey, China, India, and Pakistan.

Several European countries were also named on the list: Czechia, Estonia, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Serbia.

Sabah Hussain, team leader on migration and citizenship at Rights and Security International, which has been tracking repatriations from the camps, said it was now imperative for the international community to take urgent action.

Hussain told MEE: "Anything short of immediate and concerted action to repatriate those detained in the camps is a betrayal of our collective responsibility to uphold human rights and protect the most vulnerable members of society. We cannot let these people be forgotten."

Governments 'turning their backs'

On Friday, the NGO Save the Children said that the number of repatriations from the camps so far this year was almost half the figure for the same period last year, citing the return to Kyrgyzstan of 72 children and 27 women in February.

Azerbaijan and the Maldives are also reported to have repatriated small numbers this year, while Iraq, whose nationals make up the largest number of detainees after Syrians, repatriated 628 people from al-Hol earlier this month.

About 600 non-Iraqi foreign nationals from 17 countries were repatriated in 2023, according to the UN. In total, it says about 3,000 people from 40 countries have been repatriated.

Save the Children also criticised a change of policy by the Swedish government, which earlier this month said it would no longer act to help its nationals and people with connections to the country to be brought to Sweden.

Rasha Muhrez, Save the Children’s Syria country director, said: “Fewer repatriations shows that governments are turning their backs on these children. Governments ignore their duty, leaving children stuck in misery.”

Families and support groups campaigning for the detainees also expressed frustration that countries which have previously brought some of their own citizens home no longer appear willing to do so.

Yasmeen, a spokeswoman for the Belgian support network Parents Concernes, told MEE that at least 15 Belgian families remained in the camps.

"The last two years have seen no repatriation efforts despite some cases where the government was ordered [in court cases] to proceed with repatriation. Families are still waiting to see their loved ones back and have no information regarding the delay," she said.

Maryem Zabroune, secretary of the National Coordination of Moroccan Stranded and Detained Families in Syria and Iraq, told MEE: “When we started campaigning we felt hopeful whenever we heard there were countries repatriating their children.

“But more than six years have passed and Morocco, along with other countries, has not worked to return its citizens. Our frustration increased when we read that America is asking all countries to repatriate their citizens because it will withdraw. This scares us more because the fate of our children will be unknown in the hands of the militias.”

Some governments continue to face legal challenges over their refusal to repatriate all of their nationals.

A member of the SDF holds a toddler during a security check of people leaving Baghouz in February 2019 (Bulent Kilic/AFP)
A member of the SDF holds a toddler during a security check of people leaving Baghouz in February 2019 (Bulent Kilic/AFP)

Last year, the Canadian government bowed to legal pressure by arranging the return of most Canadian women and children from the camps.

But the government has refused to do the same for four men imprisoned by the SDF – a position that has received the backing of the country’s Supreme Court, which in November refused to grant the men an appeal.

This week, the families of the men applied to the Supreme Court to ask it to reconsider their case. They argued that the government’s refusal to repatriate the men meant they faced “ongoing cruelty and indefinite detention under the threat of death", and say the case "gives rise to legal issues of public importance”.

“Ultimately, Canada only acts when the courts or threat of court action requires it to do so,” said Matthew Behrens, head of the advocacy group Stop Canadian Involvement in Torture, which is leading the campaign to press for repatriations.

“We need the Supreme Court to responsibly exercise its role here and uphold the human rights of these long-suffering arbitrary detainees,” he added.

Letta Tayler, an associate director and terrorism and counterterrorism lead at Human Rights Watch, told MEE that many countries around the world were continuing to "unconscionably drag their feet" by leaving their citizens stranded.

"Yes, several governments have repatriated many or most of their nationals. But many have opted for the easiest cases – the orphans, the younger children. The hardest cases remain, including boys who have aged into men inside northeast Syrian prisons, and men who have been held incommunicado for years," she said.

"Increased unrest risks becoming a convenient new excuse for governments to abandon these nationals and throw away the key."

'Ticking time bomb'

Many of those being held in camps and prisons were swept up in early 2019 as SDF forces, backed by a US-led international coalition, encircled retreating IS fighters intent on making a last stand in the town of Baghouz on the Euphrates River close to the border with Iraq.

Tens of thousands of people, including suspected IS fighters, their families, other people – among them Yazidis - who say they were enslaved or trafficked by the militant group, and civilians caught in the crossfire, were detained as they tried to leave the area.

The fate of the remaining detainees remains linked to an increasingly precarious security situation in the Kurdish-controlled Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).

Kurdish groups gripped by fear as they brace for a US pullout from northeast Syria
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The SDF declared victory over IS on 23 March, 2019, but the militant group has survived in remote areas of the Syrian desert and has mounted growing numbers of attacks in recent months.

Late on Friday, the group claimed responsibility for an attack by gunmen on a Moscow concert hall in which at least 115 people were killed.  

The latest UN report noted that some camp detainees were frightened of others who were still loyal to IS, with IS cells reported to be operating and rearming inside the camps. One SDF commander described al-Hol as a “ticking time bomb”.

There are concerns too that the prisons and camps could be targeted again by IS militants seeking to break out fighters and sympathisers. In 2022, more than 500 people, including some children held in a juvenile wing, died during an attack by the group on al-Sina prison.

Jerome Drevon, a senior analyst on jihad and modern conflict at the International Crisis Group, told MEE that dealing with the detainees was not an issue that could be “indefinitely deferred”.

“The notion that these detainees will remain in limbo or simply vanish is untenable,” said Drevon.

“Moreover, there are mounting fears of an ISIS resurgence within the region, including within detention camps. The longer these individuals, especially foreign fighters, are left in such precarious conditions, the greater the risk they pose in terms of radicalisation and potential future threats.”

MEE reported earlier this month on growing nervousness among Kurdish officials prompted by a surge of attacks by Turkey, which they say the US has done little to deter, and questions over Washington’s commitment to supporting the SDF and maintaining its 900-troop presence on the ground in Syria.

Turkey has periodically launched military attacks against the SDF, which it accuses of links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant group proscribed as a terrorist organisation by both Turkey and the US.

In October, US forces shot down an armed Turkish drone operating in the area, which resulted in “high-level US-Turkish discussions to reinforce better communication and coordination”, according to a US government report.

US Centcom commander General Michael Kurilla pictured during a visit to al-Hol camp in August 2023 (Centcom)
US Centcom commander General Michael Kurilla pictured during a visit to al-Hol camp in August 2023 (Centcom)

Last month, Mazloum Abdi, the general commander of the SDF, told journalists that the threat of attacks on its forces by both IS and Iran-backed militias had forced the SDF to start limiting its movements and security operations with consequences for its ability to maintain security at detention sites.

SDF officials have previously warned that they could be forced to abandon guarding the camps and prisons in the event of a concerted Turkish offensive.

“The whole region is on fire and nobody will respond to Turkey’s aggression against us when everyone is busy with Gaza. We have asked the US to rein in Turkey, but they have brushed us off,” Mahmoud Meslat, co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the SDF, told MEE.

'The presence of the US military in the region adds a layer of stability, but it is not indefinite, and the potential for sudden withdrawal, especially in light of impending elections, looms large'

- Jerome Drevon, analyst

US officials, including successive heads of US Central Command (Centcom), the US military command in the Middle East, have repeatedly called for the repatriations from Syria and have said US forces in the region stand “ready to assist” other countries.

The importance it places on the issue was highlighted in February when Centcom commander General Michael Kurilla visited the al-Hol and al-Roj camps during a regional tour following a series of US strikes in Syria and Iraq in response to a drone attack on a US base on Jordan’s border with Syria in which three American troops were killed.

The US State Department has said that increasing the rate of repatriations is “critical to resolving the intertwined security and humanitarian challenges in al-Hol and al-Roj displaced persons camps and ensuring the continued defeat of ISIS”.

But with the US presence in the region uncertain, some analysts say the window for repatriations may not remain open for much longer.

Drevon pointed to November’s US presidential election set to be contested by former president Donald Trump, who in 2019 ordered the withdrawal – subsequently partially reversed - of US troops from Syria, as a further reason for urgency.

“The presence of the US military in the region adds a layer of stability, but it is not indefinite, and the potential for sudden withdrawal, especially in light of impending elections, looms large,” he said.

“Should such a withdrawal occur unexpectedly, it would drastically alter the landscape, potentially leaving the SDF ill-equipped to manage emerging challenges, such as repelling invading Turkish forces, let alone maintaining control over the camps.

“So, while there is currently a window for repatriation efforts, this window could swiftly close.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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