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US repatriates 11 American citizens from camps in northeast Syria

It is the largest repatriation of Americans from northeast Syria to date and includes one non-citizen
Children look through holes from inside a tent at al-Hol camp in northeast Syria, on 2 April 2019 (Ali Hashisho/Reuters)

The Biden administration on Tuesday repatriated 11 US citizens and one non-citizen, including five minors, from "camps" in northeast Syria controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in the largest repatriation from the country to date.

Six Canadian citizens, four Dutch citizens, and one Finnish citizen, eight among them children, were also repatriated to their respective countries, with the US facilitating their returns. The US said the government of Kuwait and the Syrian Democratic Forces assisted with repatriations.

Another non-US citizen minor, a sibling of one of the citizens, was also repatriated, marking the first time a non-American has been repatriated into the US from Syria. The New York Times reports that the two are sons of Abdelhamid al-Madioum, who was repatriated in 2020 and has since pleaded guilty to charges of supporting terrorism.

The group also includes the family of Brandy Salman. The US had been working to get Salman out of Syria for some time, according to a New York Times report from late last year.

The US State Department did not disclose the names of those repatriated but two officials who spoke to The New York Times anonymously confirmed it was Salman and her nine children, all of whom were born in the US. The children range in age from six to 25.

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In a statement, Global Affairs Canada said that six Canadian children had been repatriated from northeastern Syria.

"Canada thanks the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria for its cooperation in conducting another operation under extremely challenging security conditions," GA Canada said.

“We also extend our gratitude to the United States for its assistance in the repatriation of Canadians and for its valuable support throughout this process."

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

Hundreds of detainees have died as a consequence of torture and inhumane treatment in these prisons in northeast Syria for people suspected of having links to IS, according to Amnesty International.

The US again appealed for countries to repatriate their citizens from northeast Syria.

"The only durable solution to the humanitarian and security crisis in the displaced persons camps and detention facilities in northeast Syria is for countries to repatriate, rehabilitate, reintegrate, and where appropriate, ensure accountability for wrongdoing," a statement from Secretary of State Antony Blinken reads.

The State Department told Middle East Eye last year that the US had repatriated 40 citizens since 2016, 25 children and 15 adults, from camps in Syria.

Governments turning their backs

Faced with an increasingly volatile security situation stoked by the regional fallout from 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, 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 in March, 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.

In its report, the commission warned that Syria was experiencing its largest escalation of hostilities since 2020.

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.

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 where 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.

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