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The Syrian Camps: A Security Time-Bomb

Several organizations, such as the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, have alerted on the inhuman and degrading conditions detainees thought to be affiliated with ISIS are experiencing in Syria. Long forgotten by the international community, the prisoners locked up in detention camps in north-east Syria are living in unhealthy tents, with inadequate medical care and services. Even the Syrian Kurdish authorities have voiced out their concerns, affirming that “(T)he international community must bear its responsibilities regarding bringing those militants to trial and repatriating their nationals”. Nonetheless, nations seem to be turning a blind eye on the issue, postponing or ignoring the ticking bomb the prisoners represent.


With the collapse of Barghuz - the last bastion of ISIS - in March 2019, thousands of individuals have been imprisoned and living in detention camps. According to the Syrian Kurdish authorities who are currently responsible for this outdoors prisons, there are almost 63.400 people detained, with more than 80% of them being women and children. Based on the reports, the majority of the detainees are Syrian and Iraqi nationals. However, a minority consisting of 12.000 people – of which 8.000 children and 4.000 women – are foreigners coming from 60 different countries. The two most famous confinement areas are al-Hol and Roj, with the former being labelled as “the most dangerous camp in the world”.

The international institutions have warned of the dire living conditions within these camps and the need for political leaders to take action. Indeed, when commenting on the matter, Vladimir Voronkov - Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Office - has noted that “the horrific situation of the children in al-Hol [camp] is one of the most pressing issues in the world today”. Prisoners are living in an unsanitary environment, where daily life is characterised by conflicts over basic necessities and murders. Furthermore, the humanitarian organization Save the Children has recently signalled that the Coronavirus outbreak further aggravated the situation, with increased infections and services, such as school and child-friendly spaces, being shut down. As a captive woman explains, confinement there is “mentally exhausting. ... never gets better here. Always worse. ... majority of the children in the camp are sick. Almost everyday something bad happens. Children trapped in burning tents and dies. ... We have water tank that contains worms. The toilets are dirty so people started to build [their] own toilets”.


Amidst concerns, humanitarian organizations have demanded governments to answer for their citizens and repatriate detainees. However, the international community appears reluctant to take matters into their own hands, with only a few countries allowing the return of the prisoners. At the beginning of June 2021, authorities from the Netherlands have proceeded to repatriate a Dutch woman, her two sons and a girl. It was only the second time the Dutch government had taken back captives from the Syrian camps. The Albanian leaders are also in the process of rescuing 30 Albanian children. The Prime Minister, Sander Lleshaj, has stated that "there is a moral obligation to repatriate at least the kids, because they are not terrorists, they are victims of their irresponsible parents" and added "they could be raised up into real monsters if we leave them in the camps and ignore them". Finally, Russia and Kazakhstan too “have collectively repatriated nearly 1,000 children and their family members”.


Nonetheless, numerous nations have refused or postponed the matter, with repatriation out of the question. One of the most notable cases was the one concerning the 21-years-old Shamima Begum, who left the United Kingdom to join ISIS when she was 15. England has refused her demand to come back to her home country, stripping her of her British citizenship. France, which is the European country with the highest number of citizens in the camps, has backtracked in saving French people and has resolved in taking in only 35 children after examining them on a case-by-case basis. In a similar fashion, Netherlands and Sweden too have expressed the possibility of retrieving youngsters, albeit without their mothers.

The nations’ unwillingness to take back their citizens stems not only from security concerns but also from the belief that they have no legal responsibility to do so. Badran Chia Kurd, Autonomous Administration’s deputy co-chair, has commented saying that “(T)he international community, in particular the countries who have citizens in the camps and prisons, are not assuming their responsibility. This issue, if not solved, will not only affect us, but the entire world.”. Similarly, Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, has affirmed that “(I)t is a scandal that the international community is allowing such a place to continue, and that this situation continues, not because of an insurmountable humanitarian problem, but because of political divergences which prevent finding a durable solution for those who have been stranded here in northeast Syria".


The international organizations’ plea for help and recognition of the issue comes at a critical time after the Kurdish authorities affirmed they are losing control over the camps, in particular the al-Hol one. This detention centre, labelled as the mini-caliphate, has experienced 40 homicides – 10 of which beheadings – since the beginning of 2021: an admonition of how the situation might evolve if nothing is being done. The Syrian ticking bomb should not be ignored anymore. As Jussi Tanner, a Finnish diplomat, indicated, “(R)epatriating them as quickly as we can is better from a security point of view rather than pretending that the problem goes away when we look away”.


Written by Cinzia Saro


Cinzia Saro is a columnist at DecipherGrey.


Photograph: Christiaan Triebert | Wikimedia.org | Flickr.com