Syria: Repatriate at least 27,000 children held in dire conditions in north-east Syria

Tens of thousands of children have been arbitrarily deprived of their liberty and exposed to life-threatening and inhumane conditions in al-Hol, north-east Syria’s sprawling camp, their future surrounded by grim uncertainty as governments continue to show a shameful lack of willingness to repatriate them, Amnesty International said today.

Over the past two years, children living in al-Hol camp have not had proper access to food, clean water, and essential services such as healthcare and education. The Syrian Kurdish Autonomous Administration, which controls the camp, have been arbitrarily detaining twelve-year old boys, separating two-year old children from their caregivers, and curtailing access to healthcare. Increased child labour, violence and murder has severely impacted the growth and development of children.

“Tens of thousands of children from Syria, Iraq and over 60 other countries, have been abandoned to misery, trauma and death simply because their governments are refusing to assume their responsibilities and bring these children back to a safe and secure environment,” said Diana Semaan, Amnesty International’s Syria researcher.

“Governments must stop flouting their international human rights obligations to uphold these children’s right to life, survival and development and promptly repatriate them as a matter of urgency. Additionally, the Autonomous Administration must draw up a clear mechanism of return for Syrian children, their mothers or caregivers.” 

Amnesty International interviewed 10 individuals with knowledge of the situation in the camps, including eight eyewitnesses, who described the precarious conditions in al-Hol as well as abuses by the Autonomous Administration, which runs the camp and has effective control over north-east Syria. 

Since 2019 when the conflict with the armed group Islamic State in Syria ended, around 60,000 Syrians, Iraqis and third country nationals, mostly women and children, have been detained in al-Hol camp without access to due process, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The camp houses individuals with varying degrees of affiliation with the IS, but also thousands of individuals with no association at all who flocked to the camp fleeing the conflict.

Children stigmatized, detained and forcibly separated from their families

The al-Hol camp is under the control of the Asayish, the Autonomous Administration’s police force. The main section of the camp hosts Syrians and Iraqis while the camp area known as the Annex – separated from the main camp by a checkpoint – hosts all women and children from third countries (other than Iraq). Children in the Annex are subjected to various forms of forced separation from their caregivers. 

Over the past year, the Asayish have been arbitrarily detaining boys as young as 12 in the Annex, separating them from their mothers and caregivers, solely on suspicion of the boys’ potential “radicalization” in the future and without any evidence of wrongdoing. The Asayish transfers the boys to detention centres described as “rehabilitation centres” outside of al-Hol camp, which lack adequate access to food, water and healthcare and where diseases such as tuberculosis and scabies are rampant. 

Children in the Annex as young as two are forced to separate from their mothers or caregivers in order to go to a hospital. When children need to access healthcare services outside of the camp, humanitarian organizations provide a referral based on a lengthy process. Armed security forces escort the children to the healthcare services and refuse to allow mothers or caregivers to join, and then fail to follow up directly with the caregivers who are left with no information about their children’s medical condition.  

Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, no child should be deprived of his or her liberty arbitrarily and the detention of a child should be a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time. 

“The Autonomous Administration must immediately release all boys who have been arbitrarily detained and cease the practice of family separation and reunify as quickly as possible any child who remains separated from their parents or guardians,” said Diana Semaan. 

Movement curtailed, livelihood restricted

Severe restrictions on movement imposed by the Autonomous Administration in practice amount to deprivation of liberty. Women and children cannot move out of the camp without prior approval, which is rarely ever granted by the Asayish, according to individuals interviewed by Amnesty International. 

To access the Annex’s service area, where humanitarian organizations provide healthcare and other essential services, women and children in the Annex need to obtain approval from the Asayish and cross a checkpoint run by them. At the checkpoint they must have their picture taken with their face uncovered, which means that women who are face-covered are forced to unveil. This process is repeated on every visit to the service area and has discouraged women from seeking medical care for them and their children, sometimes leading to serious medical conditions, including protracted infections and severe damage to vision and dental health.

Men and women have very limited access to job opportunities. The Autonomous Administration briefly allowed humanitarian organizations to employ men and women in al-Hol’s main camp, but recently suspended the decision for unclear reasons. 

The lack of livelihood opportunities for adults, coupled with inadequate access to safe spaces and education for children, have led to an increase in child labour. A recent report by Save the Children, found that only 40% of children in al-Hol camp between the age of three and 17 are receiving education. During Covid-19 lockdowns, children in the camp were unable to continue their education as learning centres in the camp closed and online learning was not an option due to lack of internet connection and mobiles phones. 

Daunting present, bleak future

The Autonomous Administration’s failure to produce and implement a transparent and consistent security plan in the camp has led to a climate of anger and fear amid the pervasive violence, according to individuals interviewed. A Save the Children report highlights the high murder rates in the camp with 79 people killed in the camp this year, including three children shot to death and 14 further deaths of children attributed to various incidents, like fires.  

“These unbearable conditions have taken a significant toll on children’s already-suffering mental health. Donors must ensure that humanitarian organizations have the needed funds to provide children in al-Hol and other camps in north-east Syria with psychosocial support,” said Diana Semaan.

Barriers to return 

While some Syrians are granted permission to permanently leave the camp, a number of obstacles bar their return to their homes. These include fear of return to areas under the control of the Syrian government, the Autonomous Administration rejecting requests for return of some individuals and resulting in family separation, reluctance of women to return without their male relatives who are either detained or missing, and high transportation costs. 

Due to insufficient funding, humanitarian organizations operating in north-east Syria are unable to provide protection services for Syrian children when they leave al-Hol camp, often exposing them to the risk of child trafficking, early marriage, or recruitment by armed forces.

For Iraqi and third national children, repatriation is their only chance of leaving the camp. In 2021, Iraq slowly begun a repatriation process. However, the majority of other states have been reluctant to fully commit to repatriation of all children.