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Human Rights

Foreign governments urged to retrieve citizens from Syria's al-Hol

By Al-Mashareq

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A member of the Kurdish security forces watches as a group of Syrian families is released from al-Hol camp, which holds suspected relatives of ISIS, on March 18. [Delil Souleiman/AFP]

Foreign governments need to retrieve their citizens from Kurdish administered al-Hol and Roj camps in Syria's al-Hasakeh province as a matter of urgency, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says in a Tuesday (March 23) report.

They also must work to ensure due process for "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) suspects held at the north-eastern Syria camps, it said.

Two years after the defeat of ISIS in its last Syrian stronghold of al-Baghouz, nearly 43,000 foreigners linked to ISIS remain detained in north-eastern Syria.

Around 31,000 hail from Iraq, and nearly 12,000 others are from almost 60 other countries. More than half of them, around 27,500, are children.

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A young girl interacts with a toddler at al-Hol camp, which holds suspected relatives of ISIS members, in north-eastern Syria's al-Hasakeh province on March 3. [Delil Souleiman/AFP]

Holding the foreigners "is a huge burden" for the Autonomous Administration, the administration's deputy co-chairman Badran Chia Kurd told HRW.

But repeated calls for governments to repatriate their nationals have largely fallen on deaf ears, with just a handful of children -- many of them orphans -- and a few women being brought home over the past three years.

"The international community, in particular the countries who have citizens in the camps and prisons, are not assuming their responsibility," Chia Kurd said. "This issue, if not solved, will not only affect us, but the entire world.”

Repeated appeals for help

Countries with nationals held in north-eastern Syria should answer the Autonomous Administration's repeated appeals to help them provide detainees with due process, HRW said.

Due process includes the right to contest the legality and necessity of their detention before a judge, it said, adding that those who are not promptly charged with a criminal offense should be immediately released.

Foreign countries also should comply with the Autonomous Administration's repeated calls for them to repatriate detainees not charged with a crime, prioritizing the most vulnerable, HRW said.

Repatriated children should be accompanied by their parents in keeping with the child's right to family unity, it said. Foreigners facing risks at home of death or torture or other ill-treatment should be transferred to a safe third country.

Upon transfer home or abroad, detainees can be provided with rehabilitation and reintegration services and as warranted, investigated and prosecuted, HRW said.

Children who lived under ISIS and any women trafficked by ISIS should be treated first and foremost as victims, and children should face prosecution and detention only in exceptional circumstances, it stressed.

In the meantime, foreign governments and donors should immediately increase aid to improve camp and prison conditions in northeast Syria and press the UN Security Council to reauthorise vital aid operations.

'Token' repatriation efforts

Only 25 countries are known to have repatriated any nationals from north-eastern Syria, and most have brought home or helped return only a token few.

According to Save the Children and HRW tallies, repatriation operations fell from 29 in 2019, to 17 in 2020 and three in the first 10 weeks of 2021, AFP reported.

Kazakhstan has been a leader in this area, repatriating over 700 of its citizens over the years.

The UN and donors, including many home countries of the foreign detainees, are providing humanitarian aid to the detainees and others in north-eastern Syria.

But acute shortages of clean water, food, medicine, and adequate shelter and security persist, say UN experts and others.

The US military, which leads the international coalition against ISIS, has funded measures to bolster security and ease overcrowding for some of the prisons.

The international coalition also plans to fund construction of additional detention centres for women suspects, as well as a 500-bed rehabilitation centre for older boys, HRW said.

It has launched a project to double the capacity of one of the prisons in al-Hasakeh, Asharq al-Awsat reported Tuesday.

The current facility, operated by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), comprises three converted school buildings that hold roughly 5,000 prisoners of 50 different nationalities, the majority of whom are Iraqi, it said.

'A counter-terrorism imperative'

The goal of the expansion is to enhance security and prevent a mass breakout at the facility, Fener al-Kait, co-head of foreign affairs at the Autonomous Administration, told Asharq al-Awsat.

Overcrowding presents a serious challenge for officers guarding the prison, he said, adding that the UK -- a key international coalition member -- will oversee the expansion and provide logistical support.

“We need international support to secure these detention centres,” he added, noting that existing international support is not enough to resolve the status of ISIS prisoners and their families.

In January, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called repatriations by home countries, particularly of children, "an urgent and strategic counter-terrorism imperative".

In a February report, the UN said it had documented instances of "radicalisation, fundraising, training and incitement of external operations", at al-Hol.

It also warned of the fate of around 7,000 children living in a special annex designated for foreign ISIS relatives.

They are "being groomed as future ISIS operatives", the UN said.

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