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More than 11,000 women and children related to Isis suspects held in 'appalling deadly conditions' in Syria

Features | 2019-07-23 18:35:52
More than 11,000 women and children related to Isis suspects held in 'appalling deadly conditions' in Syria
More than 11,000 foreign women and children related to Isis suspects are being held in “appalling” and “deadly conditions” in a locked desert camp in northeast Syria, a leading human rights organisation has warned.

Human Rights Watch found overflowing latrines, sewage seeping into tattered tents, and inhabitants of al-Hol camp drinking wash water from tanks which contained worms.

The organisation, which carried out several visits to the part of the camp which holds foreign women and children last month, urged countries to take back the thousands of foreign women and children being held by the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration for northeast Syria in the camp.

At least seven thousand of the children are under the age of 12, most of whom are survivors of heavy fighting and are highly vulnerable.

Human Rights Watch witnessed young children with skin rashes, emaciated limbs, and swollen bellies sifting through mounds of stinking garbage in the blazing sun or lying limp on tent floors.

The United Nations estimate at least 240 children have died en route or upon arrival to al-Hol.

Aid groups and camp mangers said children are "regularly" dying from acute diarrhoea and flu-like infections, but warned the exact number may not be known as children are dying in tents rather than in hospitals and so may not be recorded.

“Foreign women and children are indefinitely locked in a dustbowl inferno in northeast Syria while their home countries look the other way,” Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch, said. “Governments should be doing what they can to protect their citizens, not abandon them to disease and death in a foreign desert.”

She added: “The conditions in al-Hol annex are untenable and unconscionable. Abandoning citizens to indefinite confinement without charge will only make the problem worse.”

Human Rights Watch carried out interviews with 26 foreign women confined to an annex of the camp from countries including Canada, France, Australia, the Netherlands, Trinidad and Belgium.

Guards from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) at the camp are said to refuse to let the women and children leave unless they are escorted out for emergencies such as surgery which cannot be accessed in camp hospitals.

Ayisha*, a mother-of-five from Trinidad, who is 37 weeks pregnant, said: “Please, tell me, where are my sons? Please, let me visit them”.

She said the SDF took her two sons, ages 14 and 15, and their father when the family fled Isis-held Abu Badran in January.

“First they said they would bring my boys to me in a month. Then they said two more weeks. Then they said they were sick in the hospital,” Aisha said of camp officials. “Then for the past two months, nothing.”

Officials from the Autonomous Administration told Human Rights Watch they do not have plans to prosecute the women and children. When pressed about their legal status, they said when the women and children left Isis-held areas, they were “transferred to al-Hol to work on delivering them to their countries given that they are from different nationalities.”

The Autonomous Administration has repeatedly called on home countries to take back all foreigners in their custody.

Donor governments, the United Nations, and humanitarian agencies should immediately increase aid to all inhabitants at the camp, Human Rights Watch urged.

None of the women researchers spoke to said they had been taken before a judge to review whether she should be detained. Nor did any say they had been contacted by a representative of their government.

All but one of the foreign women who researchers spoke to said they wanted to return home. One woman from Uzbekistan explained she wanted to go to a third country due to worries of persecution if repatriated.

The report comes amid warnings of growing radicalisation at the facility. Western governments have displayed a lack of willingness to take back their citizens from the camps due to concerns they constitute a security risk.

The British government has refused to repatriate any of its citizens who went to join Isis - also citing security concerns. There are also legal questions around taking children from their parents.

Human Rights Watch say conditions are “dire” throughout al-Hol which holds 62,000 Syrians and Iraqis in the main camp sections - most of whom are also wives and children of men accused of Isis membership.

But the worst conditions are said to be in the annex holding the 11,000 non-Iraqi foreigners. Aid workers said the annex gets less aid from donors and its inhabitants must wait for armed escorts to bring them to the camp market, hospitals, and food distribution centre, which Syrian and Iraqi women and children can reach freely.

More than 7,000 foreign children and 3,000 foreign women from about 50 countries are held in the al-Hol annex according to officials from the Autonomous Administration.

Those children in al-Hol only constitute a fraction of a much larger group of children allegedly associated with armed conflict who are stranded in camps, detention centres and orphanages across Syria but particularly in the northeast. UNICEF estimates that in the northwest province of Idlib nearly one million children have been trapped for months on end amid heavy fighting.

*Ayisha is not her names as she did not want her real names used

The Independent
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