Three years ago, a global coalition of countries led by the United States retook most of the territory in Iraq and Syria controlled by the Islamic State. Once ISIS was defeated on the battlefield, the world moved on. Left unanswered was the question of what to do about the people, including thousands of children, who had come from abroad, either voluntarily or through coercion, to live under ISIS rule and were now abandoned by their governments.

Many of the women and children, and a small number of men, ended up in two detention camps in the middle of the desert in northeast Syria, where they remain today, with no way out. Some of the camps’ residents had been willing adherents to ISIS, whereas others were victims of trafficking and online grooming. Still others were taken as children to join ISIS or lived in ISIS-controlled territory and were displaced, co-opted, or coerced into the control of the group.

The larger of the two camps, Al Hol, was initially built for Iraqi refugees in 1991; the smaller, Roj, was established in 2014, also to house families fleeing Iraq. Both camps expanded in earnest in 2019, after the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) conquered Baghouz, the last holdout of ISIS in Syria. Estimates of the camps’ population vary, but the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) puts the combined total at over 60,000 people, with more than 80 percent being women and children. In Al Hol, 50 percent of the population is under the age of 12 (an estimated 30,000 children), and at Roj, it is 55 percent, according to the charity Save the Children. Both camps are defined by their sheer lawlessness and insecurity. Children living there experience a gamut of harms, including violence, hunger, sickness, and the lack of any education.

Fifty-nine countries have nationals in detention either at Al Hol or Roj. Although the majority are Syrian and Iraqi, more than 11,000 are from other countries across the world. But many of those countries, including a number of democracies, are refusing to allow their people to return home. Rather than dealing with the thorny problem of repatriating and holding accountable those people who traveled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, they are essentially dumping their citizens on the SDF, which is both ill equipped to manage the needs of a traumatized population and recognized by no country as a legitimate authority. This tolerance for mass arbitrary detention, particularly of women and children, flies in the face of an international legal system that is supposed to protect children’s rights.

The Al Hol and Roj camps stand as a symbol of the world’s collective failure to think about humanitarian needs and human rights after the fall of ISIS. Failing to close these detention sites will gravely undermine stability of the broader region with consequences that could reverberate far beyond. Children raised in abject misery and oppression may likely feel alienated from society, making them perfect targets for recruitment by terrorist groups. Countries may be refusing to repatriate their citizens in the name of protecting against terrorism, but in so doing, they are setting in motion a new cycle of suffering and alienation.

HELL ON EARTH

None of the tens of thousands of women and children held in the Al Hol and Roj camps have been subject to any legal process to determine what role, if any, they played in ISIS or under what circumstances they came to be living under ISIS control. Most of the children are under the age of 12. Children do not get to choose their parents or decide where they are born, but each child in these camps is suspected of having an affiliation with terrorism based on the presumed parentage of their often-unidentified fathers. Few of these children have identity papers. Some have birth certificates issued by ISIS during its time in power, but these documents give them no recognized legal standing. The stories behind how their mothers came to be living under ISIS rule vary, but some high-profile cases illustrate the complexities.

Consider Shamima Begum. Born in the United Kingdom to Bangladeshi parents, she was a teenager living in London when she was groomed by extremists online. In 2015, at the age of 15, she traveled with three friends from the United Kingdom to Syria, where she married an alleged ISIS fighter and gave birth to two children who died before she turned 18. In 2019, the British government revoked her citizenship and announced that she was permanently banned from reentry. Now stateless, she lives in Al Hol, where her third child died of pneumonia at less than three weeks old. The United Kingdom has branded Begum a sympathizer of ISIS and a threat to national security with no acknowledgment of her status as a child when she was recruited online and traveled to a conflict zone. Under relevant British law, she was the victim of statutory rape once she moved to Syria and was living under ISIS control. The fact that she holds minority religious and ethnic status in the United Kingdom makes the stripping away of her citizenship even more troubling.

The experience of Begum and her children is hardly an anomaly. The camps are decidedly unhospitable for children or anyone else. First off, the camps are guarded and have no exit. The tents collapse in strong winds; the grounds flood with rain and sewage. Hygiene is almost nonexistent. The little drinking water available is often contaminated. Latrines are overflowing, and mounds of garbage litter the grounds. Food, water, health care, and essential nonfood supplies are provided by humanitarian groups and organizations, such as Médicins Sans Frontières, that are straining under the responsibility. They report that the camps are rife with untreated illness.

While conditions for these children worsen, their home countries offer formalistic reasons why neither a passport nor repatriation can be provided. For countries that were members of the global coalition against ISIS, there is a certain irony to having the capacity to deploy significant military and intelligence resources to the region while claiming that it is impossible to provide the necessary documents and safe passage home for hundreds of children. The excuses are deeply unconvincing when the same countries are also helping to construct what are essentially prisons that operate to detain their young citizens indefinitely and without trial. For example, Canada has done extremely limited repatriation. One five-year-old orphan named Amira was brought home from Al Hol to Canada in October 2020, thanks to nonstop pressure from her uncle and the UN. Her parents, both Canadian, and her three siblings were killed in an air strike in Syria. Meanwhile, 46 other Canadian women and children are still languishing in the camps.

The Al Hol and Roj camps stand as a symbol of the world’s collective failure.

The daily realities for boys living in detention are particularly harsh. The boys who are at Al Hol and Roj camps are culled and separated from their mothers when they cross the arbitrary threshold of ten years old. At that age, they are moved to overcrowded detention quarters or “rehabilitation centers” that lack bedding, have inadequate sunlight, and have poor access to latrines and showers. Malnourishment is rife. Boys held in these facilities suffer from scabies and other skin conditions. They are vulnerable to tuberculosis and COVID-19, as well as at increased risk of HIV because of their increased vulnerability to sexual violence. They are also suffering from untreated war injuries, including missing limbs.

The situation for boys is particularly dire in al-Sina’a prison, which is not far from Al Hol and houses men suspected of ISIS ties as well as boys transferred there after they turn ten. In January, ISIS launched an attack on the prison, using a truck bomb to blow up one of the prison’s walls. The assault turned into a ten-day battle, which required U.S. military intervention to bring under control. In the end, a handful of ISIS leaders managed to escape while dozens of ISIS fighters were killed. Approximately 140 SDF fighters died, and scores of young boys were caught in the crossfire, with many still unaccounted for. Since the attack, the SDF has restricted humanitarian groups’ access for security reasons, and many of the boys experienced physical injuries as well as sustained trauma.

This warehousing of adolescent boys away from their mothers is not only abhorrent but also illegal, as it violates the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is a form of gender discrimination that would be widely denounced if it were directed at girls, underscoring how young boys in the region are rarely viewed as victims of terrorism. Instead, they are presumed dangerous by virtue of their sex and are stripped of protections for the same reason.

NO PLACE LIKE HOME

The only meaningful solution to the nightmare at Al Hol and Roj is to ensure that their foreign residents are sent home. There has been some small progress on this front. The United States has brought home its own 27 nationals and provided the logistical and security support to secure transportation from the Iraqi border and flights home so other countries can do the same. Uzbekistan has also stepped up, repatriating 521 people from the camps and integrating and rehabilitating them once home. The Uzbek effort gives the lie to the argument, advanced by some countries, that a lack of consular presence in northeast Syria prevents repatriation. It also demonstrates the extent to which repatriation requires the support of specialized UN agencies such as UNICEF, which drew on its expertise to facilitate integration and to provide support for the long haul.

Some European countries, such as Germany and Denmark, have moved from seemingly absolutist positions against repatriation to bringing home a significant number of women and children in the past year, with no ill effects. But most other countries remain unwilling to do the right thing. The holdouts include Canada and Norway, two countries that provided political and financial support to the Children in Armed Conflict agenda at the UN, which through a 1997 General Assembly Resolution created a stand-alone office focused on protecting children in conflict zones from harm. But their actions suggest that they consider these protections aimed only at children from other countries and other conflicts, not their own people.

Bringing home women and children in dribs and drabs is taking too long. Every day in the life of a child in these inhumane circumstances makes reintegration more difficult. To speed things up, the UN and the countries committed to repatriation—above all, the United States—should reward those countries that return their nationals with consistent political and financial support while naming and shaming those that do not.

HUMAN DECENCY

As the world waits for the laggard countries to change their policies, there are steps that more pragmatic-minded states can take to protect the children. The first concerns the large number of people in the camps who cannot be returned to their countries of origin for fear of persecution—such as Uyghurs. One option for this population would be for a coalition of like-minded countries, supported by specialized UN entities, to send them to other countries that agree to take them. Such a scheme would require the countries committed to repatriation to take on the hard work of establishing clear processes for transfer and resettlement. Should this prove impossible in the short term, then this group may need to be resettled in northeast Syria in better living conditions. A coalition of countries committed to solving this problem, supported by expert UN entities—most suitably, the International Organization for Migration (IOM)—could build homes and infrastructure, setting up communities where large groups of people could meaningfully and safely live out their lives.

Also needed is an assessment of the return and amnesty practices for the still-unaccounted-for Syrian detainees whom the SDF has allowed to leave the camps. Many of these people resettled in other areas of northeast Syria, whereas others returned to territory controlled by the Syrian government. They appear to have secured their release through informal and opaque agreements, often simply by paying bribes to SDF guards. From both a security and rule-of-law perspective, it is essential to know what deals they made with either the Syrian government or the SDF. It is also essential to put in place a system for following up on the well-being of these families, including the risks of radicalization and returning to ISIS.

A process is also needed for providing recognized legal documents for children in the camps. To get off the ground, such a system would require the support of not only committed countries but also the SDF. To have legitimacy, it should be carried out by the UN organizations with the most relevant experience, namely including UNICEF, IOM, and the UN Refugee Agency. Every individual in the camp must be provided with a form of civil documentation. If accompanied by adequate resources and security support to keep personnel safe, the UN should also provide DNA testing where countries require it to confirm parentage or nationality. Registration may look like a pedantic formality, but it is the only conduit through which these children can obtain legal status, recognition, and ultimately, protection under the law.

This warehousing of boys away from their mothers is not only abhorrent but also illegal.

Many of the camps’ residents likely meet the threshold for international protection, including refugee status, because they can prove they have been persecuted. A good example is the Yazidi women and children living in the camps. It is possible that specialized agencies such as the UN Refugee Agency could assist in applying this protection to those who qualify, as the SDF is not a recognized state that is bound by the 1951 Refugee Convention, which allows refugees the possibility of safe third-country resettlement.

Finally, countries will need to make a massive humanitarian investment to provide the basic semblance of a dignified life to children in these camps. Donors should provide adequate medical care, rehabilitation, psychological support, and schooling. Working with such UN agencies as UNICEF and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, they should also develop child-centered deradicalization programs that treat the totality of children’s needs and those of their families. In some cases, hard decisions based on the best interest of the child may require removing a child from the care of a parent, but in general, separation should be a last resort, used only after other means of maintaining a family bond have been exhausted.

Northeast Syria is a tinderbox, waiting to explode again. For now, the rest of the world is preoccupied with Ukraine, but it ignores these camps at its own peril. As long as they exist, they will remain not just a humanitarian disaster but also a security problem. There is a grave danger that in depriving these children of a childhood and deeming them as undeserving of legal protections, the seeds for sustained violent conflict in the region are being replanted. A generation of children is being lost, condemned for the sins of their fathers.

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  • FIONNUALA NÍ AOLÁIN is Regents Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota Law School, Professor of Law at Queens University of Belfast, and UN Special Rapporteur on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism.
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