Accessibility links

Breaking News

Hundreds of Iraqi Nationals Leave al-Hol Refugee Camp in Syria 

FILE - Children gather outside their tents at al-Hol camp, which houses families of members of the Islamic State group, in Hasakah province, Syria, May 1, 2021.

More than 100 Iraqi families have been released from a refugee camp that houses thousands of people, including families of Islamic State fighters, in northeastern Syria.

An official at al-Hol camp confirmed to Voice of America that 487 Iraqi nationals from 115 families left late Wednesday for a camp in Nineveh province.

It's the second time this year that Iraqis have been released from the camp. In May, 381 Iraqi nationals, or 95 families, left al-Hol and were sent back to Iraq.

When the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led military alliance that has been a significant U.S. partner in the war against IS, took the terror group's last stronghold in Syria in March 2019, it detained thousands of IS militants and their families.

According to camp officials, more than 62,000 individuals, including nearly 30,000 Iraqi refugees, are still residing at al-Hol. Syrian nationals make up about 22,000 of the camp's residents.

The relocation on Wednesday was part of a 2018 deal between local Kurdish officials in Syria and the Iraqi government, according to Dilbirin Khelo, a local journalist who follows happenings in the camp.

He told VOA that “both sides agreed to allow up to 5,000 Iraqi families to leave the camp if they want to.”

The Iraqi Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a VOA request for comment on this issue.

Thorough vetting

According to Nicholas Heras, a senior analyst at Washington's Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, the SDF handles Iraqi detainees like local or Syrian detainees.

Heras said, “A lot of the procedure for releasing Iraqi families from al-Hol needs rigorous talks ahead of time, as well as thorough vetting.”

He added, “This effort is only worth it for the SDF if it means that the SDF can transfer larger groups of people out of al-Hol, and that Iraqi authorities will take them back and guarantee a basic subsistence and shelter for them.” He said the Iraqi government was suspicious of anybody tainted with the stigma of being connected by family to IS.

SDF authorities released 324 Syrian nationals from al-Hol in August, increasing the number of Syrian families who have left the camp to 1,600.

Local authorities hope that lowering the population of al-Hol will help to reduce the violence that has been plaguing the camp. At least 70 people have been killed in al-Hol this year, according to the United Nations. Reports say the majority of the victims were Iraqi migrants.

This story originated in VOA’s Kurdish Service.