GENEVA - A U.N. expert is condemning the mass detention of tens of thousands of women and children in northeast Syria as a violation of international law and calling on governments to repatriate their nationals who she says live under cruel and inhumane conditions.
Concluding a six-day visit to Syria, Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the U.N. special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, issued a dire assessment Friday.
"It is entirely unacceptable that we have 40,000-plus people in a detention facility where 60% of them are children under 12, and we have absolutely no idea what is happening in that facility," she said at a news conference. "To say that this is a breach of international law is perhaps the understatement of the day."
During her visit this past week, Ni Aolain and her team toured prisons and sites of detention in the Qamishli, Gweiran and al-Hol districts, and in al-Malikiyah city.
The enormous al-Hol camp is where tens of thousands of women and children — mostly wives, widows and children of Islamic State group members — are held.
For years, the U.S. has been urging countries to repatriate the family members of militants, but those calls have gone largely unheeded. Either the camp’s residents can’t prove their citizenship, or their home country is reluctant to accept IS sympathizers or former fighters.
However, Ni Aolain said, states are obligated to repatriate their nationals held in the detention facilities in Syria.
Camp authorities say the Islamic State group wives rule the al-Hol camp with violence as they try to keep the group active years after its defeat. Additionally, the authorities say they have set fires in the camp, threatened guards and tried to kidnap them, and have facilitated the escape of boys to join IS.
The United Nations reports more than 100 people, including many women, have been killed in al-Hol camp since the beginning of 2021.
Ni Aolain said what most concerned her and her team "was the mass, indefinite and arbitrary detention of children, particularly boys in various facilities, premised on the alleged threat they posed to security based on their parents alleged prior links with Da’esh." Da'esh is an Arabic acronym referring to IS.
An estimated 52,000 people, mainly Iraqis and Syrians, including relatives of suspected Islamic State militants, are being held in the al-Hol and al-Roj camps, which are run by the Kurdish, U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Ni Aolain described the camp conditions as dire.
"What I was able to witness first-hand, including mass arbitrary detention of children, incommunicado detention, disappearances, structural and systematic discrimination of detained persons on the basis of their nationality, torture, cruel, and degrading treatment, as well as the deprivation of … access to water, food, and health care.
"All of these things undermine the right to life and make the return to countries of nationality absolutely imperative," Ni Aolain said.
Last October, the SDF swept al-Hol, arresting hundreds of IS fighters and recovering stores of weapons. Since then, the SDF has enhanced security with help from the U.S., according to an NBC report.
Syrian Democratic Forces’ officials did not respond to requests for comment on the humanitarian and security situation in the camp, NBC said.
The United Nations estimates 7,000 people, three-quarters of them women and children, have been repatriated by 36 countries since 2019. The charity Save the Children says that at this rate "it would take up to 30 years" to repatriate all the children housed in the two camps.
"Ending the issue of al-Hol camp has become a top national interest for Iraq," said Ahmad Sahhaf, Iraq’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, according to the country’s state news agency.
He called on the international community to urge all countries that have citizens at the camp "to repatriate them as soon as possible in order to eventually close the camp" because it has become "a dangerous epicenter" for IS gatherings.
"Let me be clear, anyone seriously thinking about long-term security in this region who is not addressing the systematic and arbitrary detention of thousands of children is closing their eyes to the long-term security implications of what it means to hold children in these kinds of conditions of detention indefinitely," Ni Aolain said.
The special rapporteur said she shared her concerns in discussions with authorities at every detention facility.
"I was absolutely crystal clear about the human rights violations that were implicated by what I saw, particularly among children. We see so much of this in media reporting on children — the kind of inflammatory language of ‘cubs of the caliphate’ or ‘extremists’ or ‘terrorists’ to describe 2-year-old’s, 3-, 4-, 5-year-olds born on this territory by no choice of their own."
The Associated Press provided some information for this report.