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UN Experts Call for Repatriation of Women, Children in Syrian Displacement Camps

Women and children are seen in the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp which holds suspected relatives of Islamic State (IS) group fighters, in Hasakeh governorate in northeastern Syria, Jan. 28, 2021.

U.N. human rights experts are calling for the repatriation of tens of thousands of women and children held in squalid conditions in northern Syria’s Al Hol and Roj refugee camps, which are run by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces.

U.N. experts describe the conditions as sub-human, and that under international law, the situation may reach the threshold of torture and human and degrading treatment. Fionnuala Ni Aolain is an expert on countering terrorism and said the matter is of extreme urgency.

“The structures are poor and flimsy. The risk of pneumonia and serious illness for children, in particular, is high. Water conditions and scarcity is a fact of life. Latrine and other basic human necessities are under severe stress,” she said.

The camps house more than 64,000 people. The majority are women and children. Al-Hol is the larger camp for refugees and Syrians who have fled their homes, with nearly 62,000 residents. Most are women and children of Syrian and Iraqi origin.

FILE - A general view of al-Hol displacement camp in Hasaka governorate, Syria, April 2, 2019.
FILE - A general view of al-Hol displacement camp in Hasaka governorate, Syria, April 2, 2019.

Ni Aolain said violence in the camps has increased in recent weeks and the first four cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, have been identified. She warns of the extraordinary challenges posed by the coronavirus should the outbreak take hold.

U.N. officials say the women and children in these camps are viewed with suspicion. The officials say countries are reluctant to repatriate them because most are family members of former Islamic State militants. In an effort to change their position, nearly two dozen human rights experts have sent a letter to 57 states urging them to bring their nationals home.

Ni Aolain said these 57 states, for the first time, have been named together in hopes of shaming them into action.

“In general, I do not think this is a club that states want to belong to. Some states are making fairly heroic efforts not to be in this club. I, again, would underscore Kazakhstan, like the Russian Federation, who have been returning consistently throughout and have made stellar efforts to return those nationals who wish to be returned back to their countries of origin,” she said.

Counter terrorism expert Ni Aolain said it is unconscionable that the women and children are forced to live under these conditions by virtue of their family connections.