DAMASCUS (Dispatches) -- Western European countries have been accused of being complicit in the creation of a “Guantanamo for children” in camps for the families of suspected militants in northeastern Syria.
In a damning report on Wednesday, Rights and Security International (RSI), a London-based advocacy group, described “violent, unsanitary and inhumane” conditions in the camps that had led to the avoidable deaths of hundreds of babies and infants.
It said the continuing imprisonment of tens of thousands of women and children in the Kurdish-controlled Al-Hol and Al-Roj camps amounted to unlawful and arbitrary detention in which western countries were “directly implicated”.
Detainees had been subjected to “inhuman and degrading treatment” at the hands of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) guards and “extreme risks and trauma” that may amount to torture under international law, RSI said.
Detainees reported violent assaults by both SDF guards and other women inside the camps.
“RSI has received numerous reports of beatings, verbal abuse and coercive behavior on the part of camp authorities,” the report noted.
Some mothers described being confined in tiny cells with their infant children for up to several weeks.
Others said they had been separated from young children left to fend for their themselves, including one mother separated from a baby she was still breastfeeding.
Abdulkarim Omar, foreign affairs spokesperson for the Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria, told Middle East Eye that authorities in the region lacked the resources to manage the camps effectively and conceded that mistakes may have been made.
He said torture and degrading or humiliating treatment were forbidden and officials were trying to deal with the situation in accordance with international law.
The report also raised concerns about sexual violence and exploitation within the camps, noting that reports of pregnancy in an annex to Al-Hol where no adult men were detained “raises the realistic likelihood of sexual exploitation by male SDF officers”.
Yasmine Ahmed, executive director of RSI, said that the continuing refusal of most European countries to repatriate their nationals had left them stranded in conditions in which children are “routinely dying”.
RSI estimates there are 642 European children currently being held in the camps. Its report is based on testimonies and evidence gathered during visits to Al-Hol and Al-Roj in February.
At least 371 children are recorded as having died in the main Al-Hol camp in 2019. At least 60 children died between January and August this year, according to Medicins San Frontieres.
Many of those deaths have been due to preventable and treatable conditions such as pneumonia, dehydration and malnutrition, while other infants in Al-Hol have died of gunshot wounds, in tent fires and from carbon monoxide poisoning, RSI found.
Most Western governments have refused to repatriate their nationals on the grounds that they do not have consular services in Syria and citing security concerns. Some have called for foreign nationals accused of links to Daesh to be tried locally.
Campaigners say governments are not being candid about the extent of their contacts with Kurdish authorities. They point to the ad hoc repatriation of orphans, the presence on the ground of NGOs and journalists, and visits to the region by Western envoys as proof that they have the capacity - but not the political will - to bring their nationals home.
Some countries have said they will take children but nor adult detainees. Kurdish authorities have refused these requests and campaigners say that separating children from their primary carers would breach their human rights. Some children have been repatriated with their mother’s consent.
The following figures are estimates based on official figures, data provided by campaign groups and MEE’s own research.
Australia: Eight orphans repatriated in June 2019. About 20 women and 48 children remain in the camps, and 12 men in prisons.
Belgium: Six orphans repatriated in June 2019. Six women and 10 children repatriated in July 2021. Up to 15 men, six women, and 7 children still detained.
Canada: One orphan repatriated in October 2020. Eight men, 13 women, 26 children still detained
Denmark: Two orphans repatriated. 12 Danish nationals and 30 children still detained.
Dual nationals in Syria stripped of Danish citizenship
France: 28 children repatriated. About 450 French nationals, including about 270 children, still detained. Several French citizens sent to Iraq and sentenced to death.
Germany: Four children repatriated in August 2019, and a mother and three children repatriated in November 2019. About 50 men, 50 women and 150 children still detained
Netherlands: Two orphans repatriated. Dutch Supreme Court ruled in June that government is not obliged to repatriate 23 women and 56 children still detained. At least 13 Dutch men also detained
Sweden: Seven orphaned siblings repatriated in May 2019. About 40 adults and 50 children still detained
UK: At least four children repatriated. About 26 men and women and 60 children still detained. Many dual nationals in Syria stripped of British citizenship
U.S.: Washington has called for the repatriation of all foreign nationals and has offered to help countries to take back their own citizens. All 27 Americans known to have been in Kurdish custody have been repatriated
“It is more than turning a blind eye. These states are actively engaging in a policy that is leaving these people in these dire conditions outside of the law. They are actively doing it because they have said that their security approach is to leave them there,” Ahmed told MEE.
“This is a strategic policy. It is a moral aberration to have a strategic policy which is leaving mostly children in a detention camp to die.”