Protection sought for kids in overcrowded camps - GulfToday

Protection sought for kids in overcrowded camps

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Children play in a puddle in the section for foreign families at Al-Hol camp in Hasakeh province, Syria. File/AP

The UN children’s agency, Unicef, has called on the homelands of thousands of children of foreign fighters held in camps and orphanages in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere to be reclaimed and repatriated. Unicef says they are “among the world’s most vulnerable children” as they live in “appalling conditions amid constant threats to their health, safety and well-being. While most are stranded with their mothers or other caregivers, many are completely alone.”

A week ago 14 orphaned children of Daesh fighters were flown to France.

Twelve were French and two Dutch; the oldest was 10. They were handed over to the Kurdish officials in charge of the camps where children do not receive adequate food, water and health care; schooling is absent and abuse is prevalent.

Unicef estimates there are 29,000 foreign children, the majority under 12, in camps and orphanages in Syria and Iraq. Twenty thousand are from Iraq, 9,000 from other countries.  

The agency argues that their home countries must “fulfil their responsibilities to protect everyone under the age of 18 in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child.” UNICEF has been asked to facilitate with the repatriation of only 270.

Since the last scrap of territory held by the false caliphate established by Daesh was cleared of fighters and civilians, around 12,000 foreigners, most of them women and children, have been ware-housed in overcrowded camps in northern Syria. From 40 countries, these civilians — some innocent, others Daesh indoctrinated — pose serious problems not only for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic

Forces (SDF) holding them but also for home countries which do not want them back. The Kurds insist they cannot shelter, feed, and provide health care for these people while their homelands fear they could infect other vulnerable people if they return.

The Kurds, who have imprisoned between 800 and 2,000 foreign fighters, are also eager to get rid of them. In 2017 and 2018, the US sent at least 30 foreign fighters to Iraq for trial. France recently instructed the SDF to transfer more than a dozen of its citizens to Iraq where they are given summary trials and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment or death.  

Human Rights Watch has criticized France and other countries which are, it says, “outsourcing management” of their citizens to “abusive justice systems.” While some of these men never entered Iraq, Baghdad regards them as subject to its legal system because they joined Daesh which formerly ruled large swathes of both Iraq and Syria and committed terrible crimes during this time.  

Iraq also contends that it handles their cases as best it can because of the thousands of suspects it has in its custody and the scarce resources at the disposal of its police and judiciary.

UN special rapporteur for human rights Fonnuala Ni Aolain was sharply critical of this practice.

“The sub-contraction of trials… to an ill-resourced, under-funded, ill-equipped criminal justice system in Iraq can only be described as an abrogation of responsibility.”

She is absolutely right. Governments across the world abrogated responsibility when they failed to keep track of citizens who were being radicalised by Daesh, al-Qaeda and affiliated groups which fought in Iraq and Syria and whose members are now imprisoned in both these countries or elsewhere or who have fanned out across Africa and Asia.

Sirte in Libya has become Daesh’s third capital while the main faction of Boko Haram, which  has sworn allegiance to Daesh, holds vast tracts of territory in northern Nigeria. The island of Mindanao in the Philippines has become a base for Daesh activity.

Russia was the first to arrange the return of women and children among the 4,500 citizens of the Muslim republics in the Caucasus who migrated to Syria and Iraq.  So far only 200 have been repatriated but Moscow claims it is paving the way for mass returns.  

An estimated 1,400 children from the Caucasus remain in the camps. Moscow’s ally, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, has vowed to repatriate all children of Chechens who fought for Daesh in Iraq and Syria. The Russian foreign ministry has criticised Western countries for their refusal to follow this example.

France — which deals with the captives on a case-by-case basis — has returned 18 children, including a three-year-old girl whose mother is serving a life sentence in an Iraqi prison. An estimated 1,600 French citizens went to fight in Syria and Iraq.

More than 500 Belgians travelled to Syria and Iraq while 160 children and teenagers were born to couples with one Belgian parent. The government says it will repatriate these children who are under the age of ten and the rest on a case-by-case basis.

Germany has repatriated 12 children of Daesh fighters from among 750, arguing minors are victims of their parents’ actions. Indoctrinated children will be put in institutions where they will be de-radicalised, hopefully. Denmark has stripped its 125 fighters and families of their nationality and rejected repatriation.

While urging Western countries to take back its citizens, the US is not doing such a great job. Last July, Washington repatriated three Daesh fighters and one woman and her four children.

Early this month two women and six children were returned home.  

According to Robin Wright, reporting to the New Yorker, the US has repatriated one-third of known citizens  who survived Daesh.

Tunisia has refused to repatriate any of its 5,000 citizens who made up one of the largest national contingents in Daesh. Tajikistan, which sent 1,000 volunteers, has returned 84 children.

Uzbekistan has repatriated 156, mostly women and children. Kosovo has returned 110 women and children.

Following the collapse of Daesh in March-April, the UN says the main camp at al-Hol in northern

Syria held 75,000, of whom 43 per cent were Syrians, 42 per cent Iraqis, and 15 per cent foreigners.

Children were 66 per cent of total.  SDF has imprisoned 8,000 Daesh fighters. The figures for foreigners vary from 800-1,000-2,000.  Syrians have been recruited by SDF or were sent home while thousands of Iraqis have been returned.

An estimated 41,500 foreigners joined Daesh and other radical factions, 45 per cent from this region and North Africa, 20 per cent from Asia, 17 per cent from Eastern Europe and 14 per cent from Western Europe. France, Germany, the UK and Belgium accounted for more than 70 per cent of those from

Western Europe.  Two hundred and seventy-two US citizens attempted to travel to Syria of whom 41 per cent were caught before leaving that country. Returnees convicted of crimes face varying prison sentenes:  France seven years; the US, 13.2 years; Holland, three; and Germany, four. While at its height of power, Daesh was thought to have 50 per cent foreign fighters while al-Qaeda’s Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) has been more selective and is said to have about 30 per cent.

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