Women and children in danger in Syrian camps

by Zauqi Farooqi
Syrian camps

As Syrian camps full of families of Islamic State fighters become more dangerous, it is being said that children will have to be evacuated, even if their mothers do not want to go. But there is controversy over the separation of families.

In May this year, an 8-year-old boy drowned in a sewage pit in the camp. In November, two girls aged 12 and 15 were found in another sewage pit. Their heads were chopped off and thrown there after allegedly being raped. An expert on the issue of extremism told that he had seen at the al-Hol camp how children were taught to behead dogs and cats. In this way, they were given training for recruitment in the Islamic State (IS).

Al-Hol in north-eastern Syria is often considered the most dangerous camp in the world. More than 53 thousand people live here. Although not all residents support IS, they are known only as displaced families of this group. They were forced to come here after the defeat of IS in the areas of their occupation in Iraq and Syria, and Turkish airstrikes on some areas of northern Syria and Iraq.

Turkish airstrikes on northern Syria and some areas of Iraq

Most of the people living here are from Iraq or Syria. But many foreigners in the number of 10,000 to 11,000 from other countries including Europe, America and Canada are also here. The majority of the population of the camp consists of women and children. Aid organizations estimate that 60 to 64 per cent of the camp’s population are children, and most are under the age of 12.

Year of violence on a record scale

Due to overcrowding in the camp, lack of medical care, limited supplies and lack of education, life for the thousands of children in al-Hol is already difficult. Things got worse last year. In 2021, 126 cases of murder and 41 cases of attempt to murder were registered. It was the most violent year of the Al Hol camp. Aid agencies say that this year has passed worse.

Apart from this, the neighboring country Turkey has been continuously conducting airstrikes on the area because it considers the Syrian Kurds guarding the camps as enemies.

Looking at all this, it is difficult for anyone as a parent to imagine that their children get trapped in such a situation. But some mothers in Al-Hol are choosing exactly the same fate for their families.

In its November report, Human Rights Watch found that 30 countries, including several European countries, have evacuated their citizens from al-Hol. In a press release issued this week, Save the Children organization said that since 2019, 1464 women and children have returned to their countries. In 2022, a 60 percent increase was seen in the number of returnees.

But when some governments asked the women of their country to return, they rejected the offer. The German Foreign Office, for example, told DW that the last time in November, a woman returned to the country with her four children.

A Foreign Office spokesman said in a statement: “We believe that a small number but double the number of German mothers and children are still in the Rose and Al-Hol camps. But to the best of our knowledge, these women are not in Germany.” want to return.”

Reasons to stay?

The same is the condition of women of other countries. Joe Baker, child rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said mothers who did not want to return had a variety of reasons for their decision.

She says, “In some cases, they did not want to live in a non-Muslim country, or they feared discrimination or prosecution. In other cases, their husbands were in prison and they were waiting for his release or Didn’t want to make any decision without him. On the other hand, his decisions were not in the best interest of their children.”

Controversial proposal

This is the reason why some experts have suggested to the countries that if the mothers want this, then they should bring their children by leaving them in Al-Hol camp.

According to Anne Speckhardt, director of the US-based International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), “usually the best thing for children is to be placed with family members.”

“But this may not necessarily be true if we talk about family members of IS,” she says. If the mother of a seven-year-old child, let’s say, is doing something that is wrong, giving drugs to the children or forcing them to watch an IS video – then what about the country? Wouldn’t it be his responsibility to go ahead and get the child out of that house?”

Speckhard also points out that children are often not held in prison for long periods of time with their parents. “Al-Hole and Rose are legally designated as camps, but in reality they are prisons.”

Children being pushed into militancy

Peter Galbraith, a former US and UN diplomat and advisor to Iraqi Kurdish politicians, noted this in a New York Times editorial this year.

According to him, most mothers would not want to be separated from their children. And “it would certainly be cruel to children and it would be painful for them. But I think it is even more cruel to push children into a life in prison because their mother or father is in Syria.”

Decides to go and join the terrorist group

Galbraith, like other experts, also mentioned the danger of children being pushed towards militancy in the camp. During a 2021 briefing on the fight against the IS group, the UN Security Council identified “numerous cases of extremism, radicalization, fundraising, training and incitement” in al-Hol.

Galbraith suggests that children in the camps whose mothers do not want to, or cannot go, could be placed in special children’s villages run by the Syrian Kurds. Many children also have relatives at home who can take care of them. And in this way it will be easier to get them out of Syria.

In the interest of the children

Reports from aid organizations working in the region, such as Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, and HRW, also underscore the importance of taking actions that are in the best interests of children. These reports also mention the dire conditions in Al-Hol camp. But no report directly says not to separate the children from their parents.

“It’s a tricky question that will be even more relevant in the future,” an NGO worker in Syria and Iraq told DW. He spoke off the record because he is prohibited from speaking on behalf of his employer. The easier cases will be dealt with first, and the group of potential returnees will become smaller and more complex.”

According to Article 9 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, “a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will. Exceptions may be made if the competent authority decides … that the child Separation is necessary in his interest.”

Need a transparent process

Baker of Human Rights Watch says that if children are sent back to their countries without their parents, then there will be a need to create and adopt a process in which each situation should be decided on a case-by-case basis.

In any process the mother will need to be consulted, what are her options. What is the possibility of prosecution back home and what could be its outcome, it is also to be seen which family members will take care of her children and how well those children will know their families. Older children should get a chance to speak their mind. And it is necessary for the authorities to regularly check the condition of the children in the families as their attitude may change as they grow up or the conditions of the camp change. “It’s true that the process is complex and labor-intensive,” says Baker.

Ok Bauman, communications director for Save the Children, who visited the Al-Hol camp this week, says that even if a process or method was developed to remove children from Al-Hol without their mothers, “the conditions in the camp would be too difficult to follow any established procedures.” can create major difficulties in adoption.

According to him, “But in any such situation, it is not the fault of the child, it has to be seen that he does not have to pay the price for the crimes of his parents. We also have to rely on the accountability of the parents who committed the crimes.” The two things are not contradictory.”

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