“This is one of the largest and most complex child protection emergencies of our time, and it is high time to gather the political will to act before more lives are lost.”
Al-Hol has hosted people displaced by the conflicts that have shaken the region over the years. But its population suddenly skyrocketed in March 2019 following the defeat of Daesh in Baghouz, the group’s last territorial stronghold, in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor.
Thousands of women and children, including many families of captured or killed combatants, were transported from Baghouz to Al-Hol in neighboring Hasakah province, most of whom have since remained in the custody of the armed forces. US-backed Syrian democracies.
“I had not eaten in what felt like weeks at the time. We were literally left to eat grass,” said Ayman, a young Yazidi who was forced to fight Daesh in Baghouz after being abducted as child.
He added: “We had nothing. I do not know how I survived. I ended up in Al-Hol and was later rescued through the local efforts of those looking for Yazidi survivors.”
When Daesh fighters stormed the lands of the Yazidi ancestors in Sinjar in northwestern Iraq in the summer of 2014, thousands of women and children were abducted and forcibly converted to the group’s distorted interpretation of Islam.
At the time the group was territorially defeated in early 2019, many of these former prisoners were either too scared to identify themselves as Yazidis or too brainwashed to be separated from their former prison guards inside Al-Hol.
“I consider myself lucky,” Ayman said Arabic news. “Some of my friends and women I know refused to be rescued. They had been through such a brainwashing and trauma that they chose to stay in the camp, under the radar. I do not know what happened to them now.”
Humanitarian organizations have long called on governments to support the safe, voluntary and dignified return of Al-Hol Syrian and Iraqi families to their communities and to repatriate the children of foreign fighters and their mothers to their countries of origin.
“I have been dealing with this issue since 2018 and I managed to bring about 40 people back to their country of origin. Most were children,” said Peter Galbraith, a former US diplomat Arabic news.
Western governments have been reluctant to take back their citizens, for fear of political downfall, costs and even security risks if the authorities fail to pursue suspected Islamist radicals.
“Part of the problem is that the UN and other NGOs say countries should take back their citizens, but in reality no one does,” Galbraith said. “There is no point in continuing to shout about a topic and not succeeding.”
“Some countries like Britain, Canada and France find it less complicated and cheaper to keep their citizens in northeastern Syria. Bringing them home and putting them through a trial, sentencing and then sending them to jail would cost thousands of dollars, instead. to keep them in camp for a few hundred dollars, ”he explained.
As a result, thousands of children who ended up in the camp through no fault of their own were effectively abandoned by Western governments and left vulnerable to violence, disease and radicalization.
“Children end up paying for their parents’ mistakes,” Galbraith said. “Every man and woman who decided to join Daesh had the capacity to act one way or another. Children brought or born here had no choice. They are now sentenced to life in prison.”
Galbraith argued, “They also risk being married off to children and raised by the radical extremist women who run the camps. An American orphan we rescued was raised by an extremist Somali woman when we found him.”
He added that “these children risk ending up in the hands of ruthless smugglers, human traffickers who are willing to do anything to make money. Some Yazidi women ended up after all their trials with Daesh being extradited to prostitution by these traffickers. ”.
“These children must be removed from the camp and placed in villages or foster families,” he insisted.
Far from speeding up repatriation programs, Western governments have instead sought to hand over the issue to prisons controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the rudimentary justice system in neighboring Iraq or Kurdish authorities and aid organizations. Hol.
The dangers of outsourcing the problem were abundantly demonstrated in January this year, when the remnants of Daesh launched a massive and highly sophisticated attack on a prison in Hasakah, where thousands of its former fighters were being held in custody by MSDS.
According to some reports, 374 Daesh fighters were killed in the attack along with 77 prison staff, 40 SDF members and four civilians. About 400 prisoners are still missing, suggesting a significant number of them have fled.
This incident is just the latest in a series of attacks and escape attempts in camps and prisons in the region, suggesting that Daesh may reappear in an area where it was considered to be exhausted.
Meanwhile, Al-Hol’s children are fast becoming adults, radicalized by their mothers and peers, and resentful of the abuse they have been subjected to. If their situation is not taken care of and their psychological needs are not properly covered, help groups warn of extreme and lasting damage.
“Children cannot continue to live in such severe conditions,” Sonia Khush, Save the Children’s Syria Response Director, said in a recent statement.
Khush warned that “the level of violence they face on a daily basis in Al-Hol is appalling. The insecurity in the camp needs to be dealt with effectively without adding more stress and fear to these children’s lives. They urgently need more psychosocial support to manage their experiences ”.
“But the only lasting solution to this situation is to help the children and their families to leave the camp safely and voluntarily,” she said.
Khush admitted: “This is not a place for children to grow up.”
This text is the translation of an article published on Arabnews.com