Children of IS Fighters Held in “Secret Detention Facilities”

Information acquired by the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) suggests that children whose fathers fought for the Islamic State militant group, are likely being held in “secret detention facilities”and unidentified “settlements” away from their mothers.

The intelligence, (the sources of which the UN has not disclosed) suggests that authorities in Kurdish-administered territory are holding children over twelve years old in the north-eastern corner of Syria, in the al-Hassakeh governorate.  According to OHCHR spokeswoman Marta Hurtado, “they are neither allowed to communicate with their families nor have the families been informed of their whereabouts or status.”

Pro-Government and non-State armed forces have all been accused of failing to respect international humanitarian law by Ms. Furtado. The “appalling conditions” of these child “detention facilities” are also of concern, with Henrietta Fore, the Executive Director at the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), emphasising the “constant threats to [the children’s] health, safety and well-being.” They face “massive legal, logistical and political challenges in accessing basic services or returning to their countries of origin,”. Being the children of IS fighters, she adds, that they are “doubly rejected – stigmatized by their communities and shunned by their governments.” Estimates by UNICEF put the number of foreign children in Syria at around 29,000 – most of them under the age of 12. Not all of these are the children of IS fighters, but many of them face the same dangers. Over 20,000 of these children are from Iraq, with the remainder being from around 60 other countries. There are also believed to be a further 1,000 children of IS fighters present in western Iraq.

The plight of these children is of the utmost concern. The crimes of the parents should not result in the punishment of the child, as evinced recently in the sad case of Shamima Begum. She herself was a mere child when she elected to go to Syria to join IS; all three of her children in her subsequent marriage died due to the poor conditions in the country. As emphasised by Ms. Fore, all these children are “victims of deeply tragic circumstances and egregious violations of their rights” – rights many are too young to even suspect they have. While the actions of the UN in bringing the detainment of these children to light is laudable, much more must be done to actually help them.

At the time of writing (25/05/19) this information has only been picked up by two news agencies, United News of India and European Sting. It is appalling that no other news agency feels any duty to highlight the plight of children in the world’s worst war-zone. By bringing attention to the “appalling conditions” these children face, much could be done to bring pressure upon national governments, both to help these children and their mothers be reunited and to find safety in the countries of which they are members. Concerted international pressure could also ensure ceasefires and peace talks are not only proposed but are actively enforced.

According to the UN, since the latest escalation of military action in Syria at the end of April, over 200,000 more people have fled the fighting in southern Idlib and northern Hama districts, while at least 105 civilians have been killed. Many have fled east into Kurdish-controlled areas, including al-Hassakeh, where the al-Hol refugee camp is located. More than 70,000 people are currently living there in appalling conditions, including over 2,500 children below the age of 12 who were born to IS fighters, but have been allowed to stay with their mothers. With peace in Syria still appearing a distant hope after renewed violence, the number of  displaced people will only increase. While the long-term solution is to put an end to the conflict, in the meantime it is the imperative that world governments and international organisations endeavour not only to sustain the lives of inhabitants (especially child inhabitants) of war-zones and refugee camps in Syria, but to actively improve their living conditions and ensure their continued safety.

Henry Whitelaw