On Monday, February 8th, 2021, the United Nations called on 57 countries to repatriate their citizens in northeast Syrian camps. These camps are the home of the Islamic State fighters, a terrorist organization known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Over nine thousand women and children are among the 65 thousand individuals detained at Syrian-Kurdish (Syrian democratic) authority-run al-Hol and Roj camps. Of this, nearly ten thousand detainees are citizens from member states of the U.N.
According to international law, member states of the U.N. have a responsibility to repatriate their respective citizens. If there is evidence of adults being responsible for war crimes and other offences, they must be given a fair trial in domestic courts. These women and children are associated with these fighters and are currently living in “subhuman” conditions. “The conditions in these camps may reach the threshold of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment under international law,” says U.N. special rapporteur Fionnuala Ní Aoláin. Many women and children are detained while having done no wrong. Yet, they are held in atrocious conditions, a situation that needs to be rectified as soon as possible.
Refugees trapped in these Syrian camps are collateral damage in the Syrian civil war; an ongoing conflict between Syrian armed forces and a mixture of Sunni opposition groups, Salafi jihadist groups, Syrian democratic forces (SDF), and the ISIL, which is better known as ISIS – radical Islamists. Syria still has a semi-presidential republic with President Bashar al-Assad and the Arab Socialist Party. However, there has been multi-party representation since the coup d’etat in 1970. This conflict has been devastating for those who have fallen victim to it. There has been a massive internal displacement of Syrians between the groups at war. Al-Al-Hawal is just one of the several camps established to house the Syrians.
Originally, Al-Hawl was intended to house Iraqis; it was built on the Syria-Iraq border during the Gulf War and was re-established during Iraq’s invasion in 2003 to admit Iraqi refugees. However, this camp’s focus has shifted over the years and now is mainly for internally-displaced Syrians. Those who need an escape from the fighting between SDF and ISIL have been evacuated to al-Hawl. However, the conditions at these camps provide no reprieve to Syrians. Reliefweb provides a profile that shows the results of a camp-wide survey conducted in al-Hawl in late 2020. The report showed that 57% of households in the camp reported safety and security issues in the past two weeks. The percentage of households with an acceptable food consumption score (FCS) was 53%.
Response to the Coronavirus pandemic was also greatly lacking. There were isolation areas set up, but new arrivals did not use them. Quarantine for these arrivals was planned but not put into action. No temperature checks were being done on a regular basis. Not only this, but handwashing facilities were not sufficient. Note that these checks were made in October, well into the pandemic, and these plans had only remained plans with no action taken in the foreseeable future. When Covid-19 started to spread in early March, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) announced that handwashing was the most basic preventative measure people could take against the virus. In a place such as Al-Hawl this has proved impossible. In addition to all of this, there is just one healthcare center for the entire camp, and of the 57% of households that needed treatment in the 30 days prior to the assessment, around 46% said that they faced barriers in accessing medical aid.
A similar assessment was applied to the Roj camp in Syria. Facilities here are even worse, with nearly six people to one household. “Houses” here are unfortified tents. 33% of Roj refugees say that these tents are in poor condition and massive tent damage occurs due to bad weather. This brings into question who the refugees are supposed to go to when they exhibit signs of Covid-19, given that spread due to lack of preventative measure is imminent. Due to these health violations, it is crucial that U.N. member countries repatriate their citizens trapped in these unfortunate situations.
Not only are there health-related issues in Syrian refugee camps, but there are also fundamental humanitarian issues. Women and children often don’t have anything to do with the armed conflict between groups directly. However, by circumstance, they have to go to these refugee camps and endure the harsh conditions. Under the same assessment, 63% of al-Hawl households said there were issues regarding child safety in the camp. Of those households, 100% said that there were issues with child labour. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports that children are forced to do agricultural and domestic work for long, gruelling hours. Some work in hazardous conditions for very little pay, often just for five to ten dollars per day. This is less than the hourly minimum wage in the United States and many of these children are under the age of 11.
Along with this, Syrian youth are not educated sufficiently. In al-Hawl, there is only one educational facility provided by a non-governmental organization for ages three to seventeen. This facility hinges on the idea of “self-education,” which children are not getting when they have to work for multiple hours in a day. From a young age, Syrians are only taught hard labour – with no sort of enrichment. All they know of is war and destruction. These children should also not have to bear the burden of carrying the family on their backs, especially when their lives are at risk. With UN countries repatriating the children in these Syrian camps, they can live as normal children and get an education that can be used for more enriching opportunities in their futures.
There are numerous gender-discriminatory issues at these camps as well. The United Nations University says that when ISIL militants captured land in Iraq and Syrian, they used and punished women for demonstrating their power. Many were sexually assaulted, forced into marriage, and sold into slavery. U.N. relief official Kyung-Wha Kang says the following: “While entire communities suffer the impact of armed conflict, women and girls are often the first to lose their rights to education, to political participation and to livelihoods, among other rights being bluntly violated.” These effects can be seen at al-Hawl and Roj camps. Surprisingly, more girls are used in child labour than boys. This means that they have even less time to receive an education. On top of this, they face violence on a regular basis and often have designated areas of where to go and not to go in the camp. Women and girls should not have to face this level of bias and violence when they have already been traumatized by war and displacement.
U.N. states must repatriate their citizens where they are able to. In 2019, the U.S. government announced that every American supporter of ISIS-held by SDF was brought back to the country and now are facing charges. The U.S. military created a task force to aid in the repatriation of detainees. If an effort can be made to repatriate even those who have not committed any war crimes and are just looking for a reprieve, so many lives can be saved. In the meantime, non-profit organizations specializing in health services are needed in countries such as Syria. Syrian camps are not adequately equipped to handle the virus, and there needs to be some rectification of essential preventative planning. Organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) need to be paying closer attention to these seemingly small-scale crises, as taking even the smallest step can make such a huge difference in these refugees’ lives.
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