Amman, 23 September 2021 – Many of the world’s richest countries have failed to bring home the majority of their children stuck in two camps in North East Syria, Save the Children said today, as youngsters say their lives are “simply wasting away” with violence and illness a daily risk.
A new Save the Children report published today, “When am I going to start to live?”: The urgent need to repatriate foreign children trapped in Al Hol and Roj Camps, found that everyday survival in both of the camps for displaced people in NE Syria continues to be a struggle for the estimated 40,000 children living there.
This is due to:
- Avoidable illness and deaths caused by fires, poor water and sanitation, malnutrition, and a barely functioning healthcare system.[i]
- 62 children, or approximately two every week, have died of different causes in Al Hol so far this year[ii].
- 73 people, including two children, have been murdered in Al Hol so far this year.
- Only 40% of children in Al Hol are receiving an education, with years of traumatic experiences taking a toll on their mental health[iii].
- In Roj, 55% of households reported being aware of child labour among children aged under 11.
It is more urgent than ever that foreign governments with nationals in Al Hol and Roj – many of whom fled their homes to escape ISIS - take responsibility and bring children and their families home, said the organisation.
New figures show that EU member states, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia have not done enough to repatriate their citizens.
For example, the UK has only repatriated four children with about 60 believed to remain there. France has at least 320 children in the camps, but has only brought home 35. In recent months, countries including Germany, Finland and Belgium completed the repatriation of a group of mothers and children from the camps, proving again that it is possible to save lives when there is political will.
Violence is a daily occurrence in the Al Hol, with children telling Save the Children staff that they feel unsafe when they walk around the camp, when visiting the market, or using latrines and bathing facilities. Murders, attempted murders, assaults and deliberate arson are also common. [iv]
Maryam*, 11, from Lebanon, was living in the Al Hol Annex, a space of just 0.5km2 (or the equivalent of five neighbourhood parks) for 8,800 people, of whom 6,200 are children. In May this year, Maryam* told Save the Children: ‘I cannot endure this life any more. We do nothing but wait.”
Since then, Maryam* was reportedly killed, her mother injured, and her brother reported missing during an unsuccessful escape attempt from the Annex in a water truck.
Bushra*, 10, from Turkey said, “I fear living in the camp. The people here keep fighting. I close my ears with my hands whenever I hear them fight. I don’t even let my mother go outside as they will draw knives at each other. They also swear at and threaten each other, saying ’I will rip your face, I will cut your head’.”
Samiya*, an 11-year-old girl from Tajikistan who has been living in the Al Hol Annex for two years with her mother and four siblings, told Save the Children about an evening in May this year when she saw a fire destroy or damage 75 tents.
She said: “We heard voices of people screaming all of a sudden. A fire had broken out in our section. The tents started to burn one after the other. They melted completely. All children were running away, screaming and crying […] Our tent was burned as well. My new clothes which my mother had bought for me got burned. My toys and hair ribbon, all the sweets for Eid, everything got burned. Now we are sleeping in the kitchen and waiting for our new tent.”
In Roj, the risk of fire also remains a constant threat. In 2020, three children died and two were critically injured in two separate incidents after heaters exploded and started fires.[v]
Sonia Khush, Director of Save the Children’s Syria Response said: “These children are experiencing traumatic events that no child should have to go through – and this is after years of living in conflict zones. It is incomprehensible that they are condemned to this life.
“What we are seeing here is governments simply abandoning children, who are first and foremost victims of conflict. 83% of repatriation operations have been to Uzbekistan, Kosovo, Kazakhstan and Russia. Remaining governments must step up to their responsibilities and obligations, take responsibility for their nationals and repatriate children with their families in line with children’s rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“Every day that foreign children and their families stay in the camps are another day they are failed by their governments. Every day they are denied the opportunity to return to their home, denied the specialised services they so desperately need and denied the right to live in safety and recover from their experiences is a day too many.”
Al Hol and Roj are home to over 60,000 people, 40,000 of whom are children. As well as Syrian and Iraqi nationals- many of whom fled from ISIS- there are women and children from some 60 other countries around the world, many of whom lived under ISIS rule unwillingly, for example being groomed or trafficked into Syria as children[vi].
Notes to editors:
Save the Children is calling on all states with child nationals in Syria to: /1) Recognise and treat children primarily as victims of war, even those who had been forced to join ISIS; /2) Repatriate nationals without any further delays and support their reintegration into their home country; /3) Guarantee basic rights and address urgent humanitarian needs; /4) Release arbitrarily detained children and reunite them with their families; /5) Commit to non-discrimination and equal justice.
As well as the safe and dignified return of children and their families to their places of origin, Save the Children is calling for expanded humanitarian response in the camps to meet the needs of foreign children while they await repatriation as well as for Syrian children who may remain in the camps for some time to come.
About 1,163 children have been repatriated since 2017 with almost 59% of these going home in 2019 in 29 operations. There was a steep decline of repatriations throughout 2020. As of 3 September 2021, about 14 repatriations have taken place this year.
The best interest of the child is one of the four general principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and set out in Article 3(1). The Committee on the Rights of the Child sets out the three-fold nature of the concept: that it is a substantial right of children to have their best interests assessed and taken as the primary consideration in decision-making; a fundamental legal principle, meaning that in the case of legal ambiguity, any provision should be read in a manner that best services their best interest; and a rule of procedure so that all decision-making must include an evaluation of the possible impact of a decision on a child or group of children.[vii]
[i] Fire-related injuries are the most common recorded cause of child death in the camp, leading to the deaths of 13 children to date in 2021. [ii] This includes natural deaths due to illness, accidental deaths and violent deaths. Data accurate as of 29 August 2021 [iii] 47% of caregivers that Save the Children spoke to in Al Hol camp said that their children are always, or usually, upset, and 37% said that their children are always or usually angry. [iv] See examples: Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “ISIS widows in deadly clash with guards at Syrian Al Hol camp.” October 1, 2019. https://www.syriahr.com/en/142410/ and ANF News. “ISIS women impose Sharia in the Hol camp.”18 December,2019. https://anfenglish.com/rojava-syria/sharia-in-the-hol-camp-40178 [v] إصابة امرأتين وطفلين في حريق بمخيم "روج" جنوب ديريك, https://npasyria.com/16848/; حريق يودي بحياة أطفال بأحد مخيمات الحسكة, https://baladi-news.com/ar/articles/64677/%D8%AD%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%82-%D9%8A%D9%88%D8%AF%D9%8A-%D8%A8%D8%AD%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%A9-%D8%A3%D8%B7%D9%81%D8%A7%D9%84-%D8%A8%D8%A3%D8%AD%D8%AF-%D9%85%D8%AE%D9%8A%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D8%B3%D9%83%D8%A9
[vi] . Investigations by Reprieve revealed, for example, that at least 63% of British women currently located in North East Syria are victims of trafficking, including that they were subject to sexual and other forms of exploitation, were under 18 when they travelled, were coerced into travelling or kept and moved inside Syria against their will. Reprieve, Trafficked to ISIS: British families detained in Syria after being trafficked to Islamic State, April 2021; https://reprieve.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2021/04/2021_04_30_PUB-Reprieve-Report-Trafficked-to-Syria-British-families-detained-in-Syria-after-being-trafficked-to-Islamic-State-1.pdf [vii] United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, General comment No. 14 (2013) on the right of the child to have his or her best interests taken as a primary consideration (art. 3, para. 1), 29 May 2013; https://www2.ohchr.org/English/bodies/crc/docs/GC/CRC_C_GC_14_ENG.pdf