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‘No place for a child to be’: Foreigners remain stuck in Syria’s war-on-terror camps

‘Time is of the essence.’

Women walk through Syria's al-Hol displacement camp. Ali Hashisho/Reuters
Women walk through Syria's al-Hol displacement camp in April 2019. More than 56,000 people remain here and at another camp called Roj. Two thirds are children, mostly under the age of 12.

The case of Shamima Begum, who last month lost her appeal to keep UK citizenship after leaving Britain to join so-called Islamic State as a teenager, threw a brief spotlight on the plight of those stuck for years in dire conditions in northeast Syria’s al-Hol camp. But not all countries are trying to stop their nationals from returning; some just aren’t able to bring them all home.


Hamida Yakubova has waited more than eight and a half years for her daughter to return to Kyrgyzstan. Coalition forces drove IS from its Syrian strongholds more than three years ago, but the 49-year-old mother of four remains separated from her daughter, who is being held 4,000 kilometres away from the Central Asian nation where she was born.


Yakubova still remembers the first time she saw her daughter’s face on a video call two months after she disappeared. In 2014, the then 18-year-old beauty queen was tricked into flying to Türkiye and brought to Syria against her will, Yakubova said. She could see that her daughter’s eyes were full of fear, darting back and forth as she talked.


Yakubova, who works as a cashier in a town near Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, says her daughter married twice in Syria – both husbands were killed. She also had a daughter of her own, who is now six years old. As bombs fell on Baghouz, the last Syrian enclave held by IS, Yakubova’s daughter and granddaughter fled to al-Hol, a dusty refugee camp near Syria’s border with Iraq.


They’ve been there ever since, unable to return home to Kyrgyzstan but living in increasingly difficult circumstances. Her daughter needs medical attention for a back injury and kidney problems, while her granddaughter is growing up without a formal education. Yakubova, who had never considered herself an activist, now finds herself advocating publicly for the return of not just her family but also others like hers.


“No mother wants to hurt her child,” Yakubova told The New Humanitarian. “When they fall, we run right up to them and ask, ‘Does it hurt?’ And knowing that in Syria you could die or your child could die, no mother would willingly bring her children there.”


The toll on children

Starting in 2011, the civil war in Syria and the subsequent rise of IS drew in thousands of people from around the world – both men who participated in the conflict and women who followed their husbands, were tempted by promises of living in what was portrayed as an ideal Islamic society, or were trafficked. Some brought their children, and even more were born into the violence.


Many Western countries have refused to allow their citizens back for political or ideological reasons. Some stories have drawn widespread attention, like that of Begum. But thousands of others, many of whom went unwittingly or were forced into the conflict, are stuck despite their countries’ stated intentions to bring them back.


“Growing up in a really destructive humanitarian disaster is no place for a child to be.” 


Smaller nations like Kyrgyzstan, which had a much larger percentage of its population travel abroad than European nations or the United States, have faced logistical challenges and financial hurdles in repatriating hundreds of families.


An estimated 320 Kyrgyz women and children currently reside in camps like al-Hol, where they face threats from famine, disease, and violence. The more time that passes, human rights experts and legal advocates say, the harder it will be for them to readjust to life in their home countries if and when they are able to return.


“Growing up in a really destructive humanitarian disaster is no place for a child to be,” said Stevan Weine, a psychiatrist at the University of Illinois Chicago who has worked extensively with children affected by conflict, including in Syria. “Time is of the essence.”


More than 56,000 people – including supporters and victims of IS – are detained in al-Hol and another refugee camp called Roj; nearly two thirds are children, mostly under age 12, according to Human Rights Watch


While the majority are Syrians and Iraqis who face their own complicated process for returning home, about 10,000 come from other countries, especially from the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan.


Conditions in the camps are growing worse, according to humanitarian groups. At least 42 people were killed there last year, including two Egyptian girls – aged 12 and 15 – who were raped and abandoned in a sewage ditch. Hundreds of others, including children, have died from illnesses, accidents, lack of food, and exposure to the elements.


Médecins Sans Frontières reported last year that camp authorities refused to provide medical care for some and delayed transporting others to hospitals, resulting in the deaths of at least two children.


Such pervasive dangers compound the emotional damage from years of living under IS, fleeing US airstrikes, and being held indefinitely in camps like al-Hol, Weine said. Many detainees suffer from mental health problems – such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression.


War and the deprivations of camp life can also have permanent effects on brain development, especially in children younger than five, setting them up for learning disabilities, behavioural difficulties, and issues with speech and communication later in life, the psychiatrist added.


Attacks on camps


The geopolitics of the region are making the situation more dangerous.


In November, Türkiye carried out a bombing campaign against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the armed branch of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, because Ankara associates them with the PKK, a Kurdish rebel group it considers a terrorist organisation. After Turkish airstrikes near al-Hol killed seven camp guards and allowed six detainees to escape before being recaptured, the SDF said it would not be able to maintain security if there was a ground attack.


The US government, which has repatriated most, though not all, of its own citizens from Iraq and Syria, has pledged to help other countries and the Autonomous Administration reach an agreement.


But the United States is also funding the continued detention of foreigners, sending more than $165 million to the SDF this year to aid its ongoing fight against IS. Some money will go toward expanding security at al-Hol, building a new prison, and refurbishing existing detention centres, particularly after an attack in January 2022 sought to free suspected IS supporters.


While countries like France refused to bring their citizens back until they were forced to change course by international court rulings, Kyrgyzstan has begun repatriations on its own, albeit slowly. In February, 59 women and children were returned from Syrian camps, and the government announced in March 2021 that 79 children had been removed from a prison in Iraq and placed with family members in Kyrgyzstan, although their mothers were left behind. 


Read more: What are states’ responsibilities?

International law makes the need for repatriations clear, experts argue. Countries have an obligation to uphold the human rights of their citizens, even those that are on foreign soil, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the UN special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, told The New Humanitarian. That means bringing back people – especially children – who face starvation, torture, indefinite detention, and “inhuman or degrading treatment” in camps like al-Hol, she said.

UN Security Council Resolutions passed in 2014 and 2017 charge nations with prosecuting their citizens who may have committed crimes under the banner of groups like IS, and reintegrating the rest back into society, which Ní Aoláin has argued is only possible if they are allowed to return home. Other codes, like the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, require countries to prioritise children’s well-being and rehabilitate those affected by armed conflict.

Not all the responsibility for upholding human rights law lies with countries whose citizens travelled to Iraq and Syria. Human Rights Watch has called the governing Kurdish Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria’s blanket detention of families of IS fighters a “war crime”. The group added that the policy of keeping foreigners locked up indefinitely without giving them a chance to challenge their confinement is “arbitrary and unlawful”. But without an agreement that the detainees’ countries of origin will take them back, the administration has maintained that it needs to keep the camps locked down for safety.

At the same time, the Autonomous Administration is urging foreign governments to help their citizens return home, saying that it lacks the resources to run the camps or sort out who should be prosecuted and who should be released.


Kyrgyz authorities have pledged to repatriate all their citizens from Syria, though they have not provided a timeline for the process or a reason for the long delays. In a response to questions from The New Humanitarian, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would only say that authorities are “carrying out relevant work” to repatriate their citizens. 


Convincing people that their returning neighbours who travelled to Syria don’t pose a danger to society is one challenge, said Indira Aslanova, the head of the Research Center for Religious Studies, a think tank based in Kyrgyzstan. Local religious leaders have also spoken out against returnees, Aslanova added, partly out of fear that they may be blamed for letting them depart in the first place. 


The COVID-19 pandemic slowed returns further, said Nurbek Bekmurzaev, a Kyrgyz former project coordinator for Search for Common Ground, a Washington-based NGO that has researched repatriation in Central Asia. Analysts say another reason for the delay might be that Kyrgyzstan lacks the resources to properly help the women and children reintegrate once they do return. 


“Since it's a relatively new topic, there isn't much knowledge accumulated [among] local level practitioners, psychologists, theologians, social workers,” Bekmurzaev said.


Search for Common Ground plans to conduct training courses to prepare professionals to assist people who have undergone trauma in Syria. Funding such programmes is another challenge, Bekmurzaev said, as is providing legal documentation, job training, and housing assistance to returnees.


Families say they can provide


The delays have frustrated parents like Yakubova, who started a nonprofit called Lend a Helping Hand to pressure the government to return their relatives.


Yakubova said parents are often more than willing to take on the task of resettling and rehabilitating their children and grandchildren themselves if they are allowed back. She said she and others can find jobs and housing arrangements for family members who are repatriated, as well as provide tutoring for children.


Wealthy Western nations also have an obligation to assist poorer nations like Kyrgyzstan, Weine said – and soon. Many of the developmental issues stemming from traumatic experiences can be addressed if children are removed from stressful situations, treated for illnesses and injuries, given access to mental healthcare, and placed back into school, where they can catch up with their peers if given individualised help, he stressed. The longer they remain in camps like al-Hol, the more difficult the transition will be, Weine noted.


Despite the potential for rehabilitation, many children – especially boys – are viewed as threats, called “cubs of the caliphate” and “the next generation of IS”. While some countries, including the United States, see this as even more of an impetus to repatriate them as quickly as possible, others use it as an excuse to avoid doing so. 


“People are afraid of them,” Weine said. “They're afraid of their potential for violence or extremism, and they don't want to be complicit in that.”


Other Central Asian nations such as Kazakhstan have taken the lead in showing that these fears are, for the most part, unfounded. Starting in 2018, the country repatriated more than 600 people, mostly women and children. The returnees spent a month in an “adaptation centre” where they received medical care and underwent investigation to determine whether they should face criminal prosecution, according to a report from the United States Institute of Peace.


The majority were allowed to return to live with their families and received job training. Those who needed it were offered mental health treatment. Some were also given religious and ideological interventions – a controversial approach centred on “deradicalisation”, although the reasons people left for Syria and Iraq are diverse and not all connected to religion, Aslanova said.


Despite these flaws, Kazakhstan’s experience provides a model for how Kyrgyzstan could approach its own repatriation and reintegration programme, Weine said. Still, he emphasised that to make the biggest difference, the work will have to continue for years into the future. 


“Adolescence and young adulthood for these kids poses an extra set of challenges,” Weine said. “And the nature of the support they need is going to change over time.”


This reporting was supported by the Dart Center for Trauma and Journalism’s Global Early Childhood Reporting Fellowship. 

Edited by Pradnya Joshi.

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