Some 6,500 foreign children linked to the so-called Daesh are being held in Al-Hawl refugee camp, a Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) official said yesterday, as the challenges the country faces post-Daesh come to the fore.
More than 9,000 foreigners are believed to be among the 72,000 refugees that have fled the last Daesh stronghold east of the Euphrates in recent months. However, Luqman Ahmi said the figure was from a week ago, before the tent city of Al-Baghouz fell, where hardcore fighters had been holed up along with thousands of other civilians in recent weeks.
The situation in the camp is known to be dire; over 100 children have already died due to harsh conditions, with some 12 people dying in one night last week. Footage has shown thousands of new arrivals forced to sleep in the open, despite the bitter cold and dozens requiring urgent hospitalisation.
Aid agencies have said they are struggling to provide medical care and shelter for refugees, while water supplies were being stretched thin in the camp. Earlier this month charities said that more than 400 children were being treated for moderate acute malnutrition in the camp.
However, the fate of the minors remains uncertain. Being born to foreign nationals, they are eligible for repatriation to countries from which their parents fled, yet few have moved to claim them.
Whilst the US, Lebanon, Russia, Indonesia, Sudan, and New Zealand have agreed to return their nationals, European countries, in particular, have wrestled with how to handle suspected militants and their families.
Controversy erupted in the UK earlier this month after it emerged the newborn son of 19-year-old Shamima Begum, who travelled to Syria as an “ISIS bride”, had died, weeks after she had been stripped of her citizenship and barred from returning home.
Last week, France announced that it had repatriated five young children from camps in northern Syria, but repeated its position that adult citizens who had joined Daesh abroad should be tried on the spot; Switzerland has expressed similar sentiments.
Even for countries that have pledged to take back children, progress has been slow, with fears that more will die as the conditions in the camps worsen. Concern over separating children from their mothers has also caused delays, but European countries have been reluctant to set a precedent by allowing women who joined Daesh to return, that could extend to their husbands.
The fate of foreign children is just one of many challenges that the SDF will battle within the coming weeks, after declaring Daesh physically destroyed on Friday.
Yesterday, US envoy for Syria, Jim Jeffrey, told a briefing at the State Department, said Daesh’s loss of its last territorial stronghold in Syria over the weekend was a “great day” but the fight against the group will go on and US forces would remain in Syria in limited numbers to help.
In the aftermath of US President Donald Trump’s announcement that all US troops would leave Syria, the Pentagon’s own internal watchdog released a report warning of the risks still posed by Daesh. It cautioned that absent sustained pressure, the group would likely resurge in Syria within six to 12 months and retake some limited territory.