UN experts have expressed concern and dismay over the death of an Australian teenager in a Kurdish-run detention facility in north-east Syria, as Western nations continue to delay the repatriation of their citizens.
It was confirmed last week that Yusuf Zahab had died in a prison in Hasakah province from injuries inflicted during the attack on the facility by Daesh in January. The lack of medical care post-attack contributed to the 17 year old's death.
"Zahab's death was utterly preventable, he should simply never have been held in this prison," said the UN. "He should have been returned to his homeland and his family with the possibility of living a full and decent life, the right to a protected and safe childhood."
Children like Zahab were among those detained by the Kurdish militias known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and People's Protection Units (YPG) following the US-led international coalition's defeat of Daesh in 2019.
While female spouses, relatives or children of Daesh fighters were placed in sprawling camps with dangerously poor conditions, the captured fighters – including some children or teenagers who were supposedly part of the group – were imprisoned in detention facilities in the same region. They faced the same sort of dire conditions and treatment.
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"None of these boys, including Yusuf Zahab, were subject to any judicial process justifying their detention, and all of them are being held in conditions that could amount to torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment under international law and which have a strong impact on their physical and mental health," the experts stressed. "They are victims of terrorism and deserve to be treated with compassion, dignity and a modicum of human decency. Their release from these prisons and detention sites is necessary and overdue."
The UN urged the Syrian Kurdish authorities to remove any other children injured physically or mentally, and to provide the necessary medical care or psychological support for them. In particular, the experts reiterated their call for the Australian government to repatriate its nationals – who are primarily women and children – from Syria and its detention camps and facilities. Despite many previous calls, Canberra has so far failed to implement any repatriation operations.
"The repatriation of vulnerable women and children is entirely feasible and possible. The Government of Australia has the capacity to do so. Many other governments are currently doing it," insisted the UN experts. "Australia has an advanced child welfare, education, criminal justice and health system which is imminently capable of addressing the needs of these children and their mothers. Failure to repatriate is an abdication of Australia's treaty obligations and their deeper moral obligations to protect Australia's most vulnerable children."