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UN expert condemns SDF abduction of children in Syria camps

July 23, 2023 at 10:35 am

A Syrian child looks on in the Al-Hol camp in Syria, on 8 August 2019 [DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images]

An expert from the United Nations has expressed concern over the rampant abduction and detention of children in north-east Syria by the autonomous Kurdish authorities in the region.

In a nine-page report about her six-day visit to north-east Syria this month, UN Special Rapporteur Fionnuala Ni Aolain raised her concerns about the “snatching” of hundreds of boys from camps, detention centres, and prisons in the region, saying that what concerned her and her team the most “was the mass indefinite and arbitrary detention of children, particularly boys in various types of facilities”.

Amongst the places she visited during her trip – apparently the first visit to the area by a UN human rights expert – was the infamous Al-Hol camp, which holds around 55,000 people, including 31,000 children and at least thousands of foreign nationals.

Describing conditions at Al-Hol as “dire and extreme”, especially as the temperature there was 50 degrees Celsius during her visit, she remarked that “camp” was an inappropriate term for it as its inhabitants are not free to come and go at will, but are instead detained by the Kurdish-led authorities affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Following the territorial and military defeat of the Daesh terror group in 2019, its surviving fighters have been detained in prisons in north-east Syria while their female relatives and wives, as well as children, have been detained in camps such as Al-Hol where conditions have continuously deteriorated.

READ: Foreign kids in Syrian camps could languish for decades if repatriation doesn’t speed up, says Save the Children

As the years drag on and the camps’ inhabitants have neither been repatriated, returned, or released, the male children among them are growing into adolescence and are increasingly being viewed by the Kurdish-led authorities as potential threats vulnerable to extremism. That is “premised on the alleged threat that they pose to security based on their or their parents’ alleged prior links with Daesh”, Ni Aolain said.

The SDF authorities’ solution has, therefore, been to abduct the children from their mothers as soon as they reach around the age of 10, snatching them “most frequently in the middle of the night or in the marketplace” and taking them to unknown destinations. Mothers who spoke to Ni Aolain complained that camp authorities would take months to even confirm whether they had taken their boys.

Despite the SDF’s claims that they are simply taken to centres for “rehabilitation”, the concerns regarding their abduction is largely based on the fact that they constitute human rights violations, as well as a risk that the Kurdish-led authorities may forcefully recruit them into their militias as has so often been the case with children who the SDF have abducted throughout north-east Syria over the years.

“There appears to be no understanding that it is in absolute contravention of international law, to detain children in what appears to be an unending cycle of cradle-to-grave detention,” the UN Special Rapporteur said. She added that “Every single woman I spoke to made clear that it was the snatching of children that provided the most anxiety, the most suffering, the most psychological harm. The rationale for taking these boys simply does not stand up to scrutiny.”

READ: Pentagon issues report on Syria war, condemns SDF