Thousands of children stuck in legal and political limbo with their families in the notorious Al Hol displacement camp in north-eastern Syria face an uncertain future of appalling living conditions and statelessness, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross warned.
The children — about 22,000 — are being deprived of a normal childhood while humanitarian efforts are focused on the bare essentials of life rather than providing them with a stable and healthy environment, ICRC president Peter Maurer told The National after his latest visit this month to the Syrian camp housing thousands of families of ISIS fighters and those swept up in the fighting since the fall of the group.
“This is an environment in which they shouldn’t be growing up. We are trying our best with other humanitarian organisations and the Kurdish local authorities to prevent the worst. But when you can only work to prevent the worst in any environment, that is a situation that is becoming increasingly difficult,” Mr Maurer said.
The ICRC is running the main health facility in the camp, alongside the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, where primary healthcare services are being provided to the residents.
North-eastern Syria is controlled by the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. The region continues to host nearly 87,000 people who fled areas affected by hostilities, in addition to long-term refugees from Iraq, and stranded women and children from more than 60 countries in camps like Al Hol, according to figures provided by the ICRC.
The camp is overcrowded, with its population of about 56,000, mostly women and children, living in miserable conditions.
They have been stranded there since 2019 after the defeat of ISIS in Syria on the grounds they are, or are suspected to be, relatives of ISIS extremists.
About 10,000 of Al Hol's population are non-Arab foreigners and the rest are mostly from Syria and Iraq.
Child protection crisis
Mr Maurer, who has been ICRC president since 2012, said Al Hol camp is one of the biggest child protection crises in the world today.
Many countries have refused to repatriate children whose parents are suspected to have collaborated with or fought for ISIS.
Some of the children were born in Syria, while others travelled there with their parents.
A number of countries, such as France and Russia, allowed some women and children to return. Others do not want to let nationals associated with or sympathetic to extremists back in.
Mr Maurer said the international community's refusal to tackle a problem created by political differences is unacceptable.
He says many children are effectively detained in Al Hol.
“Children stranded or detained are first and foremost victims. They are victims, no matter what they or their parents might have done or stand accused of. The world cannot continue to look away while children draw their first and last breaths in camps or grow up stateless and in limbo,” he said.
This month, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said his country was determined to repatriate all the families in the Syrian camp after security checks were completed.
But he also urged the international community to help Iraq to set up reintegration programmes for those who are being vetted.
Languishing in statelessness
Mr Maurer said the children of Al Hol are without the civil documentation needed to prevent statelessness.
“Well, first and foremost, let me just say that nobody should be stateless. This is unhelpful and unlawful in terms of international humanitarian law,” he said.
“We can recognise that states have other considerations which they have to take. But I do make an important point that keeping the situation in a hole, as it is, and believing that this will eventually solve the problem is not what we consider a positive approach.”
He said he was particularly concerned about the mental health of the children despite the help of a psycho-social programme run by the Red Cross.
The Geneva-based international organisation initiated Mental Health Psycho-Social Support services in 2020.
The activities are adapted to address the needs of children living in Al Hol, with the aim of improving and strengthening their self-esteem and self-confidence.
“I have been impressed, very frankly, also to meet some of the kids who show really extraordinary results with these programmes. But, of course, it doesn't solve the problem at the origin,” said Mr Maurer.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is leading an effort in the camp to show children immersed in an extremist ideology that there are other ways. But there are some mothers who still endorse extremist ideas.
Over the past two years, the UN and local rights activists have reported dozens of killings of camp residents by ISIS sympathisers or sleeper cells because victims were not toeing the extremist line.
Most of the victims were Iraqis and Syrians.
As the situation goes from bad to worse, Mr Maurer said humanitarian workers at Al Hol are simply trying to prevent the worst.
“This is an unsustainable situation as these people live in miserable conditions in a camp where there is no due process of law,” he said.