Iraq repatriates hundreds from Syria’s Al Hol camp linked to ISIS

Official says they will be settled in a camp for rehabilitation near Mosul and eventually released if they pass security checks

Kurdish forces patrolling the Al Hol camp, which houses families of ISIS members, in Hasakeh province, Syria, in April 2023. AP
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Iraq has repatriated hundreds more of its citizens from the Al Hol camp in Syria, which was set up to contain people with links to ISIS, an Iraqi official said on Tuesday.

The latest batch of about 191 families, about 700 people, entered Iraq on Sunday, the official with the Ministry of Displacement and Migration told The National, who was speaking anonymously as he is not authorised to speak on behalf of the ministry.

They were transported by buses guarded by US and Kurdish troops, who administer Al Hol and north-eastern Syria, to the Iraqi border, where they were handed over to Iraqi security forces.

The families have been settled in a camp for psychological rehabilitation near Mosul, where they “will need to stay for either weeks or months depending on the rehabilitation process before being integrated to their communities”, he said.

Once they pass security checks, they will be able to return home from the Al Jadaa camp, he said.

The previous batch of about 160 Iraqi families were repatriated to Al Jadaa in March, he added.

The Kurdish-run Al Hol camp in north-east Syria was home to more than 50,000 people, including family members of suspected ISIS militants, as well as displaced Syrians and Iraqi refugees, before repatriation efforts began in 2021.

It is the largest camp for displaced people who fled after ISIS was dislodged from its last stronghold in Syria in 2019 and remains one of the biggest unresolved humanitarian issues in the region.

More than 43,000 Syrians, Iraqis and foreigners from at least 45 countries remain in the squalid and overcrowded camp, according to the official. Iraqis are the largest nationality among them, followed by Syrians.

For years, Iraqi authorities have pushed for the closure of Al Hol, which is located close to the Iraqi border, citing security concerns. The UN has also been calling on governments to repatriate more from their citizens.

Iraq’s National Security Adviser Qasim Al Araji has been leading the government efforts to repatriate Iraqis, pushing foreign governments to do the same and urging rapid dismantlement of the camp.

Since May 2021, hundreds of Iraqi families have been repatriated.

Between then and March this year, more than 1,920 Iraqi families have been transferred so far to Al Jadaa camp, Mr Al Araji said in March. The figure includes 1,230 families who had been allowed to return home, he said.

Repatriation of family members of suspected ISIS members has stirred controversy in Iraq, where the extremist group had seized large swathes of land before being defeated in late 2017. The group committed atrocities in Mosul and other areas of northern Iraq it controlled, including the targeting of minority groups such as the Yazidis.

Some Iraqis have resisted the repatriation efforts, saying they do not want ISIS families among them. Despite the criticism, the Iraqi government regularly repatriates its citizens from Al Hol, a policy commended by the UN and US.

Despite its territorial defeat, ISIS militants continue to conduct attacks against civilians and security forces in both Iraq and Syria.

Hawar News, the news agency for the semiautonomous Kurdish areas in Syria, said the latest figures from Al Hol show 42,781 people are in the camp – a slightly different number to the more than 43,000 that the Iraqi official cited.

Hawar said the camp includes 19,530 Iraqis, 16,779 Syrians and 6,461 other nationalities, with 11 unidentified.

Last week, Kurdish-led authorities repatriated 50 women and children from Al Hol and another nearby camp to Tajikistan, it said.

The Iraqi official refused to comment whether more Iraqis are set to be transferred.

However, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor which confirmed the latest batch of 714 Iraqis left the camp on Sunday, said a new group of 250 families will be sent to Iraq “in the coming days”.

Updated: April 30, 2024, 12:15 PM