Al Hol camp in Syria has an end-of-the-world feel. The bleak and barren landscape is packed with more than 40,000 children stranded in legal limbo while nations looking the other way.
There are no schools, no playgrounds, no toys – essentially no childhood to be had. I was shocked to see the empty hopelessness etched into the faces of children so young during my visit earlier this year. My own children, I thought to myself, would feel despondent here, too.
The children of Al Hol are among the more than 100,000 people who remain in camps in northern Syria; thousands more, mostly men but also women and children, are held in places of detention. Most are from Syria and Iraq, but a significant percentage hail from elsewhere – more than 60 countries on several continents. All of them are trapped in an unsustainable status quo that requires urgent international action.
One of the great tragedies of the Syrian conflict is that a whole generation of young people is growing up knowing nothing but war: the shells, the bullets, the blood and the pain. No matter what side of the front line they have found themselves, their pain is equal and their needs the same.
For the young people now growing up in camps like Al Hol, living conditions are appallingly harsh and far below international standards in terms of access to food, water, health care and education. The children are endlessly exposed to dangers and their rights often ignored. Many of them are alone in the camp, separated from family or orphaned.
It is difficult to imagine the effect such an environment has – especially on children who are spending their early years, which are so important for their development, there. Even more heart-wrenching is to imagine how many children have been born there and have not yet left the camp’s perimeter.
There are many other children, some as young as 12, held in places of detention, separated from their family, often not knowing the fate of their parents or siblings. They are also victims and require care.
Young adults in their late teens and early 20s often are forgotten or neglected also. Many of them were children when the conflict began. They might have been in camps or in detention for some time; they might have become adults whilst there.
It is long overdue for nations to take decisions and act to find sustainable solutions for these young people. Countries must step up, take responsibility for their most defenceless citizens and make every effort to remove them from their current circumstances. Making them stateless is not a solution. Leaving them languishing in detention or in a camp cannot be an option.
Children need to be treated as children, and first and foremost as victims of circumstances beyond their control, regardless of what they or their parents were associated with. It is possible and necessary to balance security, accountability and humane action.
As governments make the necessary efforts to remove children from these unsafe and often unsanitary conditions, it is important to stress that repatriations must be carried out lawfully and with all of the right preparations, procedures and follow-ups in place.
Being brought home should not be a re-traumatising event for the child in any way, including being separated from mothers, their usual primary guardians and siblings. Keeping families together is not only what is usually in the child’s best interest, but also what international law requires, unless otherwise justified through rigorous assessment.
For those children in detention, alternative solutions need to be found based on an accurate assessment of their situation and with family unity as the norm. Their rights must be protected, including the one of not being arbitrarily detained.
The task is mammoth and complex, no doubt. But states do not have to do this alone.
International law provides a framework for countries to approach this issue and there is expertise and guidance available, including from the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is one of the world’s most widely ratified treaties, and yet it is not being applied as states cite their own security.
The ICRC, as a neutral, impartial and independent organisation with long-standing experience in this field, is ready to provide support to states, in line with its mandate and together with National Red Cross and Red Crescent societies.
In terms of concrete steps, it is critical to have a process to identify vulnerable groups in detention and in the camps, such as children and the elderly, as well as the sick, wounded and disabled.
Another key step is to clarify the status of those in detention in order to determine the legal basis on which they are being held. If no such basis exists – and this is particularly urgent for children – then they ought to be released, reunified with their families and either brought home or benefit from other non-detention arrangements.
It is true that it feels as though we are all operating in uncharted territory here. In such circumstances, we need to embrace our individual and collective responsibilities, the importance of abiding by international humanitarian law and, indeed, our common humanity. We all have a part to play and action needs to be taken now.
But perhaps the territory is not as uncharted as we all might feel.
Positive examples of repatriations do exist. There are states that have brought mothers and children home and are making efforts to provide follow-ups, including psycho-social support – sometimes with support from the ICRC and others.
States can learn from one another. Good practices of evolving individual follow-up mechanisms, mental health and psycho-social assistance, educational and livelihood support programmes should be shared. The support and advice from experienced NGOs and international organisations can also be utilised.
While solutions are needed for all children, the cases that the ICRC believes should prove easiest to manage initially are those from countries with well-functioning social, medical and administrative systems in place that can play a significant role in addressing the needs of these children when they go back.
The complexity of the challenges must not be used as an excuse not to act. States, parties to the conflict and international organisations must reflect on whether we are willing to deal with a difficult situation now or an impossible one later. That is what the world will be left with if the plight of these children, and that of their parents, is not dealt with humanely and responsibly.
The basic tenets of humanity are simply non-negotiable. We can never return the years of lost childhood that have been taken in Al Hol and other camps by conflict, violence, trauma and despair. We can, however, start planning today on how to give them a better future.
Fabrizio Carboni is the ICRC’s director for the Near and Middle East