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‘Bring them home’: UN experts call for repatriating detained Syria children

A child walks in Al Hol camp in northeastern Syria. (file)
OCHA/Hedinn Halldorsson
A child walks in Al Hol camp in northeastern Syria. (file)

‘Bring them home’: UN experts call for repatriating detained Syria children

Human Rights

Independent UN-appointed human rights experts on Friday called for the urgent repatriation of children from northeast Syria, as they enter their fifth year of detention.

Children in conflict zones must be protected, not punished, said the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, together with Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, UN Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of human rights while countering terrorism, in a joint statement.

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“It is now time to bring them home,” they said. “Many children are now entering their fifth year of detention in northeast Syria, since they were detained by the de facto authorities following the fall of Baghouz in early 2019.”

They called on all actors to ensure the immediate safety and protection of all children, regardless of their location in northeastern Syria to prevent them from suffering further harm.

States have an obligation to protect vulnerable children from abuse and possible violations of their right to life, as recognized by the Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Victims of terrorism

“Their best interests as extremely vulnerable children must be reinstated as a guiding principle together with their primary status as victims of terrorism and as children in need of special protection under international law,” they said.

Al-Hol and Roj are the two largest locked camps for women, girls, and young boys, holding about 56,000 individuals, including 37,000 foreign nationals. Over half of the population in the camps are children, of which 80 per cent are under the age of 12 and 30 per cent under five.

There are also over 850 boys deprived of their liberty in prisons and other detention centres, including supposed rehabilitation centres, throughout northeast Syria.

Egregious rights violations

The mass detention of children for what their parents may have done is an egregious violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits all forms of discrimination and punishment of a child based on the status, activities, expressed opinions, or beliefs of their parents, the experts said.

“These children are detained without any legal basis, judicial authorization, review, control, or oversight, in violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which affirms no child shall be deprived of liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily,” they said.

‘No place for children’

Most children have known nothing but conflict and closed camps, where the life conditions amount to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and pose an imminent risk to their lives, physical and mental integrity, and development.

“These squalid camps are no place for children to live with dignity,” the experts said. “They lack access to the most basic needs such as medical treatment and health services, food, water, and education.”

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Protection, not punishment

Amid a deteriorating security situation, the experts said all children in this conflict zone deserve to be protected, not punished.

“These children are victims of terrorism and of very serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, and must be treated with dignity in all contexts, whether armed conflict or terrorism,” the experts said. “Safe return to their home countries, in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is the only solution and must be prioritized.

“States must urgently repatriate children, together with their mothers – a solution that we now know is eminently feasible,” they said. “We note that it is of the utmost importance that comprehensive rehabilitation programmes are in place when children are repatriated.”

About Special Rapporteurs

Special Rapporteurs are appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, which is based in Geneva. These independent experts are mandated to monitor and report on specific thematic issues or country situations. They are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work.