United Nations counterterrorism chief urged countries to repatriate the 27,000 children stranded in a massive camp in northeastern Syria, many of whom were sons and daughters of ISIL (ISIL) fighters who once controlled large swathes of Iraq and Syria.
Vladimir Voronkov told an informal meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday that “the horrible situation of children in al-Hol [camp] is one of the most pressing problems in the world today ”.
The 27,000 children “remain stranded, abandoned to their fate,” vulnerable to the prey of ISIL law enforcement, “and the risk of radicalization within the camp,” he said.
Al-Hol, the largest camp for Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons in the country, is currently home to nearly 62,000 residents, according to UN humanitarian officials.
Over 80% are women and children, many of whom fled there after ISIL fighters lost their last Syrian stronghold in 2019. There are a number of other camps in the northeast as well. .
Voronkov said there are children from 60 countries in the camps which are the responsibility of their member states, not Syria or the groups that control the camps.
Kurdish fighters guard al-Hol and other camps, along with thousands of ISIS fighters.
Voronkov said a number of countries – including Russia and Kazakhstan which convened the virtual meeting – “have collectively repatriated nearly 1,000 children and their families.”
The experiences of returnees are being compiled “and what we are seeing so far is that fears of security risks are unfounded,” he said.
The executive director of the United Nations Counterterrorism Center stressed that children “must be treated first and foremost as victims” and that young people must not be detained or prosecuted.
History has shown that children are resilient and can recover from violent experiences if they are helped to reintegrate into communities, Voronkov said.
“Every effort should be made to ensure that children are not kept in institutions but allowed to reintegrate with their family members into their communities,” he said.
Virginia Gamba, the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, told the Security Council that children listed as associated with armed groups – including ISIL and Al-Qaeda – “are children. which have been left adrift by the conflict, like the flotsam in the sea “.
She echoed Voronkov’s call that they be treated “primarily as victims, not as security threats, and that detention be used as a measure of last resort and for the shortest possible time. “.
The mental health, safety and general development of foreign children held for a long time “in dire conditions” in camps in northeast Syria and Iraq “are at stake,” Gamba said.
“They are exposed to more trauma and stigma and are at risk because of their proximity to members of designated terrorist groups,” she said.
Children have the right to a nationality and identity and must not remain stateless, Gamba stressed.
The repatriation of foreign children must be a priority “in the best interests of the child,” and they must be helped to reintegrate and obtain education, health care and employment, she said.
“They need to return to their childhood in a safe environment where they can build a future away from violence,” Gamba said. “They deserve a chance in life, just like any other child.”