Children are dying in the camp for captured families from the Islamic State caliphate because they are shunned by aid groups and kept under tight security restrictions, a medical charity says.
- Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate collapsed in March 2019
- Kurdish-led forces have been guarding the fighters and their families in northern Syria
- Médecins Sans Frontières says 300 children have died due to poor care
Medecins Sans Frontieres, also known as Doctors Without Borders, said security concerns and international neglect have led to a number of deaths.
“We feel that people are unnecessarily dying, children are dying of preventable illness [and] that is unacceptable,” MSF’s Syria emergency manager Will Turner said.
Approximately 11,000 foreigners — 7,000 of them children — who surrendered during the final battles against Islamic State are kept in a heavily-guarded section of the al-Hawl camp known as the ‘third country annexe’.
MSF said this limits their access to healthcare and the basic services provided to the more than 60,000 people in the rest of the camp.
“The level of assistance in that part of the camp is minimal. We’ve so far only been granted access to have a mobile clinic and we’re currently the only health actor in there,” Mr Turner said.
“That’s effectively a team of medics who are forced to work out of the back of a van.”
Mr Turner said MSF is worried that the security concerns of authorities guarding the camp are taking precedence over medical and humanitarian needs.
“The water and sanitation situation is unacceptable, having basic hygiene conditions such as clean latrines, soap for washing hands, safe drinking water — these things are not in place throughout the camp.”
The Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (DAA) — the Kurdish authority which controls the region — said 300 children of Islamic State families had died since the capture of the caliphate’s last village, Baghouz.
The DAA said the deaths were due to malnutrition, a lack of medical supplies and a low level of support for the camp from the United Nations.
Another problem is the reluctance of some aid groups and donors to provide assistance to the families of Islamic State, because of their links to the group.
MSF and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is also helping the foreign IS families, have both urged aid organisations to assist the women and children regardless of their affiliations.
‘This is a huge emergency’
A number of Australians, including the children and grandchildren of infamous terrorist Khaled Sharrouf, are in al-Hawl camp.
One of Sharrouf’s children, 17-year-old Zaynab, is heavily pregnant with her third child.
MSF said many expectant mothers in the annexe area for foreigners have no choice but to give birth inside their tents.
The DAA has been urging nations to repatriate their citizens and confirmed it was negotiating with Australia.
But DAA foreign affairs spokesman Kamal Akef said that while some nations have taken back Islamic State families, there was yet to be any major progress with the Australians.
“There are contacts but so far there are no practical steps in this regard. We hope there will be increased cooperation from the Australian Government,” he said.
Mr Akef said France, Russia, Sudan and Sweden have all taken a handful of children back, while Kosovo and Kazakhstan have each repatriated 100 women and children from al-Hawl.
But thousands remain with summer approaching and conditions in the camp deteriorating.
“This is a huge emergency. We’re talking about thousands of women and children that are in a camp with basic needs that are not met,” Sara Alzawqari, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said.
“When you go there and see it for yourself — the whole chaos, the wounded women, the kids crying — there’s no future and there is no light, it’s hard to think that nothing can be done.”
There are also thousands of foreign fighters who joined Islamic State held in makeshift prisons in the region.
Around 1,000 of them are foreigners, from 50 different countries, including “quite a number” of Australians, according to the DAA.
But Australia has taken steps to make it more difficult for IS members and their families to return.
In November the Government proposed “temporary exclusion orders”, which would allow them to deny an Australian citizen suspected of terrorism offences the right to return home for two years.
Under the legislation, the Home Affairs Minister would be able to issue a permit for a foreign country to deport a terror suspect only under certain conditions.
The United States is still urging countries to repatriate their citizens.
“We have an expectation that every country will work to take back their foreign fighters and continue to hold those foreign fighters. We think that is essential,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier this month.
Fears of escape grow as exiles languish in northern Syria
The cost of doing nothing about former IS members could be high.
IS prisoners have already tried to escape and both the US military and the SDF have warned that the remaining elements of Islamic State may try to free prisoners as a way to quickly restore the group’s manpower.
Sara Kayyali from Human Rights Watch said the current approach by governments such as Australia will create more problems.
“Many of the Western countries or countries who have foreign fighters, they really want the fastest way out of it with the least effort,” she said.
“There is a serious risk that if the situation in north-east Syria is unstable, then many of these foreign fighters may be able to escape and that’s a concern that you don’t want.”
Many women in the al-Hawl camp remain loyal to Islamic State and continue to comply with the religious strictures imposed in the so-called caliphate.
NGO workers said the women spread rumours that their husbands have broken out of jail and will soon rescue them.
Violent groups of them attack and intimidate people who stop complying with the caliphate’s codes of dress and behaviour.
That is another reason why the foreigners are kept separate to the rest of the camp’s residents, some of whom fled Islamic State.
The DAA has warned of its limited resources and finite ability to secure and feed the families in the camps.
If they are kept indefinitely in the squalid, crowded pressure-cooker conditions, human rights groups fear that even those who wanted to escape IS could become dangerous.
“That’s probably the worst-case scenario because you’re giving an opportunity for all of the resentment, all of the injustice to fester,” Sara Kayyali said.
“Even with the young children, essentially what you’re telling them is that you have no future, so you were better off with IS,” she said.
Some nations consider Iraqi justice for their citizens
The Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka show the dangers posed by Islamic State members returning to their countries.
Islamic State is suspected of providing the bomb-making expertise for the attacks.
One of the bombers had travelled to Syria and a Sri Lankan man suspected of being the liaison between the group and Sri Lankan Muslim extremists has been arrested.
Not wanting to bring them home or leave them in Syria, some western governments are now considering a third option.
Foreign IS members could be transferred to Iraq, which has special counter-terrorism courts, for trial and then potential extradition.
But these courts have been criticised for torturing detainees, basing convictions on forced confessions and holding cursory, sham trials.
Many defendants have been sentenced to death based on little evidence.
Hundreds of children remain detained by Iraqi authorities, accused of supporting IS.
“It’s a dangerous option because there are serious due process concerns. There’s a serious risk of torture and of course the death penalty and this is hugely problematic,” Ms Kayyali said.