It has become urgent to repatriate women and children from Northeast Syria camps as COVID-19 is rapidly spreading in Syria. Following the fall of Baghuz in March 2019 – the last ISIS-controlled territory in the country – more than 10,000 foreign women and children have been living in camps in Northeast Syria, which are characterized by dire living conditions and a troubling humanitarian situation. As of December 9, 2020, there are 8,580 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country. This figure is only the tip of the iceberg due to limited testing capacity and lack of reliable information. In this context, it is critical to bring back foreign women and children to their home countries and adopt long-term gender-responsive policies on repatriation, prosecution, and rehabilitation. As Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-terrorism and Human Rights noted, the repatriation of nationals is the only effective and legally sound means to achieve a rule of law-based response to the management of foreign fighters.
On August 6, 2020, the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in al-Hol camp. In response, camp administrators imposed a lockdown and closed markets and mosques to control the spread of the virus. The spread of the virus is likely to have devastating consequences given that the country has experienced an unprecedented hunger crisis, with a 200 percent increase in food prices in less than a year. Similarly, most hospitals and health centers are closed after nine years of conflict. This situation is likely to pose additional health and security risks for women and children. Additionally, camp residents have found themselves in a legal vacuum – they are neither formally displaced persons, nor prisoners, nor conflict detainees. This precarious legal situation is compounded by a reluctance of home countries to repatriate nationals who joined ISIS in Syria or Iraq.
Inhumane Situation in Northeast Syria Camps
Al-Hol and al-Roj camps are camps hosting solely women and children. They are home to about 14,000 foreign women and 1,500 children from 60 countries. About two-thirds of foreign children are under the age of 12, with most under the age of five. Al-Hol is a closed camp, where detainees are not able to move freely in and out. The camp is surrounded by barbed wire fences, and its entrances heavily guarded by security forces.
Camp residents live in deplorable conditions. They lack clean water, adequate food, security, and reliable medical services – which has led to high child mortality rates. Between January and September 2019, 409 children died within al-Hol camp and, more recently, eight children (under age five) died in the camp between August 6-10, 2020. Médecins Sans Frontières identified 1,900 people across the camp who will be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Additionally, women within the camps are at high risk of domestic and sexual violence, as well as forms of exploitation, including threats of escalation and/or murder if a woman attempts to report abuses.
The influx of populations following the battle of Baghuz also meant large numbers of women without ISIS ideological commitments were forced to live alongside a cohort of ISIS-affiliated women militants in the camp’s annex, in conditions that were ripe for abuse and intimidation.
Health and Security Risks Associated with Not Repatriating Women and Children
COVID-19 poses additional health and security-related risks for foreign women and children from al-Hol and al-Roj camps who are unable to be repatriated to their home countries.
Prior to COVID-19, residents of camps in Northeast Syria already faced an untenable health and humanitarian situation, as described above. While al-Hol camp was originally built to house 10,000 people, there are currently about 68,000 residents. While Kurdish officials confirmed in October 2020 that up to 15,000 Syrian women would be moved out of al-Hol, camp residents still face overcrowding, rampant tuberculosis, lack of hygiene, and dramatic mortality rates; conditions that have been exacerbated by COVID-19. As one resident of the al-Hol camp stressed, inhabitants all drink from the same tap and eat together, making community spread of the virus highly probable. Additionally, humanitarian workers in these camps are coping with limited resources due to the UN halting funding for pandemic relief in Northeast Syria. Without substantial humanitarian aid and strategies to repatriate foreign nationals, women and children are at serious risk of illness.
The pandemic and overcrowding can also further fuel violent extremism in these camps by fueling resentment. According to interviews with those in al-Hol, between 20 and 30 percent of the women are still ISIS supporters. While a minority, they have been strategic in leveraging their influence online, primarily on social media platforms, and through intimidation tactics. ISIS has sought to exploit the security and humanitarian crisis in these camps by advocating for the release of their affiliates via their newsletter, noting that the virus has created opportunities to capitalize on. According to SDF Commander General Mazloum, in June 2020, the camps were at high risk of an attack from ISIS fighters to release ISIS-affiliated families. This scenario could lead to ISIS-affiliated women returning to the extremist group – similar to what happened after the collapse of Ain Issa camp when several women escaped to rejoin ISIS. In mid-September, a video of four women and six children being smuggled out of Al-Hol camp in a water tank emerged online. A researcher from the Rojava Information Center (RIC) confirmed that hiding in water tankers has been a common tactic for suspected ISIS members and their children trying to escape the camp. For those who are not trying to escape, the acute humanitarian crisis exacerbated by COVID-19 also can increase resentment and radicalization. It has therefore become urgent to repatriate both women and children to mitigate these added health and security risks.
How Countries Have Dealt with Repatriation
For years, countries have been divided on how to deal with the return of country nationals who joined ISIS due to security concerns and challenges to prosecute ISIS-affiliated returnees, especially women and children, who tend to be characterized as victims rather than perpetrators. Countries have adopted various approaches on the issue of repatriation: some choose to make decisions on a case-by-case basis; other countries only repatriate children; while few have chosen to repatriate families. COVID-19, however, has halted most countries’ efforts to repatriate their nationals. Tunisia, Australia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina for example, have all put on hold the repatriation of women and children staying in Al-Hol.
Countries like the Netherlands and Norway have refrained from adopting all-encompassing repatriation policies and adopted a “case-by-case” approach in dealing with the repatriation of their nationals. This case-based approach is not sustainable in the long-term because it has resulted in lengthy legal proceedings, thereby prolonging the uncertainty and precarity of children and women in these camps.
Other countries including Belgium, France, and Australia have privileged the repatriation of children, considering them as victims of coercion by their parents who joined ISIS and, for those born in Syria and Iraq, are at risk of being stateless. In June 2020, ten children were repatriated from al-Hol camp to France (out of 270 French children still in camps in Northeast Syria) because they were either orphans or their mothers agreed to give up custody. The French government has refused to repatriate women due to the security threat they pose; they argue that the women should be tried in the country where they committed alleged crimes — in Syria or Iraq. Not only does this policy leave children who remain in Syria at risk of major illness and radicalization, but separating children from mothers can also increase mothers’ resentment against the state for the loss of their children and can increase psycho-social trauma associated with the loss of custody.
Promising national initiatives for addressing these challenges focus on repatriating both women and children and adopting long-term gender-responsive policies for repatriation, prosecution, and rehabilitation. Kazakhstan and Kosovo have been pioneers in these efforts. Kazakhstan has repatriated more than 400 children and 100 mothers and has opened 17 regional rehabilitation and reintegration centers across the country with psychologists, social workers, theologians, and other professionals to support women and children returnees through education, employment, and reintegration programs within local communities.
Kosovo, which has repatriated 110 women and children since 2019, has also been proactive in repatriation efforts and adopted a combination of both punitive and rehabilitative measures that engage a wide range of stakeholders, including the police, social services, local religious communities, families, and schools. While it is too early to assess effectiveness, the cases of Kazakhstan and Kosovo offer promising models for addressing major security, humanitarian, and health concerns through a holistic and integrated approach to repatriation. In the spirit of using the COVID-19 pandemic to “build back better,” the spread of COVID-19 in Northeast Syria camps can be an opportunity for home countries to adopt human security paradigms and assume their responsibilities regarding the repatriation of women and children, instead of turning a blind eye to the issue. Gender-responsive strategies for repatriation, prosecution, and rehabilitation are more urgent than ever.
Authors Agathe Christien, Emma Jouenne, and Elena Scott-Kakures are researchers at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.