Hundreds of unaccompanied children are living in a camp in northeast Syria, overwhelmed with people who fled the last battlefields of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has said.
The children are living without their parents at the al-Hol camp in the Hasakah province, which houses between 80,000 and 100,000 people.
“Our top priority at the present moment is to identify the unaccompanied children, to notify the governments that we have found children without parents, and to see whether somewhere from China to Argentina there is family of unaccompanied children to which we can send the kids back,” ICRC President Peter Maurer, who visited the overcrowded camp last month, told reporters on Tuesday.
Asked how many unaccompanied children were in al-Hol and several smaller camps, Maurer replied: “Certainly hundreds, maybe more.”
Maurer explained that Kurdish local authorities who control the area separate out fleeing ISIL fighters and boys between the ages of 12 and 18, whom they believe were most likely fighters, and put them in detention.
Women and children are sent to al-Hol, which is roughly two-thirds children and one-third mothers, he said.
It is estimated that about 35,000 people in al-Hol are Syrians, around 35,000 to 40,000 are Iraqis, and the rest, probably around 10,000, are from 30 to 40 nationalities worldwide, Maurer said.
“Given the numbers, the Kurdish authorities and International Committee of the Red Cross are just overwhelmed in terms of registering and finding out who is coming,” he said.
To complicate things further, he said that during the last few days “we have seen in those camps there are not only families of foreign fighters but we see also victims of Islamic State aggressions in the past.”
“We found Yazidi women who have been abducted by Islamic State into Baghouz, who have been enslaved in Baghouz, who managed to get out” of Baghouz, the last ISIL stronghold.
“Because they can’t prove who they are they are, basically put in detention-like facility in camps,” he said.
According to a statement by the ICRC chief last month, dozens of children have also died because of the cold and conditions in al-Hol in recent weeks.
With the collapse of the eastern town of Baghouz, the last ISIL bastion in Syria, several governments have been grappling with the problem of what to do with captured fighters from their country, the women who married them and their children.
The ICRC president complained that governments were showing little interest in tackling the problem of foreign nationals linked to ISIL, limiting their response to offering emergency assistance.
“That’s not really the big issue,” said Maurer. “The big issue will be: how do we find a system which deals with the different categories of people, which tries to identify who is a victim, to look at individual cases,” he said.
He said some countries will accept them, and will even accept fighters who are put into either detention or reintegration and deradicalisation programmes.
But some countries object to taking their people back, he said, referring to Britain, Europe overall, and others.
“We are just looking at a pretty stark picture of a highly complex situation in which we see that nobody is particularly interested to put structures, processors in place, to deal with the issue beyond emergency assistance,” Maurer said.
Last month, France took in five orphans, but it has a case-by-case approach to the return of the children.
At its height, ISIL carried out massacres, beheaded foreign journalists and aid workers, and captured thousands of women and girls from the Yazidi religious minority forcing them into sex slavery.
Many remain missing to this day.