Kurdish-led authorities in northeast Syria have said Syrians will be moved out of the overcrowded al-Hol camp, which holds displaced people and families of suspected ISIL (ISIS) fighters.
Kurdish fighters have seized much of northern and eastern Syria from ISIL with the backing of the United States. They have since held thousands of suspected fighters in prisons, while their wives and children – numbering tens of thousands, many of them foreigners – are living in camps.
Al-Hol camp alone holds some 65,000 people, including about 28,000 Syrians, 30,000 Iraqis and some 10,000 other foreigners of many nationalities, according to United Nations estimates. Among them are nearly 40,000 children from more than 60 countries, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
“Syrian nationals will leave the al-Hol camp and only foreigners will remain,” said Riyad Derar, the co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the region’s main military force.
“In al-Hol, there are Syrian relatives of ISIS group fighters and they too will be released” with guarantees from their families, Derar told AFP news agency.
The SDC’s Ilham Ahmed also said “a decision will be issued to empty the Syrians from the camp completely.” He added that “those who want to remain in the camp, this would not be the responsibility of the administration.”
Syrian ISIL fighters who are currently being held by Kurdish authorities in prisons in northeast Syria will not be included in the blanket release, according to the SDC.
Iraqis comprise the bulk of foreigners in al-Hol, which is also home to Western nationals, many of them relatives of ISIL fighters. Without providing a timeframe, Derar said Iraqis will also be allowed to leave on a voluntary basis but added that many wanted to remain in the camp due to fears they would be imprisoned or tried in Iraq for alleged links to ISIL.
Kurdish leaders have repeatedly warned that the suspected ISIL fighters and their families pose a security threat and that they cannot detain the foreigners indefinitely, but foreign governments have hesitated to repatriate their citizens.
The US said last week that all known Americans allegedly supporting ISIL and being held in Syria had been returned, some to face criminal charges. It urged European countries to account for their citizens.
Human Rights Watch has described conditions in the camps in northeast Syria as “appallingly overcrowded and unsanitary”.
“Foreign women and their children in al-Hol and Roj camps have been detained without being charged or even brought before a judge, in violation of international law. Children are deprived of their fundamental rights to life, protection, care, education and, for those born in Syria, to a nationality,” the rights group said in June.
The Kurdish authorities’ dwindling resources have complicated attempts to properly mana the camp’s enormous population, which aid groups say is suffering from dire living conditions as well as medical and water shortages amid a coronavirus outbreak in the settlement.
UNICEF said in August that eight children had died in al-Hol. Four of the deaths were caused by malnutrition-related complications. The others were due to dehydration from diarrhoea, heart failure, internal bleeding and hypoglycemia.
“The al-Hol camp is a big burden on the Kurdish administration,” Derar said.
Kurdish authorities had already released some Syrian residents of al-Hol in recent months following guarantees from Arab tribes.
According to a July report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 4,345 Syrians have been released since June of last year.