Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden to repatriate more than 160 Nordic nationals, most of whom are children, from northeast Syria.
As many as 30 Danes, 22 Finns, 37 Norwegians, and 65 to 75 Swedes are being detained in camps and makeshift prisons in the region, the rights group wrote in a letter sent to the foreign ministers of the four countries.
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As many as 114 children, more than half of whom are under the age of six, are among those still in Syria, HRW said.
The detainees are among more than 40,000 foreign-born suspected ISIL (ISIS) fighters and their relatives who remain held in northeast Syria, more than two years after the group lost its last territorial stronghold in March 2019.
“Nordic countries have the ability to end the unlawful detention and horrific suffering of their nationals, most of them children who were victims of ISIS,” said Letta Tayler, HRW’s associate crisis and conflict director.
“As these detainees enter a third year of indefinite detention, their governments’ excuses for inaction ring increasingly hollow.”
The NGO said the Nordic countries had repatriated 25 nationals – including 22 children – from the region to date but accused them of resisting bringing home the others.
The group dismissed the countries’ claims that in many cases, they lack the authority or ability to uphold the rights of their nationals in northeast Syria.
HRW said foreign nationals held in northeastern Syria had still not been taken before a judge to determine the legality and necessity of their detention, as required by international law.
The group has previously described conditions in the region’s camps and makeshift prisons as “inhuman” and “degrading”.
Hundreds have died in the camps, including dozens in 2021, HRW said.
The facilities are overseen by Kurdish-led forces who, backed by the United States, spearheaded the fight against ISIL.
The Kurdish-led forces have argued that the suspected ISIL fighters and their families pose a security threat and that they cannot hold the foreigners indefinitely.
They have also repeatedly called on global governments to repatriate their nationals, but few have done so.
HRW called on the four Nordic nations to set an example.
“The Nordic countries can be a model for safe, orderly and rights-respecting returns of foreign ISIS suspects and their families,” Tayler said.
“Conversely, if Nordic countries fail to help their nationals held in northeast Syria, they could lower the bar for human rights worldwide.”