Hundreds of children held in a prison in Syria who witnessed a bloody 10-day battle between US-backed Kurdish fighters and ISIL (ISIS) are living in “incredibly precarious” conditions and they should not have been there in the first place, the UN says.
The children’s agency UNICEF added it is ready to support a new safe place in Syria’s northeast to take care of the most vulnerable children, some of whom are as young as 12. Its statement on Sunday came a day after a visit by one of its teams to the prison in the northeastern city of Hassakeh.
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UNICEF members said after visiting children at the prison that they had been living in dire conditions for years, and in January “witnessed and survived heightened violence” in and around the facility.
More than 3,000 inmates, of whom more than 600 are children, are held at the Hassakeh jail.
“Despite some of the basic services now in place, the situation of these children is incredibly precarious,” Bo Viktor Nylund, UNICEF’s Syria representative, said in the statement.
While boys were separated from adults, the groups mixed when ISIL fighters stormed the prison in a jailbreak on January 20. Some inmates escaped, while others including child detainees were taken hostage in the ensuing battle.
‘Treated as victims’
Nylund said UNICEF is working to provide safety and care for them while calling on all stakeholders to urgently find long-term solutions in the best interests of the children.
“Children should never be in detention due to association with armed groups,” Nylund said. “Children associated with and recruited by armed groups should always be treated as victims of conflict.”
International rights groups, including Save the Children and Human Rights Watch, previously said about 700 boys were held in the jail before the operation to remove the ISIL attackers.
Aged between 12 and 18, the children include many who had adult relatives inside the prison and were transferred from nearby displacement camps housing thousands of child fighters.
On Friday, Human Rights Watch said hundreds of boys are missing from the battle in and around the prison.
Kurdish forces take prison
At a press conference on January 31, the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said they had retaken control of the prison and confirmed that 77 prison employees, 40 Kurdish fighters, and four civilians were killed, alongside 374 ISIL detainees and attackers.
Kurdish authorities maintain no prisoners escaped, but the UK-based watchdog Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Sunday said hundreds of ISIL members had gotten away.
“Some of them have crossed to Turkey,” the war monitor said.
Nylund said destruction in the surrounding area of the prison is significant with destroyed homes affecting an estimated 30,000 people. He said every effort, including by the Syrian government and local authorities, to provide immediate assistance should be supported.
He said UNICEF calls for the immediate release of children in all detention centres across northeast Syria, and for handing them over to child protection agencies. He said the agency also demands states of foreign children repatriate them.