UN expert slams Syria detention of minors over parents’ ISIL ties

Visit to northeastern Syria by UN special rapporteur finds ‘cradle-to-grave detention’ of children violates international law.

A woman holds hands with a child while walking through al-Hol camp, Syria
Fionnuala Ni Aolain describes conditions at al-Hol as "dire and extreme," saying the temperature was 50C (122F) during her visit [File: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters]

A United Nations expert has expressed concern that tens of thousands of children remain in arbitrary detention in northeastern Syria based on their parents’ alleged ties to ISIL (ISIS) in violation of international law.

“The thing I will say that concerned me the most and my team the most as we visited northeast Syria was the mass indefinite and arbitrary detention of children, particularly boys, in various types of facilities,” Fionnuala Ni Aolain said on Friday, a day after returning from what she said was the first visit to the region by a UN human rights expert.

Ni Aolain, an independent UN rapporteur on the protection of rights while countering terrorism, said the children’s detentions were “premised on the alleged threat that they pose to security based on their or their parents’ alleged prior links with Daesh”, she said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIL.

“There appears to be no understanding that it is in absolute contravention of international law to detain children in what appears to be an unending cycle of cradle-to-grave detention,” she added.

‘Snatching of children’

Ni Aolain also raised concerns about the separation of hundreds of adolescent boys from their mothers in camps based on the alleged security risk they pose. She did not say where the boys have gone but has previously said they went to unknown locations.

“Every single woman I spoke to made clear that it was the snatching of children that provided the most anxiety, the most suffering, the most psychological harm,” she said. “The rationale for taking these boys simply does not stand up to scrutiny.”

Among the places she visited was the Kurdish-run al-Hol site, which holds about 55,000 people, including 31,000 children. It also contains third-party nationals from Western countries despite UN pressure to take them back.

Northeastern Syria including al-Hol falls under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a United States-backed group. SDF officials regularly call on foreign countries to repatriate families of ISIL fighters in the camps.

Ni Aolain described conditions at al-Hol as “dire and extreme”, saying the temperature was 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) during her visit. The term “camp” is inappropriate, she said, since people are not free to come and go.

In February, UN rights experts expressed grave concern about reports that at least 10 boys were taken away from another site, Roj, by the authorities in northeastern Syria.

They said there was a pattern of forcibly removing boys who reach the ages of 10 or 12 from the camps, separating them from their mothers and taking them to unknown locations. They called this practice unlawful.

The SDF-affiliated autonomous administration said in a statement at the time that the report was “far from the truth”.

It said the camps’ administration from time to time removed adolescents because they were at the age at which they were at the highest risk of being influenced by extreme views, saying they were put in “rehabilitation centres”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies