Three years after the fall of Baghouz, the last Syrian village controlled by Islamic State fighters, 47 Australian children and their mothers remain in camps in North East Syria.
If repatriations continue at the current rate, it will take 30 years for the 7,300 minors from 60 countries[v] to return home, according to Save the Children[i].
This is in addition to the urgent need for the safe and voluntary return of 18,000 Iraqi children[ii] also in the camps, the child rights organisation said.
Save the Children is calling on their governments, to urgently step-up efforts to repatriate them, along with their families.
Conditions in the camps are dire and unsafe, Save the Children said. In 2021, 74 children died in Al Hol, including eight children who were murdered[iii]. Last month, a shooting incident in the Annex section of the camp - where ‘third country nationals’, or non-Iraqi foreign children stay - killed a child and put three children and three women in hospital[iv]. Just weeks ago, a woman died in a fire in Al Hol Annex - and her child died of burns afterwards, according to Save the Children staff working in the camp.
The final weeks of fighting, including in Baghouz, saw thousands of women and children fleeing to Al Hol and Roj camps, sending their populations skyrocketing.
Maryam*, 12, is from France but now lives in Roj camp. She said “We have been here for four years. I miss our home in France. All I do is dream of returning to it one day.”
Hiba*, 12, from Tunisia has been living in the Al Hol Annex with her mother and four siblings for more than three years. She said: “The idea of me remaining here for years to come drives me crazy. I wish I could yell to make my sound heard in Tunisia. I sometimes cry just to let it out.”
Sonia Khush, Save the Children’s Syria Response Director, said:
“Children have been stuck in these terrible camps for at least three years now - some even longer. At the rate foreign governments are going, we will see some children reach middle age before they are able to leave these camps and return home.
“Our staff recently met a 14-year-old French girl who has been referred for treatment to a hospital at least three times. Each time the doctors sent her back to the camp, saying they simply don’t have the resources or capacity to treat her. So she lies on her back in her tent, 24 hours a day - miserable and with nothing to look forward to.
“These children have done nothing wrong, yet instead of being free to be children - to go to school, play, live in safety and have access to decent shelter, healthcare, nutritious food and clean water - they are trapped in these squalid conditions thousands of miles from their homes, and put at risk on a daily basis.
“Instead of bringing them home, governments are denying their responsibilities. They are claiming they have no responsibility for these children. They are stripping their mothers of their citizenship to prevent them from returning, and forcing them to make the cruellest of choices - whether they keep their children with them in the camps or send them home, where they will never see them again.”
Recent repatriations are welcome, Save the Children said, but are simply not enough. Last week, two children and their mothers were repatriated to Sweden. Last month, 11 children returned to the Netherlands, and four to Sweden from Roj camp. All were with their mothers. Meanwhile, in October, Denmark and Germany repatriated groups of children and their mothers.
Sonia Khush said:
“Of course these processes take time, but every extra minute spent is a minute too long for children living in desperate conditions. The longer children are left to fester in Al Hol and Roj, the more dangers they face. When will leaders take responsibility and bring them home?”
Last year, a report by the child rights organisation found that everyday survival for children in both camps continues to be a struggle due to avoidable illness and death, violence, poor water and sanitation, and a limited healthcare system. Only 40% of children in Al Hol were receiving an education, and in Roj, 55% of households reported being aware of child labour among children aged under 11.
Save the Children has been working in Roj since 2015 and Al Hol since 2016 providing education, child protection and nutrition activities across both camps.
MEDIA CONTACT: Kimberley Gardiner on +61437 435 777 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
NOTES TO EDITORS
Save the Children is calling on all states with child nationals in Syria to:
1. Recognise and treat children primarily as victims of war, even those who had been forced to join ISIS;
2. Repatriate nationals without any further delays and support their reintegration into their home country;
3. Guarantee basic rights and address urgent humanitarian needs;
4. Release arbitrarily detained children and reunite them with their families;
5. Commit to non-discrimination and equal justice.
As well as the safe and dignified return of children and their families to their places of origin, Save the Children is calling for expanded humanitarian response in the camps to meet the needs of foreign children while they await repatriation - as well as for Syrian children who may remain in the camps for some time to come.
[i] Number calculated by dividing total number of ‘third country national ’children (foreign children excluding Iraqis) in the two camps (7,310) by the average number of repatriations since 2017 (an estimated total of 1,265 since 2017, or an average of 253 per year) for a total of 28.89 years.
[ii] According to the Child Protection Cluster in Al-Hol and Roj
[iii] According to Save the Children and other aid agencies working in Al-Hol and Roj
[iv] According to Al-Hol camp protection working group and Save the Children staff
[v] According to the Child Protection Cluster in Al-Hol and Roj