UN urges countries to repatriate 27,000 children from Syria

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The United Nations (UN) counterterrorism chief is urging countries to repatriate the 27,000 children stranded in a massive camp in northeastern Syria, many of them sons and daughters of IS extremists who once controlled large swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Vladimir Voronkov told an informal meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday that “the horrific situation of the children in Al Hol (camp) is one of the most pressing issues in the world today”.

The 27,000 children “remain stranded, abandoned to their fate”, vulnerable to be preyed on by IS enforcers, “and at risk of radicalisation within the camp”, he said.

Al Hol, the largest camp for refugees and displaced Syrians in the country, is currently home to almost 62,000 residents, according to UN humanitarian officials. More than 80 per cent are women and children, many who fled there after IS militants lost their last Syrian stronghold in 2019. There are a number of other camps in the northeast as well.

Voronkov said there are children from 60 countries in the camps who are the responsibility of their member states, not of Syria or the groups that control the camps. Kurdish fighters are guarding Al-Hol and other camps as well as thousands of IS extremists and boys in prisons.

Children play in a mud puddle in the section for foreign families at Al-Hol camp in Hasakeh province, Syria. PHOTO: AP

He said a number of countries – including Russia and Kazakhstan that convened the virtual meeting – “have collectively repatriated nearly 1,000 children and their family members”.

Voronkov said the experiences of the returnees are being compiled “and what we see thus far is that fears of security risks have been unfounded”.

The Executive Director of the UN Counter-terrorism Centre (UNCCT) stressed that children “must be treated primarily as victims” and youngsters under the age of 14 should not be detained or prosecuted.

History has shown that children are resilient and can recover from violent experiences if they are supported in reintegrating into communities, Voronkov said.

“Every effort should be made to ensure children are not kept in institutions but allowed to reintegrate with family members within their communities,” he said.