HRW calls on Ukraine to repatriate 40 women, children from northeast Syrian camp

Al-Hol camp, located outside the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakah, currently holds roughly 62,000 residents. (Photo: Archive)
Al-Hol camp, located outside the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakah, currently holds roughly 62,000 residents. (Photo: Archive)

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) - Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Tuesday called on the Ukrainian government to heed repeated calls by local Kurdish-led authorities’ in northeastern Syria for various nations to repatriate their citizens with suspected Islamic State affiliation and their children.

Forty Ukrainians are among nearly 43,000 foreigners linked to the extremist group residing mostly in a sprawling and infamous displacement camp in territory controlled by the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).

The majority of the Ukrainian nationals in question are children, some as young as two years old.

In a March 25, 2021 letter,  HRW urged Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba to "take prompt action to assist and repatriate" them. The New York-based watchdog also sent a letter to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky with the same request.

“Ukrainian women and children are being held in horrific and appalling conditions while their government chooses to look the other way,” said HRW's senior Ukraine researcher Yulia Gorbunova, adding "The Ukrainian government should comply with the regional authorities’ repeated calls for countries to bring home their nationals, prioritizing the most vulnerable.”

According to Children in Syria and Iraq, a Ukrainian independent group of investigative journalists and activists that monitors this issue, there are eight Ukrainian women and 19 children held in al-Hol camp, plus 2 additional Ukranian women and their 11 children in another camp known as Roj.

So far, said HRW, Kiev has repatriated only nine Ukrainian citizens, two women and seven children, from the camps.

“The government should work with local authorities to repatriate the remaining Ukrainian nationals. Children who are in the camps with their mothers should be repatriated together, in keeping with the children’s right to family unity,” Gorbunova continued.

“Upon transfer, home or abroad, detainees can be provided with rehabilitation and reintegration services and, as warranted, investigated and prosecuted,” she said, stressing that “children who lived under ISIS and any women trafficked by ISIS should be treated first and foremost as victims. International standards require authorities to seek alternatives to prosecuting children and prohibit the detention of children except as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.”

HRW added that Ukraine should “also immediately increase consular assistance to its citizens and humanitarian aid to the camps and prisons in northeast Syria to complement – not replace – repatriations.”

SDF Commander-in-Chief Mazloum Abdi earlier called on foreign countries to take back their citizens and provide more humanitarian support to al-Hol, echoing the pleas from the Kurdish-led civilian administration in northeast Syria.

The majority of al-Hol’s residents are Iraqis and Syrians, but the camp also includes a large number of foreign families thought to be tied to the Islamic State. According to the United Nations, there are about 62,000 people still in the camp, including tens of thousands of other women affiliated with the Islamic State and their children.

Editing by John J. Catherine