‘Foreign children’ in overwhelmed Syrian camp need urgent international help, says top UN official

UNICEF/Delil Soleiman As families were welcomed into tents in the reception area of Syria’s Al-Hol camp, UNICEF immediately provided them with much-needed health and nutrition services.

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


Help is needed urgently from the international community to help some 2,500 apparently stateless “foreign children” at a camp for the displaced, in north-east Syria, a top UN official said on Thursday.

Panos Moumtzis, Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis made the “special plea” to journalists in Geneva, noting that 75,000 people now shelter in Al Hol camp, after fleeing ISIL extremists.

“Today I am making a special plea for the children,” Mr Moumtzis said, noting that UNICEF had estimated that they number around 2.500: “These children do have a father and a mother, and their father and mother have a nationality, and therefore a solution has to be found – particularly with this – for the children.”

In a plea to Governments whose citizens had been drawn to Syria “to find a way forward”, the UN official highlighted the massive challenges in dealing with the arrival of 65,000 desperate people in just 100 days – most of them women and children.

“This is an extreme, extraordinary situation; I don’t think we have ever seen such a large number in a complex protection situation, and clearly this requires many actors to work together to be able to find a way forward.”

Noting that humanitarian agencies in Al Hol are “still in emergency mode”, Mr. Moumtzis nonetheless insisted that the situation had “stabilized”.

His comments follow reports that well over 100 people en route to the camp or at Al Hol had died or become gravely ill after travelling for days in harsh winter conditions since fleeing Baghouz, the former ISIL stronghold in eastern Syria.

Asked about the nationalities of those in the camp, Mr Moumtzis replied that “about 43 per cent are Syrian nationals, 42 per cent are Iraqi nationals and 15 per cent are foreign nationals”. He said 90 per cent were women and children, and 66 per cent of the total were children.

Nationals “who have been suspected of having committed crimes, then they need to be treated according to national, international law, in this country,” the UN official added, before insisting that there was no question of the Organization providing help to violent extremists.

“What I can categorically say first of all is the people who we are helping are all civilians,” he said, adding that “we do not help people according to ideology.”

Civilians in Idlib, still in peril

Elsewhere in Syria, where the UN and partners help 5.5 million people every month, there is ongoing and serious concern for civilians in Idlib.

The region is home to some three million people, who rely on cross-border humanitarian supplies arriving from Turkey.

Half of these people have been displaced during the Syrian conflict, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure since it began in 2011.

Since August 2018, Idlib has been largely protected from the worst fighting by a ceasefire agreement implemented by Russia and Turkey, although clashes are ongoing.

This had forced more than 70,000 people to flee from the front line of a demilitarized areas since the  beginning of the year, Mr Moumtzis said.

“A continuation of the ceasefire – it was put  in place since last summer – is really crucial, in order to make sure we do not all see a catastrophe as we have all been worried given the large number and the overpopulation and also the nature of who is there,” he explained.

Turning to Rukban camp on Syria’s southern border with Jordan, Mr. Moumtzis said that while another 700 people had “spontaneously departed” on Tuesday to Government-controlled areas, significant protection and humanitarian concerns remain for the many thousands of displaced people still there.

“A key ask that is still pending is a next convoy,” Mr Moumtzis said. “We really remain concerned about the needs of more than 35,000 people who are in Rukban. The last assistance convoy that was brought in was more than two months ago, and therefore is really long overdue to be able to move forward.”

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