UN report on Syria conflict highlights inhumane detention of women and children

OCHA/Hedinn Halldorsson OCHA staff assist an Iraqi woman taking her four-day-old grandson to a health clinic in Al Hol camp, Syria. (16 June 2019)

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


As the people of north-west Syria face intensifying violence, tens of thousands of women and children continue to be kept in “inhumane conditions” in a remote camp on the other side of the country, UN-appointed independent investigators said on Wednesday.

Describing the situation at Al Hol camp as “appalling”, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria called on the international community to take action.

Statelessness risk for those held in Al Hol camp

Most of the 3,500 children held there lack birth registration documents, the Commission said in its latest report on the conflict.

They risk being left stateless because Member States appear unwilling to repatriate them, fearing extremist links, panel chair Paulo Pinheiro explained.

“Up to 70,000 individuals remain interned in deplorable and inhumane conditions at Al Hol camp, the vast majority of whom are women and children under the age of 12,” he said.

Making an impassioned appeal on behalf of older children from 12 to 18, questioning whether allegations and suspicions of terrorist affiliation levelled against them were correct, he said that the Commission “finds this completely appalling.”

According to the Commission’s report, the humanitarian response to needs at Al Hol “remains woefully inadequate”, with hundreds of preventable deaths recorded.

At least 390 children have died from malnutrition or untreated infected wounds, the investigators said.

In addition, much-needed psychological support is only provided on a limited basis to Yazidi women and children, who fled ISIL massacres in neighbouring Iraq in 2014.

A significant number of those interned at Al-Hol camp also include tens of thousands of people who fled the bombardment of Baghouz town – an ISIL stronghold in eastern Syria – straining further the already severely overstretched humanitarian resources.

‘Enormous strain’ to deliver services

Reacting to the Commission’s findings, the UN Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said it shared the panel’s concerns, adding that more than 30 humanitarian partners face “enormous strain” to deliver services in Al Hol camp.

“People who fled to the camp have suffered under ISIL for years, and many arrived at the camp in poor health”, OCHA spokesperson Jens Laerke said, noting that as the camp expanded from 10,000 people “to over 70,000 in a matter of months”, humanitarian organizations ramped up their response.

While needs in Al Hol remain high; services have gradually improved, Mr. Laerke noted, particularly in terms of health, with three new field hospitals in the camp.

Camp managers ‘not interested in future of children’

Echoing Mr. Pinheiro’s appeal for international assistance, panel member Karen Abuzayd insisted that it was not a case of blaming one side or another.

“Those who are in charge of these camps have limited resources as well,” she said. “I mean they’re put in places where there’s not good people in charge”, she asserted,  “or people who are really interested in the future of these children, or anybody else in these camps, women as well.”

Highlighting the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which explicitly calls on States to protect children and register them immediately after birth, Mr. Pinheiro maintained that there was a “shared responsibility of several Member States” concerning the state of the camp. “I think it would be unfair to blame those who are holding those people there”.

Updating journalists on the conflict elsewhere in the country – particularly in Idlib, the last opposition-held bastion and Deir Ez Zor in the east – Mr. Pinheiro insisted that civilians continue to bear the brunt of hostilities.

Over 13 million now displaced by conflict

Well over eight years of war have now displaced 13 million people, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, amid violence involving Government-backed forces, Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) opposition fighters and the US-led international coalition, as well as Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

In Idlib, “(HTS) terrorists attacked military positions of pro-government forces and indiscriminately launched rockets towards Government-held areas”, Mr. Pinheiro said, “killing and maiming dozens of civilians in the countryside of Aleppo, Hama and elsewhere”.

This was despite an agreement between Russia and Turkey in September 2018 to establish a demilitarized zone in Idlib, he noted.

In an effort to oust HTS fighters, “aerial and ground offensives by pro-Government forces to oust those militants and affiliated armed groups from Idlib, northern Hama, Latakia and western Aleppo escalated dramatically” in February, Mr. Pinheiro added, “destroying infrastructure essential to the survival of the civilian population, forcing almost half a million civilians to flee”.

Violence targeted at terrorists ‘hit hospitals, markets, schools’

According to the Commission’s report, this violence destroyed infrastructure “essential to the survival of the civilian population, including hospitals, markets, educational facilities and agricultural resources, and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee”.

The Commission’s 21-page report also highlights hostilities in the east that included the “large-scale operations” by the US-led international coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces causing “near complete destruction of widespread destruction” of towns and villages in and around Hajin and Baghuz in Deir ez Zor, Mr. Pinheiro noted.

In areas reclaimed by the Government – such as Dar’a in the south and Duma near Damascus – civilians, including recent returnees, have been arbitrarily arrested and detained, the report maintains. Hundreds of thousands of civilians in both locations also lack adequate access to water, electricity and education, the report adds.          

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