Al-Hol Camp in NE Syria, also called Al Hawl, was built for 10,000 people, but it now holds 73,000, the human detritus of war. 62,000 of these are Syrian or Iraqi, over half of them children, and these live in the larger part of the camp. In a separate annexe, fenced off and under guard, are 11,000 women and children who were with ISIS, including many Western women and children. 3500 of the children are under 12, and many of these are unaccompanied orphans.
Most of the women travelled to Syria naïve about ISIL or powerless to refuse. Many of the children were born there, but none had any choice about where to be, at all. Some, like Shamima Begum (who was here) were children themselves. Most soon realised their mistake, but there was no escape. There still isn’t. They cannot leave. Nor are they safe. Some women remain ISIL supporters. Last week a group of presumed ISIL-loyal women tortured to death a 6 month pregnant Indonesian woman who suffered terribly before she died. Last month a 14-year-old Azeri girl was killed by the radicals for not covering her hair.
Conditions in the ISIS annexe are the worst in Al-Hol. There is less aid, less water, less care, less hope. Reporters describe conditions as apocalyptic. On July 2, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria told the UN Human Rights Council that at least 240 children had died at or enroute to al-Hol. Human Rights Watch describe overflowing latrines, sewage trickling into tents, children drinking from water tanks with worms coming out of the spout, children with rashes, emaciated limbs, and swollen bellies sifting through mounds of stinking garbage under a scorching sun or lying limp on tent floors.’ Many have open sores from leishmaniasis, a horrible, flesh-devouring parasitic disease. Some have tuberculosis. Many stare endlessly at nothing. On July 3 camp guards shot and wounded two little boys, for throwing rocks. This is a concentration camp.
The women and children are not facing local prosecution, but awaiting repatriation. They could wait for ever. Whilst Kazakhstan, Uzbekhistan, Tajikistan, Russia, Kosovo and Turkey have taken back 1,250 children, many countries have stripped women of their nationality, or approved transfer to countries where they may face torture or execution, leaving the children in limbo. The UN say western countries have repatriated a few orphans – Norway taking 5, France 18, Sweden 7, the Netherlands 2, Germany 10, Australia 8 the US 16 and Italy 1. We are not even on the list.
International law allows punishment of people responsible for crimes, not collective punishment of those who they controlled. Countries are obliged to ensure justice through fair trials, not presume guilt. British justice once set an example to the world. In 1945 we took the moral high ground, showing Nazi war criminals justice they had denied others. We didn’t demonise their wives and children, nor intern them in concentration camps. In 1966 we signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, stating ‘no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.’ The beauty of human rights is that even the guilty have rights, but today we strip women and, by extension, their children, of those rights. The UK Ministry of Justice website states that ‘our vision is to deliver a world-class justice system that works for everyone in society. It’s time to apply that vision and bring the children home.