UN expert voices concern about arbitrary detention of children in Syria

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A United Nations expert voiced concern on Friday that tens of thousands of children were being detained arbitrarily in northeastern Syria based on their alleged ties to ISIS and in violation of international law.

Fionnuala Ni Aolain, a UN Special Rapporteur, said a day after returning from the region that she was also concerned about the “snatching” of hundreds of boys from camps.

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Thousands of internal refugees and families of suspected IS fighters including Syrians, Iraqis and other nationals are housed in detention camps across the region after fleeing from extremist-held areas during the Syria conflict.

“The thing I will say that concerned me the most and my team the most as we visited northeast Syria was the mass indefinite and arbitrary detention of children, particularly boys in various types of facilities,” she said.

Their detention in camps, prisons and centers was “premised on the alleged threat that they pose to security based on their or their parents’ alleged prior links with Daesh,” she added, using a synonym for IS.

Ni Aolain was speaking the day after what she says was the first visit to the region by a UN human rights expert.

Among the places she visited was the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp, which holds around 55,000 people including 31,000 children. It also contains third-party nationals from Western countries despite UN pressure to take them back.

The northeast of Syria including al-Hol falls under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed group. An official from the SDF-affiliated authorities that run the region did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

SDF officials regularly call on foreign countries to repatriate families of IS militants in the camps.

Ni Aolain described conditions at al-Hol as “dire and extreme,” saying the temperature was 50 Celsius during her visit. The term “camp” is inappropriate, she said, since people are not free to come and go.

“There appears to be no understanding that it is in absolute contravention of international law, to detain children in what appears to be an unending cycle of cradle-to-grave detention,” she said. She also raised concerns about the separation of hundreds of adolescent boys from their mothers in camps based on the alleged security risk they posed. She did not say where they went but has previously said they went to unknown locations.

“Every single woman I spoke to made clear that it was the snatching of children that provided the most anxiety, the most suffering, the most psychological harm,” she said. “The rationale for taking these boys simply does not stand up to scrutiny.”

In February, UN rights experts expressed grave concern about reports that at least 10 boys were taken away from another camp, Roj, by the authorities in northeastern Syria.

They said there was a pattern of forcibly removing boys who reach the ages of 10 or 12 from the camps and separating them from their mothers and taking them to unknown locations, calling this completely unlawful.

The SDF-affiliated autonomous administration said in a statement at the time the report was “far from the truth.”

It said the camps’ administration from time to time removed adolescents because they were at the age at which they were at the highest risk of being influenced by extremism, saying they were put in “rehabilitation centers.”

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