UN investigator calls for end to detention of women and children in Syrian camps

Rapporteur says holding relatives of fugitives violates international law

United Nations human rights rapporteur Fionnuala Ní Aoláin has called for an end to indefinite and arbitrary detention of thousands of women and children in Kurdish-run camps in northeast Syria. Following a six-day tour of Al-Hawl, Al-Roj and other sites holding relatives of dead, imprisoned or fugitive jihadis, the Irish law professor said the practice violates international law and should cease immediately.

Ms Ní Aoláin was the first independent rights envoy to visit the Syrian facilities. She said the Kurdish authorities had given her access to camps, detention centres and prisons but barred her entry to two key facilities: the section in Al-Hawl camp housing third-country nationals and the newly-built, high-security Panorama prison.

Al-Hawl is divided into sectors housing Syrians and Iraqis and an annex inhabited by 11,000 nationals from 60 countries.

Ms Ní Aoláin condemned an “unending cycle of cradle-to-grave detention” of children who comprise two-thirds of the 55,000 inmates of Al-Hawl.


She criticised “snatching” and the forced disappearances of hundreds of Syrian, Iraqi and foreign boys as young as 10. Boys approaching adolescence are seen by the United States-sponsored Syrian Kurdish Democratic Forces (SDF) as potential terrorists due to their parents’ involvement with Islamic State (also known as Isis).

Islamic State established a vast cross-border caliphate in Syria and Iraq in 2014 and was routed by US-led foreign and local forces between 2017 and 2019.

While the SDF claims abducted boys are sent to “rehabilitation” centres, some are taken to adult male prisons where there is no plan for them “other than prison,” Ms Ní Aoláin said. She expressed alarm over the tuberculosis-infected Panorama prison where 700 boys are held with mature men.

Ms Ní Aoláin said: “Every single boy child I met was clearly traumatised by the separation from their mothers, often reported as violent.”

While contending that this practice violated the rights of the child, she said: “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. The rationale for taking these boys simply does not stand up to scrutiny.”

She added: “This abhorrent practice of forced mass separation of boys from their mothers and families must end.”

Ms Ní Aoláin appealed to states to repatriate nationals detained by the SDF. “The dire conditions of detention for all categories – men, women and especially children, which I witnessed first-hand – make such returns absolutely imperative,” she said.

UN and international agencies say the camps are lacking in water and sewage treatment facilities, while people are at risk of disease and violence. Inmates also have limited access to healthcare.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times