Human Rights

Thousands of Foreigners Unlawfully Held in NE Syria

Countries should bring Citizens Home; Ensure Due Process for ISIS Suspects

Beirut (March 23, 2021): Nearly 43,000 foreign men, women, and children linked to ISIS remain detained in inhuman or degrading conditions by regional authorities in northeast Syria, two years after they were rounded up during the fall of the Islamic State “caliphate,” often with the explicit or implicit consent of their countries of nationality, Human Rights Watch said today.

The foreign detainees have never been brought before a court, making their detention arbitrary as well as indefinite. They include 27,500 children, most in locked camps and at least 300 in squalid prisons for men, and scores of others in a locked rehabilitation center. The detainees suffer from rising levels of violence and falling levels of vital aid including medical care. In just one case, France has refused to allow a woman with advanced colon cancer to come home for treatment. One detained woman told Human Rights Watch that a guard ran over a young child in a vehicle, cracking his skull.

“Men, women, and children from around the world are entering a third year of unlawful detention in life-threatening conditions in northeast Syria while their governments look the other way,” said Letta Tayler, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should be helping to fairly prosecute detainees suspected of serious crimes and free everyone else, not helping to create another Guantanamo.”

Governments that actively contribute to this abusive confinement may be complicit in the unlawful detention and collective punishment of thousands of people, most of them women and young children, Human Rights Watch said.

In February and March 2021, Human Rights Watch communicated via text, email, or phone with eight foreign women detained in camps for family members of male ISIS suspects in northeast Syria as well as relatives of five camp detainees. Human Rights Watch also spoke or emailed with members of six aid organizations and six civil society groups pressing for the detainees’ repatriations, as well as regional authorities, Western government officials, UN officials, journalists, and academics. In addition, Human Rights Watch reviewed dozens of reports, media articles, and videos about the camps and prisons.

People interviewed described increasingly desperate mothers and children struggling to maintain dignity amid harsh conditions and fears of contracting Covid-19. Three women in one camp, Roj, said that guards confiscated Qurans, threatened women for wearing niqabs, and raided tents at night. Women caught with cellphones or suspected of withholding information about crimes in the camp were sometimes beaten and jailed for days or even weeks, the women and a relative said. The regional authority, called the Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria, denied any abuse by guards and said that some women had attacked guards with stones and sharp objects. Badran Chia Kurd, Autonomous Administration’s deputy co-chair, told Human Rights Watch that women were in most cases jailed only for “a few days” if they tried to flee.

One relative of a detainee said that her detained family member was suicidal. A young mother wrote that daily life in the camps made her want to “scream from the top of my lungs”:

It's mentally exhausting. … never gets better here. Always worse. … majority of the children in the camp are sick. Almost everyday something bad happens. Children trapped in burning tents and dies. … We have water tank that contains worms. The toilets are dirty so people started to build [their] own toilets.

Like all detainees who communicated with Human Rights Watch, the women asked that they not be identified by name or nationality for fear of retaliation by other detainees or camp guards.

Holding the foreigners “is a huge burden” for the cash-strapped Autonomous Administration, Chia Kurd said. “The international community, in particular the countries who have citizens in the camps and prisons, are not assuming their responsibility. This issue, if not solved, will not only affect us, but the entire world.”

Countries with nationals held in northeast Syria should answer repeated appeals by the Autonomous Administration to help them provide detainees with due process, including the right to contest the legality and necessity of their detention before a judge. All detainees held in inhuman or degrading conditions, or who are not promptly charged with a recognizable criminal offense in fair proceedings should be immediately released.

Foreign countries should also comply with the Autonomous Administration’s repeated calls for them to repatriate detainees not charged with a crime, prioritizing the most vulnerable. Repatriated children should be accompanied by their parents in keeping with the child’s right to family unity. Foreigners facing risks at home of death or torture or other ill-treatment should be transferred to a safe third country.

Upon transfer home or abroad, detainees can be provided with rehabilitation and reintegration services and as warranted, investigated and prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said. Children who lived under ISIS and any women trafficked by ISIS should be treated first and foremost as victims, and children should face prosecution and detention only in exceptional circumstances.

In the meantime, foreign governments and donors should immediately increase aid to improve camp and prison conditions in northeast Syria and press the United Nations Security Council to reauthorize vital aid operations across Syria’s northeast and northwest borders to speed the delivery of aid.

Only 25 countries are known to have repatriated any nationals from northeast Syria and most have brought home or helped return only a token few, primarily orphans or young children, in some cases without their mothers.

The UN and donors, including many home countries of the foreign detainees, are providing humanitarian aid to the detainees and others in northeast Syria. But acute shortages of clean water, food, medicine, and adequate shelter and security persist, say UN experts and others.

The United States military, which leads the US coalition against ISIS, has funded measures to bolster security and ease overcrowding for some of the prisons, according to Chia Kurd, media, and US government reports. However, the measures appear to have done little to bring the prisons in compliance with minimum detention standards. Moreover, neither the US nor other members of the international community, including countries with nationals detained in northeast Syria, have funded any measures to provide the prisoners with due process, Chia Kurd said.

The international coalition against ISIS also reportedly plans to fund construction of additional detention centers for women suspects, as well as a 500-bed “rehabilitation center” for older boys. The United Kingdom, another key coalition member, is reportedly funding a project to double the capacity of one of the prisons, in Hasakah, from 5,000 to 10,000 detainees. UK and US defense officials did not respond to requests for comment in the time provided.

“Improving horrific prison conditions does not change the fact that indefinite detention without judicial review is unlawful,” Tayler said. “Expanding prisons and locked rehabilitation centers to warehouse hundreds of children who never even chose to live under ISIS is unconscionable.” (