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Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine
Minister Dmytro Kuleba
Mykhailivska Square, 1, Kyiv, 01018

March 25, 2021


Dear Minister Kuleba, Human Rights Watch writes to call on your government to bring home or help repatriate, as a matter of urgent priority, the estimated 40 Ukrainian women, and children arbitrarily and indefinitely held in camps in northeast Syria (NES) as Islamic State (ISIS) suspects and family members. These citizens, a majority of them children, some as young as 2.5, are among nearly 14,000 non-Iraqi foreigners who have been detained by the armed forces of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of NES since the fall of ISIS self-declared caliphate on March 23, 2019, and in some cases longer.

These Ukrainians are held in deeply degrading and often inhuman and life-threatening conditions amid growing insecurity and shortages of vital aid. Their indefinite and arbitrary detention without judicial review is a violation of international law. If these Ukrainian citizens are not to be promptly brought before a judge and, as warranted, investigated and prosecuted for crimes in accordance with international standards, your government should ask the detaining authorities in NES to allow their immediate release their voluntary return home or to a third country where they are not at risk of torture and other ill-treatment. As we note in our new report on the foreigners of all nationalities detained in northeast Syria, 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.

In the meantime, we appeal to your government to immediately increase consular assistance to your citizens and humanitarian aid to the camps and prisons in NES to complement – not replace – repatriations. As part of that effort, we seek your assistance in pressing the United Nations Security Council to reopen vital border crossings to speed humanitarian aid into northern Syria.

In addition, we request information from your government regarding detained Ukrainians and the actions Ukraine has taken thus far on their behalf. Our list of questions is attached to this letter. We request the kindness of a reply by April 30, 2021.

Human Rights Watch appreciates that your government has to date repatriated or helped bring home two women and seven children who are Ukrainian citizens from NES. We believe that the remainder of Ukrainians seeking repatriation should be brought home as swiftly as possible, prioritizing the children accompanied by their adult guardians, as well as other particularly vulnerable detainees such as those requiring immediate medical assistance. Once home, these citizens can be provided with rehabilitation and reintegration services. Adults can be monitored or prosecuted as warranted in proceedings that meet international due process standards.

The growing humanitarian crisis in NES, and the indefinite and arbitrary detention in appalling conditions with the absence of any due process for your citizens detained there, make piecemeal returns untenable. In January, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called repatriations by home countries, particularly of children, “an urgent and strategic counter-terrorism imperative.” Repatriation, rehabilitation and reintegration, and prosecutions as appropriate comport with your government’s positive legal obligations toward your citizens in NES. This three-pronged approach is also the best option from a security standpoint. Men imprisoned as ISIS suspects in NES have repeatedly rioted and more than 100 have escaped prisons; some may attempt to rejoin ISIS. Large numbers of women are paying traffickers to smuggle them and their children out of the locked camps holding suspects’ family members, placing them at risk of being trafficked into forced labor and sexual exploitation among other abuses, or rejoining ISIS. In contrast, bringing these detainees home allows your government to conduct individual assessments of each returnee, to monitor them as appropriate, and to hold to account those who have committed serious crimes.

Our research and advocacy with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine is part of a broader Human Rights Watch effort to press governments around the world to uphold the rights of their citizens held as ISIS suspects and family members in NES, Iraq, Libya, and Turkey, and to do their utmost to end their arbitrary detention. We believe that Ukraine can be a leader in conducting or facilitating the safe and orderly returns of its nationals.

Human Rights Watch has documented deeply degrading conditions in al-Hol and Roj, the camps holding nearly 8,000 foreign children and 4,000 foreign women in NES. Ninety percent of the detainees are under age 12 and more than half are younger than 6. We have also documented the inhuman conditions in the makeshift prisons holding about 2,000 foreign males including an estimated 300 or more boys. Camp conditions include contaminated water, overflowing latrines, shortages of food, milk formula, and diapers, leaking tents, rampant disease, inadequate medical care, and almost no schooling for children or counseling for a severely traumatized population. While conditions are somewhat better in Roj than in al-Hol, women there have told to us that guards have confiscated Qurans, forbidden them from wearing black niqabs, and jailed women in harsh conditions for cellphone contact including with family members back home. In the prisons, ISIS suspects are packed into overcrowded, unsanitary cells and lack essential services including adequate medical care for festering wounds and infectious diseases including tuberculosis. Only one of 14 prisons holding ISIS suspects in NES is fit for purpose, according to a US military report.

These conditions are life-threatening. According to humanitarian groups and the US-led International Coalition Against ISIS, more than 700 detainees in al-Hol and Roj – at least half of them children – have died in the past two years. Several were killed by detainees who remain loyal to ISIS while others died in crossfire, or due to lack of medical care, unsanitary conditions, and safety hazards such as tent fires. At least 42 people including two children have been keeled in al-Hol camp so far. Up to several hundred men have also died in the prisons including one from Germany and another from the UK.

Covid-19 is another threat to the lives of these detained Ukrainians. As of February 16, 2021, the UN had reported 8,537 cases of Covid-19 in NES but humanitarians warn that rates are vastly under-counted because insufficient supplies and capacity for testing. At least 13 cases of Covid-19 have been reported in al-Hol and Roj as of December 2020. A greater outbreak could disproportionately harm camp and prison detainees as most are malnourished with severely limited access to medical services.

Compounding this humanitarian crisis, Russia has since January 2020 used its veto power at the UN Security Council to close three of the four vital border crossings into Syria that UN agencies had used to transport medicine and other aid into the country. Turkey and Turkish-backed forces have also repeatedly cut off water supplies to Kurdish-held areas of NES including al-Hol camp.

Representatives of four aid organizations have told Human Rights Watch that these factors are compounding the humanitarian crisis in NES but that mounting insecurity has forced most international nongovernmental organizations to curtail their operations for detainees in NES or suspend them altogether.

At least 25 countries have repatriated some of their nationals from NES. A small number of countries including Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Russia, and Uzbekistan have together brought home more than 1,000 of their citizens – about 85 percent of all returns – but repatriations by Western countries remain piecemeal. Some countries including Canada, the UK, and France have repatriated one or more children without their parents and others, such as Sweden and Belgium, plan to do so. These actions flout the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that countries should not separate children from their parents absent a professional assessment that separation “is necessary for the best interests of the child.”

In addition to Secretary-General Guterres, UN authorities including the UN human rights commissioner, the UN counterterrorism chief, and 22 UN specialized human rights experts have called on home countries to repatriate their nationals. The European Parliament has also called on member states to repatriate all children, taking into account the best interests of the child.

The 22 UN human rights experts noted that the “violence, exploitation, abuse and deprivation” suffered by foreign detainees in NES have resulted in deaths and “may well amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under international law,” with no effective remedy.

Countries including Ukraine have a responsibility to take steps to protect their citizens when they face serious human rights violations including loss of life and torture. This obligation extends to foreign countries when governments’ abroad when countries’ actions can protect individuals from harm. International human rights law also provides that everyone has the right to a nationality. Your government has an international legal obligation to provide access to nationality for all children born abroad to one of your nationals who would otherwise be stateless, as soon as possible.

The Autonomous Administration’s indefinite detention of your nationals without being brought before a judge to review the legality and necessity of their confinement is arbitrary and unlawful. The detention of women and children solely because of their familial ties to male ISIS suspects amounts to guilt by association and collective punishment, prohibited under international law. The arbitrary detention and lack of reintegration support for these children also violates international principles for children associated with armed groups, who are to be viewed primarily as victims. UN Security Council Resolution 2396 of 2017, which is binding on member states including Ukraine, stresses the importance of assisting women and children associated with groups such as ISIS who may themselves be victims of terrorism, including through rehabilitation and reintegration.

Resolution 2396 also calls on member states to investigate and prosecute suspects for involvement with foreign terrorist groups if appropriate. Given the absence of any fair trial proceedings for foreigners detained in NES, investigations by home countries remain the only viable option at this time to provide redress to victims for any serious crimes committed by these detainees, including any by Ukrainian citizens.

We thank you for your attention to this urgent matter and look forward to your responses to the questions below.


Hugh Williamson
Europe and Central Asia Director

Lama Fakih
Crisis and Conflict Division Director

Questions to the Government of Ukraine from Human Rights Watch regarding Ukrainian nationals detained in northeast Syria (NES) for suspected ISIS ties

1. How many Ukrainian (a) men (b) women and (c) children does the government believe to be held in prisons or camps in NES because of suspected membership in or family ties to ISIS? What are the age ranges for each of these three groups?

2. Based on current available information, how many Ukrainians held in NES as ISIS suspects or their family members are considered high security threats?

3. What is the reason for the delays in the repatriation of Ukrainians held in NES?

4. What specific steps, if any, is the government taking to repatriate or otherwise help bring home nationals held in prisons and camps in NES?

5. Has the government refused entry to Ukraine – or indicated it will do so – for any Ukrainian citizen currently in Syria? If so, on what grounds?

6. Has the government revoked the citizenship of any nationals specifically fortraveling to Syria allegedly to join ISIS? If so, how many? What are the grounds for doing so? Were any of those affected made stateless as a result?

7. What specific steps has Ukraine taken to offer or provide consular assistance to its citizens held in northeast Syrian camps and prisons?

8.What specific steps has the government taken to facilitate proof of identity for its citizens detained in NES, including children born in Syria?

9. What requests, if any, has the government made to the authorities in effective control of the prisons and camps in NES, such as the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration and the affiliated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), regarding its citizens held in these prisons and camps?

10. Has the government asked the Autonomous Administration and/or the SDF to bar Ukrainians held in NES from either leaving the camps or prisons or crossing into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq or into Turkey to receive consular assistance?

11. Has the government called on the Autonomous Administration and/or the SDF to immediately end the detention of its nationals, given that these detentions are arbitrary and definite, and the conditions in the places of detention are inhuman or degrading?

12. What assistance, if any, does your government provide to construct or expand prisons and camps in NES for foreign detainees held as ISIS suspects and family members?

13. What assistance, if any, does your government provide to support judicial review and, as warranted, prosecutions for Ukrainians indefinitely and arbitrarily detained in NES?

14. What humanitarian assistance, if any, does your government provide to its citizens detained in northeast Syria camps and prisons? Please specify whether aid is earmarked for a specific purpose, for example, fresh food, medical supplies, clothing, shelter, or education.

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