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A boy flies a homemade kite in the foreigners' section of al-Hol camp in northeast Syria on March 15, 2021.  © 2021 Sam Tarling

(Berlin) – Regional authorities in northeast Syria are unlawfully detaining an estimated 40 Ukrainian women and children in inhuman and degrading conditions in camps, Human Rights Watch said today. They are among nearly 43,000 foreigners linked to the extremist armed group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) who are being held by Syrian regional authorities.

The majority of the 40 are children, some as young as two.

In a March 25, 2021 letter, Human Rights Watch urged Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba to take prompt action to assist and repatriate the Ukrainian women and children. Human Rights Watch also sent a letter to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky with the same request.

“Ukrainian women and children are being held in horrific and appalling conditions while their government chooses to look the other way,” said Yulia Gorbunova, senior Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Ukrainian government should comply with the regional authorities’ repeated calls for countries to bring home their nationals, prioritizing the most vulnerable.”

None of the 40 has been taken before a court or investigated or prosecuted for any crime, and their indefinite and arbitrary detention by the armed forces of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria violates international law.

A recent Human Rights Watch report found that the conditions in these camps are often inhumane and life-threatening, with growing insecurity and shortages of vital aid. Covid-19 presents another threat to the lives of these detainees, with the United Nations reporting at least 8,537 cases of the virus in northeast Syria as of February 2021.

According to Children in Syria and Iraq, a Ukrainian independent group of investigative journalists and activists that monitors this issue, as of April, there are 8 Ukrainian women and 19 children held in al-Hol camp and 2 Ukrainian women and 11 children in Roj camp. The activists said that all detainees are held in intolerable conditions. Three of the detained women and one child have disabilities, one woman has an acute kidney disease, one child and one woman have shrapnel injuries, and one child has a severe gum infection. The activists also said that detainees live in constant fear and are terrified for their health and safety.

The Ukrainian government has repatriated only nine Ukrainian citizens, two women and seven children, from northeast Syria. The government should work with local authorities to repatriate the remaining Ukrainian nationals. Children who are in the camps with their mothers should be repatriated together, in keeping with the children’s right to family unity, Human Rights Watch said.

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. International standards require authorities to seek alternatives to prosecuting children and prohibit the detention of children except as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.

The Ukrainian government should also immediately increase consular assistance to its citizens and humanitarian aid to the camps and prisons in northeast Syria to complement – not replace – repatriations, Human Rights Watch said.

Ukraine is one of at least 58 countries, including France, Germany, and Russia, with citizens being held as ISIS suspects and family members in northeast Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Turkey. Many countries cite the potential security risks posed by repatriations as a reason for not bringing their nationals home. Yet failing to protect these detainees poses a potentially larger risk, Human Rights Watch said.

“Detaining people in such inhuman and degrading conditions is clearly prohibited under international law,” Gorbunova said. “Ukraine, like all countries whose nationals are being held as ISIS suspects, has a responsibility to protect its citizens and uphold their rights.”

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