Human Rights Watch advocacy director Jo Becker, right, and associate director Letta Tayler address a media conference on TT refugees in Syria at Kapok Hotel, Port of Spain on February 28. Photo by Ayanna Kinsale
WHILE the government is looking at the logistics of returning some 100 women and children held in camps in Syria, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is calling on all nations to repatriate their citizens.
On Monday, former Speaker Nizam Mohammed, Kwasi Atiba, a member of the Islamic Resource Society, and retired diplomat Patrick Edwards met with the Prime Minister at Whitehall to address the repatriation of TT women and children who are housed as refugees in camps in Syria under Turkish watch.
Mohammed told Newsday the day after the meeting that the matter is extremely sensitive, with an international dimension, and will need co-operation and assistance from foreign governments and agencies. He asked for patience, adding that a verification exercise will first have to be done.
In a statement on Friday the UN committee said: “States must urgently repatriate children, together with their mothers – a solution that we now know is eminently feasible. We note that it is of the utmost importance that comprehensive rehabilitation programmes are in place when children are repatriated.”
The release echoed the statements of attorney Criston Williams, who has been calling on the authorities for years to bring the women and children back home. On Wednesday, Williams told Newsday that those in the camps had not been not convicted of any offence, are just being housed indefinitely and should be returned home. He said in the next few months a team will head to Syria to begin the verification, and called on Edwards to come along as the diplomatic attache.
The release said mass detention of the children for what their parents may have done “is an egregious violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child,” which is against the discrimination and punishment of a child on their basis of acts committed by their parents.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), an activist group supporting the reintegration of the women and children, has said there are 56 children, 21 women and 13 males, including a teenage boy, in camps in Syria.
A Sunday Newsday report last year said after the collapse of ISIS, TT citizens were among over 50,000 people at the camps after they were detained by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias.
Most of the men who left TT and joined ISIS were killed. Those who survived weretaken to Syria and Iraq, along with their wives and children. At the time there were 73 children – 38 who were born in TT, 31 born in Syria, and four born in Iraq – at the Al-Hol, Al-Hawl and Al-Roj camps. There are also orphans.
The UN release said the two largest camps for women, girls and young boys were Al-Hol and Al-Ro,j with approximately 56,000 people. Among them are 37,000 foreign nationals, over half of whom are children, mostly under 12 (80 per cent), and 30 per cent under five. They include 850 boys.
“Many children are now entering their fifth year of detention in northeast Syria, since they were detained by the de facto authorities following the fall of Baghouz in early 2019. It is now time to bring them home,” the release said, adding that in the last few months, four children, including three young girls, had been murdered.
In November, the charity organisation Doctors without Borders reported on the condition of the Al-Hol camp. The camp is divided in two: the main camp, housing Syrian and Iraqi nationals, and the annex, which houses approximately 11,000 foreign nationals from about 60 countries.
The report said there are repeated breaches of human rights and recurrent patterns of violence and exploitation.
“Al-Hol was designed to provide safe, temporary accommodation and humanitarian services to civilians displaced by the conflict in Syria and Iraq. However, the nature and purpose of Al-Hol has long deviated and grown increasingly into an unsafe and unsanitary open-air prison after people were moved there from Islamic State (IS)-controlled territories in December 2018.”
The report added that those in the camps live in a violent and dangerous environment while being exposed to constant physical and psychological trauma and fear. The report said teams working in Al-Hol regularly witnessed acts of violence and exploitation.
“In 2021, the leading cause of mortality in Al-Hol was crime-related death, which accounted for 38 per cent of all deaths in the camp. Between January and August 2022, there were 34 reported murders in the camp.”
The UN report said children in this conflict zone deserve to be protected and not punished.
“These children are victims of terrorism and of very serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, and must be treated with dignity in all contexts, whether armed conflict or terrorism. Safe return to their home countries, in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child is the only solution and must be prioritised.”