GENEVA (22 June 2020) – The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Monday expressed deep concerns over the plight of thousands of so-called 'third country nationals' – mostly women and children – who are trapped in displacement camps in north-east Syria.
She called for urgent action to be taken by their home countries in view of serious limitations on access to humanitarian aid, and the risks associated with COVID-19.
Nearly 58,000 children from more than 60 different countries remain confined in congested camps in the Kurdish-controlled area of the country. More than 8,000 of these children are 'third country nationals', from countries other than Syria or its immediate neighbour Iraq.
In all, about 90,000 Syrians, Iraqis and other 'third country nationals' with presumed family links to ISIL members are being confined in overcrowded displacement camps such as Al-Hol and Al-Roj. While the majority were transferred to these camps in 2019, following the defeat of ISIL in their last stronghold in Eastern Deir Ez-Zor, thousands of others have been kept in Al-Hol camp since 2016.
Although the third country nationals are not formally detained and do not face any criminal charges in Syria, they are not allowed to leave the camps. They are left in legal limbo with limited access – if any – to consular services, in potentially life-threatening conditions.
"I very much welcome that some countries of origin have started repatriating their nationals – and are showing more openness to repatriating young children and orphans," Bachelet said. "But the fact remains that thousands of people, mostly women and children, are unable to return to their own countries of nationality or origin."
"The international community should also make every effort to advocate for the rights of the Iraqis and Syrians who are stranded in these camps," she added, noting they should also have the opportunity to return safely to their homes, and to rehabilitation and reintegration, with full respect for their human rights and fair trial guarantees as appropriate.
She said States should assume responsibility for all of their nationals, in accordance with their obligations under international law. "However, some States have instead taken actions to deprive individuals in the camps of their nationality, potentially rendering them stateless. Some have also declined or been slow to offer consular services, and asserted other obstacles to engaging on the ground with their own nationals. All these approaches reduce the likelihood of both effective protection and appropriate accountability for very serious crimes which have been committed," the UN human rights chief said.
"Once people have returned to their homes, States can move forward with measures of rehabilitation and reintegration, as well as investigation and – if appropriate – prosecution," Bachelet said. "Many countries of origin have robust criminal justice systems capable of fairly and effectively investigating and prosecuting those against whom there is sufficient evidence of criminal conduct."
Knowingly leaving nationals outside the protection of the rule of law is both a possible contravention of the state's obligations under international human rights law, and risks being counterproductive. "The desperate conditions in these camps provides extremist or terrorist groups such as ISIL with fertile ground to exploit people's suffering as a recruiting tool," Bachelet said. "It is perfectly legitimate for States to factor in national security considerations, however these cannot not be made at the expense of human rights protections."
"These dangers are further exacerbated by COVID-19, which has further limited the de facto authorities' ability to ensure sufficient security in the overcrowded camps, and limit the influence of terrorist groups. This risks having a boomerang effect on the global community's efforts to counter terrorism in the region."
Many individuals inside the camps are themselves victims of serious violations of human rights. Women, boys and girls have suffered sexual violence and/or have been trafficked or otherwise forced into marriage, sexual slavery and exploitation by UN-listed terrorist groups, Bachelet said. Children, including those who were indoctrinated or forcibly recruited by ISIL, should be regarded primarily as victims and treated in a manner consistent with their rights, dignity and best interests in accordance with applicable international law, in particular the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
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