February 24, 2021

IntelBrief: Hunger Strike at Syrian Displacement Camp Highlights Security and Humanitarian Challenges

(AP Photo/Baderkhan Ahmad)

Bottom Line up Front

  • The hunger strike by residents of Roj camp, highlights complex legal, security, and humanitarian challenges at similar displacement camps like al-Hol.
  • Violence in al-Hol highlights the diversity of its inhabitants, which include thousands of children and ISIS victims, as well as hardened ideologues.
  • The relatively recent amnesty granted to Syrian inhabitants, the impact of COVID-19, and deteriorating security underscore the need for urgent action.
  • Several countries are struggling with the political, legal, security, and economic challenges associated with repatriating ISIS detainees.

The recent hunger strike by ten French women at Roj camp highlights the complex legal, security, and humanitarian challenges of managing the risks and needs of detainees associated with the so-called Islamic State (henceforth ISIS) and their children. Roj camp, an internally-displaced person (IDP) and refugee camp in Al-Hasakeh governorate, is one of several displacement sites facing such challenges.Following the destruction of the territorial Caliphate by Coalition forces in 2019, al-Hol, an even larger displacement camp in Syria which has garnered significant attention, has held between 50,000 and 70,000 people, almost 80% women, and several thousand foreign detainees from nearly 60 countries. Located in the semi-autonomous Kurdish-controlled region of northeastern Syria, it is estimated that nearly two-thirds of the camp’s residents are children. As conditions deteriorate rapidly against the backdrop of a raging global pandemic and governments dealing with the domestic fallout of COVID-19 in their own countries, the fate of al-Hol’s residents is increasingly uncertain. As various international actors grapple with global politics and processes, humanitarian and security experts have called for urgent action, underscoring that the camp has created a hospitable environment for ISIS to recruit, regroup, and rear the next generation of jihadists.

Reports of violence in al-Hol highlight the diversity of its inhabitants. For thousands of children, it is the only existence they know. In October 2020, the UN reported there were 34,000 children under the age of 12 in the camp, with 120 unaccompanied or separated from their families. Many residents of the camp have been brutalized by life under ISIS, and were led to the Caliphate by their partners or as minors without a full understanding of the implications of their decision. However, among them are also hardened ideologues who have used violence against residents they believe may be undermining ISIS and who have reiterated their objective of raising their children to be committed followers of the group. The different roles and views of women in the camps also defy persistent stereotypes of women as passive actors; they may be victims, perpetrators, or hardened terrorists, and in some cases, those roles may overlap. Some women in the al-Hol Annex, the section of the camp where approximately 10,000 foreign fighters and families are held, have continued to brandish the Islamic State’s flag and have meted out harsh punishments to women perceived to flout the group’s rules.

The United States has used some of its $200 million 2020 anti-ISIS budget to help secure detention camps and prisons in the region, in addition to sending $1.2 million worth of medical supplies to fight COVID-19. While humanitarian groups are able to provide some assistance, security has largely been left to the Kurdish forces, already burdened by the responsibility for securing the camp and overstretched by the expectation they will – or can – provide security throughout the camp. While most calls for repatriation have focused on women and children, the fate of the men and youths, particularly boys, holds even less hope, posing the risk that many will be victims of, or recruited by, ISIS supporters.

In October 2020, an amnesty was granted to Syrian inhabitants – a more straightforward operation than dealing with the foreign nationals in the camp – given their status as IDPs, easier logistics, and the practice of guarantors vouching for their behavior. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and deteriorating security have limited access and resources for humanitarian actors but the further restriction of UN humanitarian access in Syria through the UN Security Council in 2020, eliminating the only UN crossing to the northeast, only exacerbated these challenges in al-Hol. Nonetheless, the combination of these factors has highlighted the dire need on security and humanitarian grounds to address the future of the inhabitants. In Central Asia, Kazakhstan has repatriated a number of women and children, investing heavily in localized reintegration and support programs. Children will be in dire need of educational and psychosocial support, and women victimized by the group will need support and protection which may not always be forthcoming from their communities. However, as rehabilitation and reintegration programs aim to provide participants with support and resources, there is a risk that their home communities may resent the material resources given to the very group that brutalized them, especially where it may be perceived that terrorist perpetrators are being better served than ordinary civilians. Guarantees of security and supervision by religious or community authorities are also not feasible in all contexts.

A reported surge in killings in the camp highlight the security concerns for and about the inhabitants; officials believe these to be the work of ISIS supporters punishing anyone who appears to be deviating from the group’s ideology or as a warning for those who may be leaving the camp to remain silent. An additional security risk arising from deteriorating conditions is highlighted by the increased smuggling of people out of the camp – including several women who were repatriated to Sweden and Finland – thus making it harder to identify and monitor the residents. Reports suggest that detainees willing and able to pay the thousands of dollars to smugglers are able to slip through the porous boundaries of al-Hol camp. Moreover, ISIS has regularly called on supporters to break out detained members, and deteriorating security around the camp makes such escapes more likely. As an expert recently noted in The Soufan Center’s virtual event, “bad things are happening at al-Hol.”

There is widespread recognition of the needs in displacement camps like al-Hol and Roj, with the U.S., UN, Russia, and many others calling on states to repatriate their nationals, as Kazakhstan has done. However, the question of repatriation is fraught with many legal, security, and political challenges. First, there is a divergence of opinion on the legal responsibility and jurisdiction of states over the nationals in the camp, and the legality of prosecutions and processes managed by a non-state armed group. There is also the question of accountability. The UN Security Council obliges states to consider the prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration of all returnees. If states bypass prosecution and opt for reintegration measures, it will raise questions about accountability. Moreover, some states, including France and the UK, consider that individuals should be prosecuted where the crimes were committed, and there has been some consideration of developing justice mechanisms in the region to manage prosecutions, but there does not appear to be progress on that front at this time. Delaying and bypassing the accountability dimension risks undermining the roles of victims and communities seeking justice for ISIS crimes.

Several states have balked at the prospect of bringing home nationals, while the U.S. has repatriated at least 27 citizens. Russia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan have each repatriated at least 100 individuals. Other states face the prospect of higher numbers of returnees, and with it, higher costs of monitoring and support that taxpayers, already stretched by COVID 19, are unlikely to tolerate. There is also a risk that the lack of access to evidence in the conflict zones, which may also have been initially collected by security forces, will prevent states from prosecuting returnees. Finally, few governments are willing to bear the political costs of bringing back high numbers of adults associated with ISIS and risking the prospect of a domestic attack by ideologically hardened returnees. Even in the case of children and minors, some states have only considered repatriating few, if any, unaccompanied or orphaned children. However, despite these challenges, conditions in al-Hol and Roj are not improving. The security and humanitarian imperatives, including the need to identify and monitor residents to prevent a resurgence of ISIS violence, underscore the need for urgent action. Terrorist groups are likely to act fast where governments opt for delays.

Correction: In our IntelBrief from 24 February 2021, it was incorrectly stated that the hunger strike took place in al-Hol camp rather than Roj camp. This page provides a corrected version of the IntelBrief.