The reintegration into society of thousands of children who have been repatriated from camps in northeastern Syria for suspected members of ISIL (ISIS) has been hampered by the policies of several mainly European governments, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“Our interviews and surveys showed that while many children successfully reintegrate into their new communities, policy choices made by some governments have made reintegration more difficult and, in some cases, even more damaging,” the New York-based organization said in a new statement. report released Monday.

HRW said that in some countries, including Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Sweden, “authorities immediately separated the children from their mothers upon their return, either because the mother is under investigation or charged with ISIS-related crimes”.

“Some interviewees said that the most traumatic experience in their children’s lives was not the hardships of the camps, but the separation of their mothers upon arrival in their new homeland,” the group added.

The report is based on the experiences of more than 100 children aged 2 to 17 who were returned – or in some cases for the first time – to their country of nationality between 2019 and 2022. The majority were repatriated or returned from northeastern Syria, with a small number being returned from Iraq.

In 2019, when the United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) toppled ISIL’s last stronghold in Baghouz, northeastern Syria, the SDF transferred thousands of people who had lived under ISIL to makeshift prisons and detention camps . The detainees included suspected male ISIL fighters and their relatives from more than 60 countries.

As of 2019, about three dozen countries have repatriated or facilitated the return of some of their detained nationals, including more than 1,500 children, according to HRW. Denmark, Finland, Germany, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Russia, Sweden, Tajikistan, Ukraine, the US and Uzbekistan are among some of the countries that have now repatriated many or most of their nationals.

HRW said that as of September 2022, the SDF was still holding about 56,000 individuals — almost all of them women and children — in al-Hol and Roj, two heavily guarded open-air camps in northeastern Syria surrounded by barbed wire. Of these, more than 18,000 are Syrian, about 28,000 are from neighboring Iraq, and more than 10,000 others are women and children from dozens of other countries.

More than 60 percent of the non-Syrians in the camps are children. None of the foreigners in the camps and prisons have been charged with any crime, HRW said. “Nor has anyone ever appeared before a judge to assess the legality and necessity of their detention. Therefore, their detention is clearly illegal.”

While families of detained Syrian boys can visit them, detained foreign boys are rarely allowed personal or telephone contact with their mothers and siblings in the camps, interviewees told HRW. Several hundred foreign boys are also being held in closed “rehabilitation centers” or in military prisons for about 10,000 men suspected of links to IS.

Those who remain in the camps are “detained indefinitely in conditions that are life-threatening and so degrading that they could amount to torture,” HRW said.

“Detainees are deprived of food, water and shelter, and hundreds, including children, have died from preventable diseases, accidents and camp violence,” they added.

In their recommendations, the rights group said governments should immediately repatriate all their nationals and “ensure that all mothers or other adult guardians can return home immediately with their children, without convincing evidence that separation is in the best interests of the child, in accordance with international legal obligations regarding family unity”.

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