In northeast Syria’s notorious Al Hol camp, gun violence and knife attacks, getting caught in crossfire, or dying in avoidable accidents such as tent fires have become regular occurrences.
After the territorial defeat of Daesh (ISIS) in early 2019, families of captured or killed militants were brought to the camp. But plans for what would happen to the residents, including many foreign nationals, were unclear while experts warned that a security gap could allow a regrouping within the camp.
More than 70 people have been killed inside the camp this year alone, as the security situation continues to deteriorate and militancy increases, the Washington Post reported on Sunday.
The population at Al Hol is now 62,000, with two thirds of those children. Describing the camp’s ideological demography is not homogeneous: some of the women who are housewives followed their militant husbands who joined Daesh, some of them dedicated themselves to the violent group as much as their husbands, and some of the women are now ex-radicals who changed their opinions about the group.
In one part of the camp, there are non-militant Daesh families who surrendered to PYD, the Syrian branch of the PKK terror group; in another, radicalised women and their children. The partition is aimed at preventing revenge operations against those who openly abandoned or denounced the group’s ideology.
According to research published last year, only around 30 percent of the camp’s residents still ideologically supported Daesh, but they spread fear regardless. The Washington Post report says militancy is on the rise, and it’s often the hard-line women who are being blamed for killings and terrorising other residents.
As Daesh actively seeks to recruit followers, residents say they are fearful particularly at night when there’s less security around and anyone can enter the tents.
Some women have also reportedly tried bribing camp guards to escape and stole gold to pay smugglers.
SDF struggles to control security in the camp
The camp is managed by the Asayish, the police force in areas controlled by the PKK's Syrian affiliate YPG, which struggle to cope with the security situation as well as recruitments.
Humanitarian workers and Asayish also face threats by the radical residents of the group. In one incident in February, a member of the Doctors Without Borders’s team was killed in the tent where they lived. The camp guards said it was too dangerous to recover the latest corpses they discovered.
In an effort to bring the situation under control, the YPG-heavy SDF moved 300 families to Roj camp in Hasakah countryside that included about 800 Daesh families.
"Killings of and threats to women and girls in the camp increased in June and July, contributing further to a climate of fear,” Martin Griffiths, under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs of the United Nations said in August.
“And the dire needs in the camp, and the extreme vulnerability and aid dependence of residents in the camp increases the risk of sexual exploitation and abuse,” Griffiths said.
Only a few countries took action
UN human rights experts say 57 governments are believed to have nationals in Syrian camps and say that it’s the states' responsibility to protect their citizens from human rights violations or abuses.
There are thousands of Europeans among the camp’s residents but only a few countries have repatriated their citizens, including children. According to Unicef, around 22,000 foreign children of at least 60 nationalities languish in camps and prisons.
In one well known case, the UK revoked the citizenship of British-born Shamima Begum, who joined Daesh as a teenager, while few other Western countries including Finland, Denmark, and Sweden started repatriations.
In early August, two Palestinian orphans were sent to the Palestinian consulate in Erbil while Albania repatriated 20 orphans from Al Hol in July.
Iraq, meanwhile, transferred less than 400 of its citizens who make almost half of the camp’s residents.