Syria’s notorious Al Hol Camp is ‘on the brink’ of a humanitarian disaster

  • 1 Oct 2019

Tens of thousands of female Daesh sympathisers and fighters’ wives have been kept in al Hol camp for months, but as conditions deteriorate and violence increases, there is no solution in sight.

In this March 31, 2019 file photo, children play in a mud puddle in the section for foreign families at Al Hol camp in Hasakeh province, Syria. ( AP )

Since Daesh lost its final territory in March, tens of thousands of female Daesh ‘members’ and sympathisers, as well as Daesh fighters’ wives and children, have been kept in the displacement camp al Hol, in Northeastern Syria. 

There is little to no central authority for Daesh in Syria anymore and what it means to be a Daesh ‘member’ has become more fluid and confusing than it's ever been. 

Not all women in the camp have been members of the group, although many had links to the group. Some of the camp’s residents have willingly fled the formerly Daesh-controlled areas to join the group, some fled there along with their Daesh fighter husbands and some were already living in the area before Daesh took over. 

The women have been in the camps for months, along with many children who are now stateless, amid deteriorating living conditions and rising violence. Human rights organisations warn that the camp is a humanitarian disaster in the making.

Violence on the rise

The camp was established in 1991 during the Gulf War for refugees from Iraq but later shut down. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq the camp was reactivated. Following the defeat of Daesh in urban strongholds, the camp’s occupants dramatically increased as the families of Daesh members started pouring in. More than 70,000 people, 20,000 of them women and 50,000 of them children, from 62 nations are currently living in the camp. 

It’s not clear how many of the women are supporters of Daesh, and those who don’t support Daesh cannot openly speak or act against the group’s actions. Almost seven months on, female Daesh supporters have established their domination over the camp, punishing anyone who they perceive as not true believers.

Even though al Hol is a camp for displaced people, it doubles as a detention centre. Fenced in, the residents have no way to escape the violence inside the camp.

The camp’s guards and aid workers have also been attacked by some of the residents in the past.

A recent report said a Daesh supporter died and several others were injured as a result of clash when Daesh supporters tried to whip a woman for an unknown reason. Another report said a 14-year-old Azerbeijani girl was brutally killed a month ago. 

Fears of growing radicalisation

Daesh supporters have reportedly been seeking to regroup within the camp, spreading their ideology. 

The majority of the camp consists of children under 12, whose fathers are kept in a separate camp or were killed in combat, and who have no access to formal education. With their mothers or caretakers either forced to keep silent about Daesh, or who are supporters of the terror group themselves, these children are being raised in an environment entirely disconnected from the outside world.

There is no visible effort to set up a rehabilitation programme for any of the people in the camp, whether they are Daesh supporters or those who have suffered under them.

Dangerous living conditions

The women and children in the camp have limited access to medical care despite basic healthcare access. Women often give birth in unsanitary conditions, mostly in their tents, and children’s deaths are widespread. Healthcare is particularly limited in a fenced off section of the camp where mostly Iraqis and Syrians are kept. 

The number of children under five who have died from preventable diseases, malnutrition, dehydration and pneumonia has doubled since March. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) says that the 339 children deaths made up more than 80 percent of the fatalities in the camp between December and September. 

The lack of food, water, shelter, and sanitation are also some of the growing problems as the camp has become a breeding ground for infectious diseases. 

The camp’s residents live in overcrowded tents, miserably cold conditions in winter and incredibly hot in the Syrian desert’s scorching summer heat.

Few repatriations

There are thousands of Europeans among the camp’s residents but only a few countries have repatriated their citizens.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, the YPG-majority group that took over the camp’s management after it captured the area from Daesh, insist that the residents’ home countries take them back. But some countries, including the UK, have denied responsibility for their citizens and have chosen to abandon them.

Many Western women and children, desperate to escape the camp, paid smuggling fees to the PKK, the Syrian branch of YPG when it captured the territory from Daesh but ended up in the notorious al Hol camp with no way out.

In one of the most known cases, the UK revoked British-born Shamima Begum’s citizenship while other countries including Sweden and Norway are debating whether they should strip citizenships or take them to the court in their countries.

The unwillingness of many countries to repatriate their citizens also creates a risk of a “generation of stateless children,” according to the IRC.