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US-Backed Camps in Northeast Syria Are Holding 29,000 Children in Detention

Amnesty International reports that detainees are “being arbitrarily and indefinitely detained and forcibly disappeared.”

A member of the Kurdish security forces stands guard as women and children fill water containers at the Al-Hol camp in Syria's northeastern Al-Hasakah Governorate, on October 10, 2023.

On May 7, the United States repatriated 11 U.S. citizens, including five children, and one foreign-born minor. They had been detained in northeast Syria, where around 56,000 Syrian and foreign prisoners from the U.S.-led coalition’s decade-long war with the Islamic State remain held by U.S.-backed armed groups, including the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

This was the “largest single repatriation of U.S. citizens from northeast Syria to date,” according to the U.S. State Department, bringing the total number of U.S. citizens repatriated to 51. A reported 25 remain. One of the May 7 repatriated U.S. citizens was arrested upon her arrival at New York’s JFK airport and detained “under allegations that she had been trained in the use of firearms by militants in Syria.”

In addition, the U.S. also “facilitated the repatriation of six Canadian citizens, four Dutch citizens, and one Finnish citizen, among them eight children” on May 7. Ten of the U.S. citizens are reported to be from the same family and include five minors. The Canadian citizens are reported to be six minor siblings whose mother remains in Syria.

With recent efforts to reduce the population of large camps housing women and child detainees, the U.S. repatriations follow similar moves by other countries. This includes the release of hundreds of Syrian women and children to their hometowns in other parts of the country, and that of around 700 Iraqi women and children. These two nationalities make up the majority of all detainees. Russia also repatriated 32 minors. According to the United Nations, the vast majority, or “77 per cent of those repatriated are women and children” from Northeast Syria, raising concerns for adult male detainees left in limbo.

The latest round of repatriations follows an April 2024 Amnesty International report that found that the detainees, most of whom are children, are “being arbitrarily and indefinitely detained and forcibly disappeared,” in inhumane conditions where they have been “subjected to torture or other ill-treatment, including severe beating, stress positions, electric shocks and gender-based violence.” In one facility, Sini, this has “led to the death of hundreds of people.”

Amnesty also noted an outbreak of untreated tuberculosis at Panorama, another detention facility for boys and men, causing, on average, the death of one to two detainees per week in 2023. The tuberculosis outbreak was also noted in a July 2023 report stemming from a technical visit by Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, then-United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. Ní Aoláin expressed profound concern over the “mass indefinite arbitrary detention of children” in various facilities. According to Amnesty, the “29,000 children in the camps represent the highest concentration of children arbitrarily deprived of their liberty anywhere in the world.”

Ní Aoláin’s report found that “the conditions of confinement in both [the Sini and Panorama] camps constitute arbitrary and indefinite mass detention without legal or judicial process.” Moreover, Amnesty’s report found that the U.S.-backed “autonomous authorities have committed serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, some of which amount to war crimes.” Amnesty also found that the U.S. and its coalition allies “have played a critical role” in the whole detention system in northeast Syria, including hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to the SDF over the past decade and overseeing detention conditions and agreements with states on the transfer and repatriation of detainees.

Both reports call for detainees’ arbitrary detention and inhumane conditions to be urgently addressed and brought into line with international law. They both highlight the ongoing lack of due process and accountability and continuing injustice of arbitrary detention processes under the war on terror. The Amnesty report notes that detainees include victims and survivors of the Islamic State’s crimes, including members of Iraq’s Yezidi community and boys trafficked as child soldiers. While many alleged Islamic State members are among those detained, none have been charged with any of the serious war crimes imputed to the Islamic State.

Endless Mass Arbitrary Detention

In regards to foreign women detainees, Ní Aoláin stated that “We cannot hold 10,000 people in a box where no one sees what happens to them and their children, it is fundamentally unacceptable by any measure of a civilised and humane treatment of persons in condition of detention.” Yet, a decade on since this conflict started, there appears to be no actual purpose behind the mass arbitrary detention of tens of thousands of men, women and children; no official has even bothered to assess the security risk detainees may pose.

Aside from weakening the rule of law globally, such arbitrary detention simply fuels the never-ending bloodlust of the U.S. military-industrial complex and creates a legal vacuum that perpetuates further human rights violations and ever more victims.

This situation is not without precedent in this millennium, given that the U.S. and its allies arbitrarily detained countless men, women and children during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and through the Central Intelligence Agency’s extraordinary rendition program.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that “The only durable solution to the humanitarian and security crisis in the displaced persons camps and detention facilities in northeast Syria is for countries to repatriate, rehabilitate, reintegrate, and where appropriate, ensure accountability for wrongdoing.” However, Blinken’s statement overlooks the closer-to-home situation at Guantánamo Bay, another U.S. arbitrary detention facility, where 30 prisoners remain after 22 years. Most Guantánamo prisoners have been cleared for release and have never been charged or tried. Following the transfer of three prisoners in early 2023, further action stalled, with NBC reporting that the subsequent planned transfer of 11 Yemeni prisoners was put on hold following the events of October 7, 2023, in Israel and the Occupied Territories, with no new date or schedule to resume these transfers. Trials by military commission are also arbitrary and fall far below international standards, particularly the prohibition on the use of torture.

Legal Black Holes

Arbitrary detention in northeast Syria, much less Guantánamo, is unlikely to figure into this year’s U.S. presidential election cycle. It hasn’t been an election issue since 2008, and it was certainly ignored in 2020. But brushing the lives of thousands of individuals under the carpet does not make them disappear, nor does the quest for justice when it is denied, as in the cases of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The May 2024 mistrial ruling in a case heard 20 years after U.S. prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq came to light is illustrative. The detention at Abu Ghraib is often cited as laying the foundations for the birth of the Islamic State. As law professor Andrew Keane Woods puts it, “The US seem[s] to have a knack for creating, incubating, and training its future enemies.” But many of Abu Ghraib’s victims are not keen on war — they prefer justice. The three victims bringing the case, having had a verdict denied to them in their case against military contractor CACI, are not giving up, and are looking to secure a retrial.

But the U.S. itself has shown it has no interest in justice. In 2020, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on the International Criminal Court staff to thwart an ongoing investigation into war crimes by U.S. personnel in Afghanistan. To this day, no charges have been brought in by this investigation even though the sanctions have since been removed.

As instability spreads across the world, it remains important to recognize the interrelationship between older war-on-terror human rights violations and ongoing crimes against humanity in Gaza and elsewhere, and similar patterns of administrative arbitrary detention.

Additionally, arbitrary indefinite detention under the guise of “war on terror” has increased alongside other forms of precarious existence for large groups of people forced to the edges of society and legality, such as administrative forms of detention including immigration detention, refugee detention and tent cities for unhoused people in regions across the world.

Seeking justice may not be as profitable as militarization and surveillance, but it remains a human right. States continue to shirk their obligations, so it’s largely up to ordinary people to stand up for justice and in solidarity with one another, raising awareness and challenging the official narratives that push for war and violence and not justice.

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