The United Nations has warned that as many as 390 children have died in al-Hol Refugee Camp due to lack of aid, with as many as 3,500 other children undocumented and at risk.
Among the camps for displaced people across Syria, few have experienced conditions as bad and volatile as the al-Hol Camp, which is located in Hasakah Province in the northeast of the country.
The camp, which was originally founded to house Iraqi refugees, has grown exponentially in 2019, after it was designated as the site for women and children, including the so-called “ISIS Wives”, from Baghuz during the Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) operations to eliminate the last ISIS-held pocket. The camp, whose population has ballooned up to 70,000, has since experienced conditions that the Red Cross referred to as described as “apocalyptic“.
A recent United Nations report highlights the extent of the conditions in the camp. According to the UN’s Human Rights Committee, the conditions in the camp are “distressing” and worsening daily amidst a lack of sanitation, medication and other vital aid. As a result of these conditions, 390 children have died since January. Meanwhile, many other children, including 3,500 of whom are undocumented, are at risk.
For the Autonomous Administration, which is the political authority operating in north and northeast Syria that is overseeing al-Hol, the camp represents a particularly staggering challenge. Many of the people here are the families of ISIS militants who died – or were otherwise detained – in Baghuz.
The “ISIS wives” in particular, have not only remained hostile to the SDF, but have regularly attacked camp guards and aid workers while also working to indoctrinate their children in the ideology of ISIS. A number of other displaced people have also been attacked by the wives for not adhering to the group’s ideology.
The Autonomous Administration itself remains cash-strapped and has not been able to implement effective measures to provide safety and supplies or otherwise deradicalise them. The fact that many countries have refused to repatriate their own citizens from the al-Hol has put further strain on the SDF’s resources.
Further complicating the issue is the continued presence of innocents in the camp, including Yazidis who were captured and enslaved by ISIS in 2014. Although the camp guards have sought to separate the pre-existing residents from the newcomers, this has not always been successful. The fact that missing Yazidis continue to be found in al-Hol reflects the scale and complexity of the problem.
There is no easy solution to the many problems that al-Hol faces. However, it is evident that the children in the camp are a particularly vulnerable demographic and are running the risk of dying, falling ill or otherwise growing up stateless and under radicalising conditions. With every passing day, these risks they face are growing.