The al-Hol and Roj camps in northeastern Syria hold tens of thousands of remaining family members of fighters and others who came to join ISIS, including thousands from other countries. The camps also are the locus of an appalling and arbitrary mass detention of children that is now in its fifth year. Not only should the home countries of these children’s families repatriate them urgently, but conditions in the camps and other detention facilities for those awaiting return must be improved. Additionally, city-level support mechanisms in home countries need to be significantly enhanced to address the trauma these youths and the others have suffered because of the international community’s neglect.

Figures vary on the total numbers being held in the two camps and other detention facilities, but Human Rights Watch in January put the figure at about 65,000, including 42,000 foreign nationals. Al-Hol and Roj hold about 37,000 foreign nationals, including 27,000 from Iraq and 10,000 from about 60 other countries. More than 60 percent of camp detainees are children, and eight in 10 of those are under 12. Many lost their fathers or mothers, and many are orphans.

The United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, in July gained limited access to the camps. In a report, she described a “policy of systematic separation” of boys, primarily third-country nationals, from their mothers when they reached adolescence, causing “profound and intentional psychological harm to mothers and children.”

“Every single boy child I met was clearly traumatized by the separation from their mothers, often reported as violent,” said Ní Aoláin (who is an executive editor at Just Security) in a statement.  “This is a clear violation of international human rights law and incompatible with the rights of the child.” Human rights and humanitarian organizations around the world have long concurred. She also found young boys being held in prison with men, also a major violation.

If we know one thing about trauma, it is that children with more intense and prolonged exposure will have far worse mental health and behavioral consequences. Accordingly, the longer children remain in al-Hol and Roj, and the more they are subject to forced separation from their parents and detention, not to mention other traumas, the more damaged many will be, and the more difficult it will be to help them develop and find a place in society.

An Emblematic Case

In Central Asia, where several countries have taken responsibility for their citizens in the camps and repatriated them, one case is illustrative. A practitioner told one of us (Stevan Weine) about a boy who was held in detention in northeast Syria and routinely punished by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group of mostly Kurdish militias aligned with the United States against ISIS who are responsible for security in the camps. Among the abuses, the SDF allegedly would lock the boy in the bathroom for hours. Even after being returned to his country, he still has severe problems controlling his aggression, refuses to attend school, and when he feels upset locks himself in the bathroom and refuses to leave.

The case echoes patterns witnessed by Ní Aoláin during her visit to the camps, including arbitrary detention of boys, separation from their families, and extensive signs of trauma. Moreover, these camps have rampant cases of untreated tuberculosis, malnutrition, and lack of access to health care.

The U.N. continues to urge countries to repatriate their citizens and their children born in Syria and Iraq. A few countries have already brought back their people from al-Hol and Roj – the camps reportedly once had a peak population of 72,000. Those include Canada, Germany, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, The Netherlands, Kyrgyzstan, and Kosovo. But other countries have refused to act despite multiple pleas for years to do so, and some have chosen to repatriate some but not all of their citizens.

The challenges were the topic of discussions in September at meetings on the sidelines of this year’s opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, including one organized by the Strong Cities Network (where one of us, Eric Rosand, is executive director). Local government officials from countries that have begun to take back their children and experts explained how they are working to ensure that rehabilitation and reintegration adheres to international best practices. But the discussion also surfaced many instances in which receiving countries are not accepting their repatriation responsibilities, and that the obstacles are both “political” and “technical.”

The “political” obstacles related to the question of whether leaders have the will to return their citizens, who are too often regarded as potential “terrorists” based on no risk assessment or legal proceedings. The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, together with Ní Aoláin, urged in March that they be regarded as victims of terrorism.

The “technical” challenges involve the professional and institutional capacities to provide returnees with the support, services, and care they need over the long-term to recapture some semblance of normal life in their communities and, ideally, to thrive. This is particularly true for low- and middle-income countries. Among the risks is that receiving countries and communities will opt to take the easy way out by institutionalizing their returnees in restrictive settings that will only exacerbate the problem further, in desperate attempts to mitigate potential dangers – real or imagined — to personal, family, or public safety.

Current Assistance – and Much Greater Need

Over the past several years, we have led and joined teams working to support the rehabilitation and reintegration of women and children returnees in several countries. The good news is that some of their needs are beginning to be addressed through programs such as a U.S. State Department-funded initiative to train local professionals in Kazakhstan (co-led by author Weine) and in the Maldives. Another initiative is the Global Framework for United Nations Support on Syria / Iraq Third Country National Returnees, created two years ago to provide funding, training, and other assistance via a range of U.N. bodies such as the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, the U.N. Development Program, and the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism. Other projects such as the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund provide assistance to community-based NGOs to work with returnees, family members, and surrounding communities.

This model, however, is unlikely to be adequate, especially for the more traumatized group of children who have endured the extreme hardships of al-Hol and Roj. The work of helping these children re-enter society successfully will require child mental-health- and developmental specialists and specialized services, including in trauma-informed care, that many countries lack. And the international community has yet to demonstrate a willingness to provide the long-term support required. Inevitably, new emergencies divert political attention and funding away from chronic but vital issues such as the ongoing humanitarian crisis in al-Hol and Roj.

Donor governments and organizations will have to do more than train in best practices and offer other ad hoc support. Many professionals charged with caring for these children need more intensive training, supervision, and mentoring on child mental health. And local governments will need assistance in providing less-restrictive, longer-term services and support in the community. That means building a local infrastructure to include social, health, education, cultural, religious, and other components of local communities that these children will rely on for years to come.

The current narrative involves telling countries that they have a moral responsibility to take back their citizens from these horrific camps. But it doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge the long-term nature of the recovery and reintegration process. In addition to pressuring countries to get real about rescuing these children, the international community must do everything possible to end the horrific conditions in the camps now, and to provide much higher levels of assistance with the expertise and resources those countries will need to restore these children to a peaceful and decent life.

IMAGE: A picture shows the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp, which holds relatives of suspected Islamic State (IS) group fighters in the northeastern Hasakeh governorate, during a security operation by the Kurdish Asayish security forces and the special forces of the Syrian Democratic Forces, on August 26, 2022. (Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)