The Biden administration recently repatriated 12 people – 11 American citizens and the younger brother of one of them – who had been detained in horrific conditions in northeast Syria for at least five years. But tens of thousands of men, women, and children remain imprisoned, most without charge or trial, in a vast system of at least 27 detention facilities and two massive detention camps, for perceived affiliation with the Islamic State (IS) armed group. The majority have been there since the final battles with the armed group in 2019. Of the more than 56,000 people in this system of detention, some 30,000 are children. The majority of those are under 12.

Many of the individuals detained are facing systematic torture and grossly inhumane conditions, as we documented in a report recently issued by our organization, Amnesty International. The United States provides financial and operational support to many aspects of this detention system, including direct transfers of people to locations where they have faced torture or other ill-treatment by the northeast Syrian region’s authorities, which are allies of the United States and since the Syrian war have operated autonomously from the central government in Damascus. The United States, thus, has a legal and moral responsibility to end these transfers, address the abuse, and identify just solutions to this human rights crisis.

Mass Deaths, Torture and Other Ill-Treatment 

The United States and 85 other States came together in September 2014 to form a global coalition to respond to a growing threat posed by IS. This has included a military mission led by the United States (which we refer to as the U.S.-led coalition), which supported the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a non-state armed group, in trying to defeat IS territorially.

As tens of thousands of people fled IS-held territory or surrendered to the SDF, most men and older boys were taken to detention facilities — some longstanding prisons, some more makeshift. Women and younger children were mostly taken to two “humanitarian” camps, known as Al-Hol and Roj, which were transformed into detention camps, as they were barred from leaving on their own accord. Syrian men, women, and children (primarily older boys) continue to be arrested even now in ongoing operations by the SDF and affiliated security forces, with the support of the U.S.-led coalition, and transferred into this detention system.

Our two-year investigation — in which we conducted more than 300 interviews and gained unprecedented access to many of the detention sites — identified mass deaths of detainees in two detention facilities, each of which have held thousands of detainees. In one of these, Sini detention facility, we documented physical abuse and denial of food, water, healthcare, and even fresh air, leading to the deaths of hundreds of people. The abuse, meted out for punishment, included beatings, whipping with electrical cables, suspension from the wrists in stress positions, sexual violence, and electric shocks. One man told us the guards would take them out of their cell for torture every 15 days or so, strip them naked and then rape them with a broomstick. Another said that 17 people in his cell died in one day when the authorities turned off the exhaust fan in 2020. According to three detainees, the corpses of those who died in Sini were deposited in a mass grave referred to as a “ditch.”

In a second detention facility, Panorama (also referred to as “Al-Sina’a”), detainees have been denied access to adequate food and medical care, leading to illnesses and diseases, including a severe outbreak of tuberculosis that has been ongoing for years. In August 2023, representatives of the SDF who run the facility told us that an extremely high percentage of men and boys were infected, that they were not treating active cases or isolating sick detainees, and that one or two men or boys were dying from tuberculosis each week. In the written response by the autonomous authorities (made up of the SDF, affiliated forces, and their civilian branch) to our findings prior to publication, they said that almost 600 detainees had died at the facility. We also documented dozens of cases of torture of men, women, and children across numerous such detention facilities as punishment or to secure confessions for the local courts.

People detained in the two camps – Al-Hol and Roj – live in grossly inhumane conditions and at great risk of violence. People in the camps who are affiliated with IS have attacked others, particularly those who are not affiliated with or have dissociated from the armed group – women, for example, have been targeted for perceived “moral” infractions, such as leaving their faces uncovered. Humanitarian workers also told us about high levels of sexual exploitation in Al-Hol camp, connected to the provision of goods and services. Efforts to protect women at risk have been woefully inadequate. In our interviews with humanitarian workers, they consistently reported that a so-called safe area established in 2021 to protect people threatened by IS itself became a high-risk area until at least mid- 2023 for sexual exploitation and enforced prostitution involving camp security forces.

Women and their children are also being unlawfully and forcibly separated from each other. Foreign national boys are removed from the camps and placed in more tightly controlled detention facilities as they approach adolescence under a policy that does not appear to be based on an individual assessment of the boys’ best interests, but rather a desire by the autonomous authorities to guard against an increasing and aging camp population they believe could pose a future threat. Former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights Fionnuala Ní Aoláin and Amnesty International have identified the resulting pain and anguish as a form of torture or other ill-treatment. More broadly, the combination of lack of adequate food, sanitation, and protection in the detention camps amounts to its own form of torture or other ill-treatment.

A System That Serves No One, Including Victims 

The situation is inhumane and unsustainable. Children are growing up behind barbed wire – those we spoke with told us how little they knew about the outside world and described losing hope for their future. Women described the devastation of not being able to tell their children if their imprisonment would ever end. Despite trials for some Syrians, and slow repatriations, there is no plan but indefinite detention for many of the people held in the camps and facilities.

This system is also failing the victims of the Islamic State, who under international human rights and international humanitarian law, have a right to truth, justice, and reparations. Not a single individual detained for IS affiliation in northeast Syria has been prosecuted for crimes under international law. While almost 10,000 people – almost all of them Syrians – have been charged with crimes connected with IS under the region’s counterterrorism law, that includes vague secondary offenses such as support for or membership in the group that are distant from any principal “terrorist” offense.

Many cases relied heavily on torture-induced confessions. The trials have primarily been conducted behind closed doors, and victims have not been informed or able to participate. Many serious crimes, such as crimes of sexual enslavement or other sexual violence crimes, have not been investigated at all. In addition, many of the people detained for perceived IS affiliation were actually victims of IS’s widespread atrocity crimes and trafficking in persons while they were in IS-held territory, as there was no effort to screen people leaving IS territory before directing everyone into the detention system, or in the years since.

US-Led Coalition Involvement 

The United States has provided and continues to provide a high level of support to this system of detention. People we interviewed described how the U.S.-led coalition, particularly U.S. forces, were involved in sorting, processing, and funneling them into the detention camps and facilities, including at checkpoints as they exited IS-held territory. The United States also funds and regularly visits the detention facilities, including to collect biodata and to interrogate detainees.

When we visited one detention facility called Ghweran, four U.S. soldiers were stationed outside, near a Humvee with a U.S. flag on its hood. Fourteen current and former detainees interviewed by Amnesty International said that foreign national forces from the U.S.-led coalition — many identifying U.S. forces based on accents or flags on their uniforms or vehicles — had visited their detention facility since 2018. In Sini, one man told us that U.S. forces had visited the yard where he and others had been tortured, and that “they were able to see the blood on the wall.” A woman who was held in a second location described having seen personnel from the U.S.-led coalition in the detention facility where she described being subjected to frequent torture: “We would scream, call, and hit the window, but no one cared. We would ask for their [coalition members’] help, and they would not do anything.” A boy held in a third facility told us that he told a representative of the U.S.-led coalition about the torture or other ill-treatment he had faced in detention, including prolonged denial of food and water, suffocation with water and beating with cables.

The U.S.-led coalition forces have also detained and interrogated people, then transferred them to the autonomous authorities, who subsequently tortured some of them. We identified two such cases, including a boy who told us of being subjected to prolonged physical abuse almost immediately after coalition forces handed him over to the SDF.

Repatriations: An Inadequate Response

According to the United States, in their written response to our findings, the only long-term solution to indefinite detention of tens of thousands of people is repatriation or return of displaced persons to their countries or areas of origin. But this is inadequate. Even if other States were willing to repatriate their nationals, which many are not, a sizeable proportion of the people in the detention system cannot be repatriated because they are either from other countries or other parts of Syria where it also would not be safe for them to return.

Indeed, some of the repatriations supported by the United States are leading to more torture or other ill-treatment. According to multiple sources, the U.S.-led coalition has played a key role in facilitating the transfers of Iraqi men from detention facilities in northeast Syria to Iraq, and in six of seven cases we documented, the transferred men were tortured in Iraq to confess to being affiliated with IS. The seventh confessed due to the threat of torture. Four of these men were sentenced to death (not yet carried out) as a result of these confessions, and the rest are serving lengthy prison sentences in life-threatening conditions.

Human rights organizations have long documented these patterns of violations in Iraq for people with perceived affiliation to IS. Transfers of these detainees to the Iraqi authorities, just like those handed over to the SDF despite substantial reason to believe they would face torture or other ill-treatment, likely violates the U.S. obligation to respect the international law principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits returning people to places where they would likely face torture and other serious violations.

A more comprehensive strategy is desperately needed to address the ongoing violations in northeast Syria, one that doesn’t rely exclusively on repatriation and prosecution by their countries of origin. This should be led by the U.N. Secretary-General, who should convene key stakeholders to identify venues where perpetrators can be brought to justice in fair trials, and include a solution for those who cannot be tried fairly in existing courts due to, for example, fair trial concerns. Likewise, the U.N., in coordination with the autonomous   authorities and the U.S.-led coalition, should lead a screening of everyone detained in the detention camps and facilities, to identify those who should be released without delay, with a special focus on at-risk groups including children, older people, people who are gravely ill, people who may have been trafficked, and people at imminent risk of death or serious harm.

Most immediately, there is an urgent need for action to address the torture and other ill-treatment. The United States must meet its legal and moral obligations, including under Common Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions, to use its means and influence to bring its ally, the autonomous authorities, into compliance with international law. Amnesty International has called on the United States to immediately discontinue joint operations with the SDF and affiliated security forces that lead to the arrest and detention of people with perceived IS affiliation, until the autonomous authorities have addressed the torture and other serious human rights violations documented in Amnesty International’s report. Clear and transparent criteria are required to assess progress.  As part of this, the United States must ensure that human rights monitors, humanitarians, lawyers, and journalists are able to access the camps and detention facilities to raise and report on mistreatment, as the access given to Amnesty International has not been provided to others.

This is too big a crisis to leave with a non-state actor with limited resources, capacity, and diplomatic standing to negotiate the international solution needed, and with a proven track record of torturing those in detention. This is a human rights emergency. The United States, its coalition partners, and the U.N. cannot afford to keep looking the other way.

IMAGE: People stand near tents at the Sahlat al-Banat makeshift camp for internally displaced people set-up next to a waste dump on the outskirts of the northern Syrian city of Raqa, on July 10, 2023. Thousands of people displaced by 12 years of war are stuck in squalid, unofficial camps in Syria’s Kurdish-held northeast, languishing in extreme poverty and largely cut off from international assistance. (Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)