Syria: UN experts profoundly concerned for missing and injured children after January attack on ISIL prison

Geneva, 1 April, 2022.- UN human rights* experts today expressed profound concerns for the physical, mental, educational and overall medical welfare of children arbitrarily held in detention centres in northeast Syria, as well as those children who appear to be missing and unaccounted for.

The independent experts called on the de facto authorities to allow all humanitarian actors to have full and unimpeded access to the children.

In January 2022, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, raised concerns over a deadly jailbreak led by ISIL in Al-Hasakeh region in the northeast of the country. Boys as young as 10 or 12 have been arbitrarily detained at the jail in conditions that undermined their health, welfare and long-term best interests as children, as victims of terrorism and as vulnerable young persons, UN experts said.

“We are extremely concerned that since the January 2022 attack, the fate and whereabouts of at least 100 of those boys remain unaccounted for which raises serious concerns relating to their right to life,” the experts said. “Some of these cases might amount to enforced disappearance, and where children are concerned, States – and de facto authorities – must undertake special measures of protection that reflect their vulnerability.

“The authorities in charge of the prison, who have been calling for the immediate repatriation of all foreign nationals, have been given an almost impossible humanitarian, human rights and security responsibility by third country states. Under international law, it is nonetheless incumbent on them to carry out a prompt, transparent, impartial and independent investigation relating to the circumstances in which these boys have disappeared, and to make the results public.

”Harm to these children must be identified, and those responsible must be held accountable to prevent impunity.

“States of nationality have clear obligations to protect these vulnerable children caught up in the conflict and violence, and cannot eschew these obligations by simply ignoring the fate if their citizens,” the experts added.

The UN experts also expressed their unease at the lack of clear information relating to the number of minors actually held in the prisons prior to the attack, and that this could be used to refuse to acknowledge the current fate and whereabouts of those following the ISIL attacks.

“The conditions of detention in the prison have worsened,” they said. “There are severe cases of malnutrition. Many of the boys detained in the prisons were seriously injured during the jailbreak and their wounds are not receiving critical medical treatment.”

The conditions of detention do not appear to comply with Standard Minimum Rules for the treatment of prisoners, including for housing and access to water and articles necessary for health and cleanliness as well as drinking water. These boys are held in overcrowded collective cells of 20 to 25 people in inhumane conditions, with limited access to safe drinking water. Concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in these conditions remain high.

The UN experts said they were appalled that contact between the boys and their family members, which was already sporadic prior to the attack, had stopped.

“These boys have already been victimised on so many grounds,” the human rights experts said. “Many of them were brought to Syria by their families, while others were born there, to families allegedly associated with ISIL. They are hurt and injured through no fault of their own, and are being abandoned to a grim and unrelenting experience of violence.

“These children, mostly young boys, are victims of terrorism and of very serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law. They are considered guilty by association, discriminated against and punished. No attention is paid to their best interest. They deserve protection and care not violence and abandonment by the international community.”

The UN experts called on the authorities to immediately reinstate full access to all humanitarian actors, including the UN, to all the individuals in the prisons. They said humanitarian access was a necessary initial step to ascertain the wellbeing, fate and whereabouts of the detained boys, as well as ensure their access to adequate health care.

“All States, all actors engaged in northeast Syria must ensure the protection of children and prevent further harm occurring to them,” the experts said. “Despite the recent attack on the prison, humanitarian and human rights assistance provided to people arbitrarily detained can under no circumstances be understood or construed as amounting to material support to terrorism under any counter-terrorism legislation or donor agreement.”

They called for the immediate repatriation of the children. “For those who cannot be repatriated in accordance with international law, an international solution to their plight must be found,” the experts said. “It is clear that the current situation cannot be reconciled with any position that States are effectively addressing international threats to peace and security, including countering terrorism and violent extremism.”

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