March 05, 2021Counter-Terrorism Repatriation Gender Citizenship Marginalised and vulnerable groups Accountability and Access to Justice
Belgian policy announced yesterday should prompt other returns and rights protections
(London, 5 March 2021) – Belgium’s decision to take back a significant number of Belgian children and women from squalid camps in North-East Syria intended for the families of alleged Islamic State members should prompt other countries to repatriate their citizens instead of dragging their feet, as many are doing, Rights and Security International (RSI) said today.
‘This is a promising step in the right direction, although it is imperative that all women and children be repatriated from these camps, where conditions are so bad that they amount to torture or inhumane treatment,’ said Alison Huyghe, Research and Advocacy Officer at RSI. ‘Leaving some women or older children behind is not a viable option—everyone in these camps has human rights and is experiencing serious harms.’
Belgium’s Prime Minister, Alexander De Croo, announced yesterday that his government will facilitate the return of all Belgian children under the age of 12 from the squalid camps in which they are currently living in North-East Syria. For the first time, Belgian women will also be considered for return on the basis of an individualised assessment.
There are estimated to be fewer than 60 Belgian nationals remaining in Roj and al Hol camps in North-East Syria. Around 38 are Belgian children under the age of 12.
Under international law, governments are obligated to address the situations of all children under 18—not 12—with a view to protecting the children’s best interests. RSI is encouraging Belgium to bring its repatriation plan into line with this international norm. However, the organisation’s research suggests that this operation, if carried out, would still be the most comprehensive of any EU government’s repatriation efforts to date.
UN experts have stated that conditions in the camps in North-East Syria may amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. RSI, along with other human rights organisations have warned that returning some children without their mothers could be inconsistent with the children’s best interests - a fact supported by Belgian courts. Women without children also have fundamental rights that are being violated in the camps: as RSI documented in the 2020 report Europe’s Guantanamo, camp residents face threats of violence and exploitation as well as unsafe drinking water and inadequate medical care, among other human rights problems.
Belgium’s move to repatriate its nationals follows recent reports of rapidly deteriorating conditions in the region. Médecin Sans Frontiers announced this week that it is temporarily suspending activities in some parts of al Hol camp after one of its employees was allegedly killed. According to the organisation, the incident was one of at least 30 alleged killings in the camp since January. Last week, following a deadly fire in al Hol, UNICEF called for the repatriation of all children from the camp.
‘Governments must urgently facilitate the return of their nationals who are still living in al Hol and Roj camps, and provide them with the care and support they need,’ Huyghe concluded. ‘Such a move is not only logistically possible, but also the only viable solution from a human rights perspective.’
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