Syria Weekly: Winter is coming to Al-Hol camp and children will be its victims
Security at Al-Hol is in the hands of local authorities and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), but the situation at the camp - home to around 70,000 residents, almost all women and children - is becoming increasingly precarious.
Most of the residents were caught up in the maelstrom surrounding IS' final stand in Syria, when militants retreated village-by-village down the Euphrates River until their eventual collapse at Baghouz earlier this year, at the hands of the US-backed SDF.
Some women held at Al-Hol are hardened and unrepentant supporters of IS, often the foreign wives of militants who have used intimidation and violence to enforce their puritantical beliefs on the other residents.
IS sympathisers clashed with guards this week when a number of foreign women sought to enact a violent ruling issued by a secret Sharia court, with at least one resident killed, leading to fears that security could eventually collapse in parts of the under-staffed camp.
Cold and hunger
Amid this atmosphere of violence and threats - and despite the best efforts of camp authorities - conditions at Al-Hol are said to be grim. Residents are now bracing for a bitter winter, with just tents and blankets to protect them from the elements.
Diseases and hypothermia at Al-Hol camp killed hundreds of children last winter, and aid groups and journalists have told The New Arab they expect similar conditions this year.
"Conditions in the camp are very poor," Elizabeth Tsurkov, Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, told The New Arab, who spent two days at Al-Hol this summer.
"The camp was expanded very quickly and haphazardly after the fall of Baghouz. Basic services were insufficient and the biggest concern for residents is a lack of clean water that is causing people, particularly children, to get sick again-and-again."
Al-Hol was originally opened for Iraqi refugees of the Gulf War in the 1990s, closing and reopening over the years as war and displacement ravaged the region.
It became active again during the Syrian war and was expanded when thousands of civilians fled IS' emergence in the east and the subsequent US-led military campaign to crush it.
When the last remnants of IS in northwestern Syria were finally defeated in February, US intelligence estimated that a few thousand civilians were trapped in Baghouz.
From the rubble of the Euphrates village and its tent city annex after fierce fighting between the SDF and IS, around 60,000 women and children emerged.
|The more radical elements of the camp are terrorising the rest of the population, and enforcing their version of Sharia.
- Elizabeth Tsurkov, Foreign Policy Institute
SDF authorities and NGOs made hasty arrangements for their temporary at housing at Al-Hol, alongside other refugees who had lived in the camp for years and due to their experiences are antithetical of the group.
Six months later and the foreign wives and children remain stuck in limbo with no plans for their repatriation to their home countries. This is in part due to the reluctance of some countries to take back their citizens, while the SDF authorities have no agreement with the Baghdad government on the repatriation of Iraqi families.
The women and even their families could face arrest if returned to Syrian regime territories, which can be tantamount to a death sentence.
If left to fester, analysts say the environment of radicalism and intimidation could have long-term implications for all the refugees in Al-Hol, particularly those who are opposed or unconnected to IS.
Tsurkov said the SDF guards are too few in number to properly police the camp and have become intimidated by the IS hardliners.
Guards often cover their faces due to the dangers they face, while violence - particularly at the foreign annex - is combining to make for an increasingly dangerous and lawless environment in Al-Hol.
"The more radical elements of the camp are terrorising the rest of the population, and enforcing their version of Sharia and what Muslims are allowed to do, in terms of smoking, music and dress, cooperation with camp authorities," Tsurkov said.
"They are able through intimidation and occasionally violence to get compliance from the rest of the camp."
Tsurkov said there are efforts by authorities to tackle this by housing foreign women - who are more likely to sympathise with IS - in a separate annex, away from Syrian and Iraqi civilians who are more likely to be hostile to the group. This section of the camp is increasingly a no-go area for the guards.
"My sense is what we are seeing are the actions of individuals who take action in small groups, rather than there being a leadership structure, but it is hard to detect," warned Tsurkov.
Head of the SDF, Gen. Mazloum Kobane, told The Washington Post this week, that due to a lack of resources for his guards and the "regrouping and reorganising" in the camp.
Further security issues - as witnessed this week - will become something guards will have to contend with again unless more help is given by the international community.
Tsurkov agrees with Kobane's assessment of the security situation at Al-Hol and believes that the small number of guards manning the camp could lead to more violent incidents.
"The camp is huge, and to prevent such phenomena of 'Islamic policing' the level of intervention in the daily running of the camp would have to be significant and require thousands of guards to be present in the camp and monitoring interactions between people," she said.
With 94 percent of Al-Hol's residents being women and children, if law-and-order breaks down it will be the most vulnerable who will suffer.
|It does seem that areas housing foreign nationals are considered to be more radicalised and thus an imbalance in access to aid.
- Misty Buswell, International Rescue Committee
In addition to the threat of violence, Tsurkov said that a lack of clean toilets and unsanitary conditions has made residents - and particularly children, who make up 67 percent of the camp's population - particularly vulnerable to outbreaks of potentially fatal diseases.
A horrifying report by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) last month stated that around 339 children in Al-Hol lost their lives between December 2018 and September 2019, due to diseases, hypothermia and other medical conditions.
Misty Buswell, Regional Policy, Advocacy and Communications for the IRC Middle East region said that although there have been some improvements to the humanitarian situation conditions at Al-Hol still remain grim.
"As winter approaches, this is an area that becomes very cold and last winter, pneumonia and hypothermia were the leading causes of death of infants who were arriving to Al-Hol. Camp residents are now living in tents which will make life in the cold winter months very difficult," she told The New Arab.
Buswell said that there are high-levels of tension at Al-Hol due to the grim conditions in the camp and the sense of uncertainty for residents.
"Camp residents are frustrated, there are varying levels of aid getting to people, they have little information about their own status and future options," Buswell said.
She said that many women have been unable to see their adolescent sons and husbands who have been detained by the SDF, although Tsurkov said that some residents are beginning to receive letters from male members of their family.
"This is the top grievance that out teams hear from women in the camp - the lack of information about their sons and husbands… [the women and children residents] live under extreme violence and severely distressed by their experiences prior to the camp," Buswell added.
There have been efforts by local authorities and aid groups over the past few months to improve the situation, by increasing healthcare services, access to clean water and shelter, but challenges remain.
"The restrictions on access to provide healthcare and other aid to foreign women and children in the camp also increases tensions and some of the worst conditions in the camp are seen in areas housing these children and women," Buswell added.
This was highlighted by the case of Shamima Begum, a London schoolgirl who moved to IS territories in Syria and was later found to be a resident in Al-Hol. The UK government has wiped their hands with Begum, stripping her of her British citizenship.
Stranded camp, Begum lost her newborn child to pneumonia while at Al-Hol, her third child to die in Syria. The stateless teenager is now held at another SDF-run camp but like thousands of foreign women and their children, her future remains uncertain.
Buswell said that the international community should immediately step up aid for the families in Al-Hol and particularly psychological support for the residents who have undergone extremely traumatic experiences, both inside and outside the camp.
"It does seem that areas housing foreign nationals are considered to be more radicalised and thus an imbalance in access to aid. But the impact is that the brunt of this is being borne by the children in the camp, who are the most vulnerable - and paying the highest price - for the perceived misdeeds of their parents," Buswell said.
Tsurkov and Buswell said the only way to prevent more children dying and the security situation getting worse at Al-Hol is for countries to accept their responsibilities bring families home, where the safety of children can be ensured and women who have committed crimes with IS can face justice.
"Countries need to repatriate foreign children who are languishing in the camp, and ensure that these children are able to reintegrate into society and have a chance for a future," Buswell said.