27,000 Iraqis 'still held' in Syria's Al-Hol camp for IS-linked detainees: UNDP
Many of the detainees are children under the age of 12, according to UNDP Iraq’s representative Auke Lootsma, in an exclusive interview with The New Arab’s Arabic-language service, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed.
The Al-Hol camp, located near the Iraqi border in Kurdish-administrated northeastern Syria, holds around 56,000 Syrians, Iraqis and third country nationals with alleged ties to Islamic State (IS) group fighters, which was defeated in 2019.
Rights groups have described conditions at the camp as inhumane.
Iraqis make up the biggest contingent of residents at the camp, which is populated mostly with women and children. Children in the overcrowded camp - which is run by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - are particularly vulnerable to radicalisation and indoctrination as IS remnants still linger.
Lootsma stressed that the UN is carrying out efforts to repatriate those remaining in the camp to their countries as soon as possible.
"We are working to support the reintegration of families who have been displaced, including those returning from Al-Hol camp," he said.
"This includes supporting local peace agreements (tribal reconciliations) to help families return to their communities, provide livelihoods, provide mental health support and housing rehabilitation for all families and individuals [returning] to society".
Only an estimated 600 families have been repatriated to Iraq so far, despite Iraqi authorities implementing a repatriation programme two years ago.
The process was paused as IS militants stormed a prison holding the group’s members in January 2022, prompting heavy fighting with local Kurdish forces, which killed hundreds.
Consequently, Iraq tightened its border security amid fears that jailbreakers could spill over into the country from Syria, which halted the returning of Al-Hol’s Iraqi residents.
Some 200,000 residents from Iraq’s northern city of Sinjar remain internally displaced according to Lootsma, despite the city’s liberation from IS over seven years ago. He said the reason for their non-return could be attributed to "the lack of services in the city", as plans to return them require "substantial efforts". He said "tensions" in the mostly Yazidi city could also be a factor.
Despite the overall delay in repatriation efforts, Lootsma stressed that the UNDP has supported the return of more than 4.9 million Iraqis displaced by the IS conflict so far. He added that efforts to improve infrastructure and everyday services in affected areas are also supported by the UN programme.