The al-Hol Refugee Camp and Grave Humanitarian Challenges

At the end of September, in the section of the al-Hol refugee camp in north-eastern Syria that houses foreigners, Russian women – supporters of the Islamic State – severely beat two Turkistani women, apparently because their victims refused sharia indoctrination.

Stories like these from the foreigners’ annex of the al-Hol camp have become sadly common.

Approximately 10,000 foreigners are thought to be accommodated at al-Hol, many of them picked up from the remnants of the caliphate ISIS claimed it would create.

Most of the inhabitants of the camp are locals; and most of the foreigners in al-Hol are children. But among the foreign women are true believers in the Islamic State, who profess to its leader continued loyalty and seek to impose its values, by force if necessary, upon the unwilling.

Al-Hol presents a grave humanitarian challenge. Thousands live there in deteriorating conditions, with little local or international relief in sight. The children present, even the children of ISIS fighters and ‘ISIS women’, do not belong in such a place.

Because of the actions of the ‘ISIS women’, the camp is referred to in government and think-tank analyses as a location of real ISIS support, from which a resurgent terror group may draw members and resources.

In Iraq, during the occupation, prisons served as a significant resource for the insurgents. At Camp Bucca and other locations, the future leaders of the Islamic State were first housed together and then often released to form the leadership cadre that established ISIS in Syria to form its multinational caliphate.

Domestic fear of repatriating ISIS supporters prevents them from being split up and processed at home. But keeping them together in Syria, in a situation where they can continue to demonstrate and enforce their ideology, is no resolution.

Craig Whiteside, a counter-terrorism researcher, said ‘The “Bucca” problem is a serious one and a reflection of the difficulties of this transnational problem where individual country laws and politics prevent any shared solution.

‘The politics of holding detainees with little battlefield evidence, and the almost certainty of abuse, neglect, prison breakouts, corruption that goes with these activities almost repel states from getting anywhere near these locations’, he added. ‘So instead of trying, countries choose neglect over half-hearted measures that have too much political risk.’

Whiteside said that not only have ISIS’s and its predecessor operations broken supporters out of prison, notably in the escape of up to 500 supporters from Abu Ghraib in 2013, many were released through amnesties and concessions to the problems encountered by local bureaucracies in holding so many difficult prisoners.

‘Unless Iraq follows through with its relatively draconian sentencing polices (note, they failed to do so in 2007-2011 and many on “death row” were in Abu Ghraib when the breakout happened in 2013), it’s hard not to see where this goes,’ Whiteside said.

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said that while ‘ISIS undoubtedly wishes to be able to conduct prison breaks, as long as the international Coalition maintains its protection over north-eastern Syria … I do not believe that ISIS will become powerful enough or have the opportunity to break out any of its members’.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), whose fighters are responsible for the camp, periodically attempts to raise alarm in foreign capitals about the burdens it bears. It suggests that escapes, or prison breaks, or even the trading or releasing of prisoners on its watch, could become likely without new international help.

‘The SDF, forced to deal with this population largely by itself due to irresponsible policies of the countries of origin of the foreign families, naturally has an interest in presenting the threat as serious and imminent’, Tsurkov said.

But ‘even if ISIS were to gain the ability to carry out attacks to break out its detained members and supporters, I believe [ISIS] would prioritize prisons with male combatants and not camps full of with women malnourished and pneumonia-ridden children for whom they would have to provide services once “freed”’, she noted.

The presence of the ‘ISIS women’ in al-Hol makes administering the camp more difficult, and serves as a perverse justification for a lack of international action to improve conditions or deal with the foreigners present who are unrepentant and violent.

As grave as this direct threat seems, Tsurkov argued, ‘more attention should be paid to the disastrous humanitarian situation in the camp and the fact that most residents are children’.

Ryan O’Farrell, an independent analyst, said that the suffering of those in al-Hol had become a minor cause celebre among ISIS supporters. More directly, ‘the camp isn’t a recruitment site for fighters. But it is a humanitarian crisis, and virtually guaranteeing that tens of thousands of children are raised in that ideology, which has huge security implications in the years ahead’, he said.

Debate about al-Hol has the potential to be as indecisive as the international response to those living there. But common solutions exist.

If al-Hol is primarily seen as a hotbed of support for terror, repatriating ‘ISIS women’ prevents their free association and diminishes the harm they could do to others. And if al-Hol is understood primarily as a humanitarian catastrophe, allowing thousands of children to exist there, in conditions of deprivation and torpor, simply cannot be justified any longer.

This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly

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