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UNICEF urges repatriation of all children in Syria’s Al-Hol camp following deadly fire

In and around the notorious camp which has housed many families of alleged extremist fighters since the defeat of ISIL in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, “there are more than 22,000 foreign children of at least 60 nationalities who languish in camps and prisons, in addition to many thousands of Syrian children”, said UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Ted Chaiban.

According to the UN, a fire broke out on Saturday evening during a family gathering among displaced Syrian camp residents. One woman reportedly died along with the three children, and at least 11 adults were injured. At least 20 people overall remain in hospital, with six reported to be in critical condition.

No basic services

“Children in Al-Hol are faced not only with the stigma they are living with, but also with very difficult living conditions where basic service are scarce or in some cases unavailable”, said Mr. Chaiban.

“The detention of children is a measure of last resort and should be for the shortest time possible. Children should not be detained based solely on suspected family ties with armed groups or the membership of family members in armed groups.”

Earlier this month, independent UN human rights experts noted that an “unknown number” of foreign nationals had died in the squalid camp of Al-Hol and Roj, in northeast Syria, urging their home countries to repatriate their citizens as soon as possible, dismissing claims that it was too difficult to deal with the non-State groups controlling the local area.

Mr. Chaiban said Member States should do everything possible to reintegrate the children into their own societies and repatriate them in a “safe and dignified way”

“We call on all member states to provide children – who are their citizens or born to their nationals- with civil documentation to prevent statelessness. This is in line with the best interests of the child and in compliance with international standards.

Syria aid chiefs denounce ‘dangerous conditions’

The UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, Imran Riza, and the Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, Mr. Muhannad Hadi, expressed their sorrow over the deadly fire at Al Hol, in a statement also released on Sunday.

They extended their heartfelt sympathy to the affected families and wished those injured a speedy recovery.

“They further emphasize that this distressing event underlines the fact that no one – most of all innocent children – should be living under the challenging and potentially dangerous humanitarian conditions in Al Hol camp.”

Humanitarian partners working at Al-Hol have mobilized to provide urgent assistance, and UN and humanitarian partners provide a “comprehensive range of humanitarian assistance to the camp, including emergency and primary health care; water; shelter; non-food items, food and hygiene distributions; nutrition; and protection”, said the statement.

© UNICEF/Delil Souleiman
A young boy photographed at Al-Hol refugee camp in the northeastern desert of Syria. (July 2019)

Fires not uncommon

With almost 62,000 residents, Al-Hol is the largest camp for displaced people in Syria. More than 80 per cent of the population are women and children.

Accidental fires are not uncommon in the camp, said the senior UN officials, with families often resorting to using cooking stoves inside their tents for warmth, particularly during winter when temperatures regularly drop below freezing.

Mr. Riza and Mr. Hadi expressed concern that unless measures are taken to address the long-term welfare of residents, “more tragic incidents at Al Hol are inevitable.”

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