Human Rights

Tajikistan repatriates over 100 citizens from Syria camps

By Al-Mashareq and AFP

A child peers out of a bus full of women and children from families of ISIS fighters after Kurdish authorities in Syria handed them over to Tajikistan in 2022. [Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP]

A child peers out of a bus full of women and children from families of ISIS fighters after Kurdish authorities in Syria handed them over to Tajikistan in 2022. [Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP]

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan -- Tajikistan has repatriated another 104 women and children from Syria, where hundreds of its citizens were recruited into extremist groups, the Tajik foreign ministry said Sunday (May 21).

The group included 31 women and 73 children, as well as "five citizens of Kazakhstan -- a mother and her four children -- at the demand of Kazakh authorities", a ministry spokesman said.

Most of the foreign nationals who are being held in Kurdish-run camps in northeastern Syria are the wives and children of militants who were recruited by the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS).

The men travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS along with thousands of other foreign fighters drawn in by the group's propaganda efforts.

Many were killed there, leaving their wives as widows, stranded with their children in Syria and facing a host of problems.

Last July, the Kurdish administration of north and east Syria handed Tajikistan 146 women and children related to ISIS elements, in the first such repatriation to the ex-Soviet state.

As of early May, an estimated 600 Tajik women and children remain in Iraq and Syria, according to the Tajik government.

In Syria, most are being held in two overcrowded and crime-ridden camps in the northeastern province of al-Hasakeh: al-Hol and Roj.

The repatriation push comes amid ongoing violence linked to extremists inside the camps and reports that ISIS has been recruiting youth in the camps.

Last year, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Kurdish internal security forces (Asayesh) led a massive campaign to purge al-Hol of ISIS cells in the wake of a surge in killings and kidnappings inside the camp.

Security forces discovered that ISIS cells had been using tents in the camp to train children to carry and use weapons and to disseminate terrorist ideology.

Instruments of torture were found, in addition to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and phones and laptops that belonged to the group.

Some tents had been used as "sharia courts", with residents who oppose ISIS being detained and tortured by the extremists.

Repeated calls for repatriation

According to Human Rights Watch, more than 41,000 foreign citizens -- the majority under 12 years old -- are being held in camps and prisons in northeast Syria over alleged ISIS links.

Kurdish authorities have called on countries repeatedly to repatriate their citizens, but foreign governments have allowed only a trickle to return home, fearing security threats and domestic political backlash.

The United States also has made the repatriation push a priority.

In a statement issued on March 23 -- the fourth anniversary of ISIS's territorial defeat in Syria -- the US State Department reiterated its commitment to identifying and advancing solutions for the tens of thousands of detainees still languishing in al-Hol and Roj.

Children in al-Hol "are in daily danger of indoctrination to violence", US Central Command (CENTCOM) said in a March 18 statement, adding that teenagers with foreign parents "expressed a desire to return to their country of origin".

"These camps represent not only a flashpoint of human suffering but also an enduring security risk as the more than 30,000 children housed in them are in danger of ISIS indoctrination," CENTCOM commander Gen. Michael "Erik" Kurilla said April 6.

"The only long-term solution to this crisis is the successful rehabilitation, repatriation, and reintegration of al-Hol and al-Roj camp residents back to their countries of origin," he said.

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