The Platform

The al-Hol refugee camp in rural Syria. (Trent Inness)

Little is being done to end the misery faced by thousands of women and children stuck in refugee camps in Syria.

The rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria showcased the face of modern terrorism. The group’s ability to capture vast territories, accumulate massive wealth, and attract fighters from around the world was matched only by the devastating impact it had on civilians. Reports of sexual slavery and human trafficking highlighted the group’s disregard for human life and dignity. While global counter-terrorism measures were necessary to address the threat, these efforts compromised human rights in the process.

The U.S.-led coalition, with the participation of dozens of countries and international partners like NATO, the European Union, and the Arab League, launched a military campaign against ISIS. However, the operations resulted in indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks that caused significant civilian casualties and worsened the humanitarian crisis already plaguing the region.

Following the territorial defeat of ISIS in 2019, thousands of women and children associated with the group were left detained in refugee camps in northeast Syria. The refugees represented a mix of Syrians, Iraqis, and foreign nationals. Unfortunately, due to a number of factors, these camps lacked adequate infrastructure including poor health and medical facilities, leading to a high number of deaths. Disturbingly, a 2022 report by the United Nations found that the conditions in these camps amounted to torture and inhumane treatment under international law.

Adding to the complexity of the situation, Syrian Kurds, who were an invaluable part of the anti-ISIS coalition, were left to grapple with an overwhelming number of terrorism cases. Lacking legal expertise, authorization, and a proper framework for conducting court trials for ISIS suspects, they struggled to address the legal complexities. As a result, thousands of women and children remain indefinitely detained without charges, proper investigations, fair trials, or access to legal assistance.

Moreover, there are significant discrepancies in national criminal laws, some of which directly contradict the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Shockingly, the Iraqi government’s national justice system permits the conviction of minors as young as nine for terrorism-related offenses. In 2018, out of the 616 foreign nationals tried and sentenced in Iraq, primarily from Turkey and Eastern Europe, 466 were women, 108 were children, and only 42 were adult males.

Complicating matters further, there are thousands of women and children who are foreign nationals and require repatriation to their respective countries. However, political debates and reluctance among certain counties, including EU member states, to repatriate their citizens, suggest a failure to fulfill their legal obligations under international law. This unwillingness places a heavy burden on individuals striving to rebuild their lives.

The argument against repatriation often centers around the fear of bringing “terrorists” back home, with concerns about potential terrorist acts and radicalization. However, scholars and experts have demonstrated that ISIS primarily radicalized and mobilized youth through social media, inciting individuals to carry out acts of terror without extensive training or planning.

Ultimately, countries refusing to repatriate their citizens and leaving them in refugee camps in northeast Syria risk being complicit in allowing a new generation of fiercely radicalized children to emerge. Such outcomes contradict the objectives of counter-terrorism efforts and signify a catastrophic erosion of democracy and international peace.

Raghad Al Saadi is an expert on human rights law, counterterrorism, international humanitarian law, international refugee law, women, peace and security, humanitarian assistance, peace negotiations, conflict related GBV and the rule of law. In her professional capacity, Raghad has worked with the UNOCHA-Turkey as a humanitarian access consultant on the Syrian conflict; developed strategic planning for the Ministry of Justice in Libya; a former Congressional Fellow in Washington, DC; a Board Member at Schar School of Policy and Government Alumni Leadership Chapter; a Delegate at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum (NPPF) in 2017; and a speaker at the Initiatives of Change (IofC) in Caux, Switzerland. Raghad was also a panelist at the Global Policy Dialogue on WPS in Doha, Qatar and a selected expert on climate conflict and security at the Paris Peace Forum. Ms. Al Saadi holds a Master of Laws (LLM) in Human Rights Law from Oxford Brookes University, School of Law, Oxford, UK, and a M.S. in Peace Operations Policy—Schar School of Policy and Government, GMU. Ms. Al Saadi is a publisher at IEEE-Global Humanitarian Technology Conference, and International Policy Digest.