Al-Hol Camp, Northern Syria,— At least 517 people, mostly children, died in 2019 in an overstretched Syrian camp housing displaced people and relatives of Islamic State group fighters, the Kurdish Red Crescent told AFP Thursday.
The Kurdish-run Al-Hol camp in Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava), northeastern Syria, is home to around 68,000 people who are reliant on humanitarian assistance, especially during the harsh winter months.
A Kurdish Red Crescent spokesperson said 371 children were among the 517 people who died in the squalid tent city last year.
Malnutrition, poor healthcare for newborns, and hypothermia were among the main causes of death among children, Dalal Ismail told AFP at the camp.
“The situation is tragic and the burden is huge,” she said, adding that foreigners were among the children who died.
Syrians and Iraqis form the bulk of the camp’s residents but Al-Hol is also home to thousands of foreigners, mainly relatives of IS fighters who are kept in a guarded section of the camp under the watch of security forces.
Kurdish authorities in Syrian Kurdistan say they are holding 12,000 non-Iraqi foreigners, including 4,000 women and 8,000 children, in three displacement camps in northeastern Syria. The majority are being held in al-Hol.
Jaber Mustafa, an official in the camp, said that assistance delivered by aid groups is “not enough” to address the “great suffering” of residents.
Medicine and food baskets are among the most pressing needs, he told AFP.
The Kurdish administration in Syrian Kurdistan this week warned that humanitarian conditions in al-Hol could deteriorate further after the UN Security Council on Friday voted to restrict cross-border aid.
The Yaroubiya crossing on the Iraqi border was a key entry point for UN-funded medical aid reaching northeastern Syria, including al-Hol.
The UN had used it to deliver some medical supplies that the Syrian government had not permitted via Damascus.
Yaroubiya’s closure will disrupt “60 to 70 percent of medical assistance to Al-Hol”, Abdel Kader Mouwahad, director of humanitarian affairs in the autonomous Kurdish administration, told AFP.
This leaves Syria’s Kurds with the unofficial Zamalka crossing with Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, which is not used for UN aid.
The fate of foreign jihadists and their relatives detained in the Kurdish region of Syria has been a politically difficult issue for their countries of origin.
Countries such as France and Belgium that have large contingents of nationals in such camps have been reluctant to bring them home while the Kurds warn they cannot keep them much longer.
UN investigators on Thursday called for at least the children to be repatriated, notably because their lack of papers put them in a “particularly precarious” situation.
“This, in turn, jeopardises their rights to a nationality, hinders family reunification processes and puts them at a higher risk of exploitation and abuse,” a report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said.
Some families have been stuck in limbo at Al-Hol camp for more than a year and are experiencing their second winter.
“The humanitarian situation is terrible, we don’t get enough aid,” said one woman who gave her name as Amina Hussein, and who was displaced from one of the last bastions of the now defunct IS “caliphate” in 2018.
“The cold is biting and rain floods our tents,” said the young women, who wore a full niqab face veil and cradled her 18-month-old asthmatic son.
“His condition gets worse when I switch the heater on and we have no medicine,” the young mother said.
Every day, queues of women — some of them in wheelchairs and others walking with crutches — form in front of one of the Kurdish Red Crescent clinics in the camp.
“They only take in 50 people a day, so we sometimes wait from 6:00 am to 9:00 pm without even managing to register our names,” said Zeinab Saleh, a 28-year-old Iraqi mother of four.
“So we come back the next day.”
The Kurdish Democratic Union Party PYD and its powerful military wing YPG/YPJ, considered the most effective fighting force against IS in Syria and U.S. has provided them with arms. The YPG, which is the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces SDF forces, has seized swathes of Syria from Islamic State.
The Kurdish forces expelled the Islamic State from its last patch of territory in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz in March 2019.
11,000 Kurdish male and female fighters had been killed in five years of war to eliminate the Islamic State “caliphate” that once covered an area the size of Great Britain in Syria and Iraq.
Syria’s Kurds have detained thousands of foreigners suspected of fighting for Islamic State, as well as thousands of related women and children, during the battle against IS in Syria and are being held in by Kurdish forces in Syrian Kurdistan.
Syria’s Kurds have established a semi-autonomous region in northeastern Syria during the country’s eight-year war.
In 2013, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party PYD — the political branch of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) — has established three autonomous Cantons of Jazeera, Kobani and Afrin and a Kurdish government across Syrian Kurdistan in 2013. On March 17, 2016, Kurdish and Arab authorities announced the creation of a “federal region” made up of those semi-autonomous regions in Syrian Kurdistan.