Al-Hol Refugees face ongoing tragedy
By OMAR ABU LAYLA
With the departure of the ninth group of Syrians from al-Hol camp following the decision issued by the Autonomous Administration in Northeastern Syria (AANEs), - the Kurdish-dominated de facto governing authority in this area - on October 10, 2020, based on the meeting held on October 5th between the Administration and the Syrian Democracy Council (SDC), the Social Affairs and Labor Authority and the Interior Authority, the number of Syrians in The Hol camp becomes 6032 families, comprising 21,843 people, 8,277 Iraqi families, comprising 30,748 people, and 2,565 foreign families, comprising 8,705 people. The total number of families is thus16,874, comprising a total of 61,296 people.
Since the implementation of the resolution on October 28, 2,244 Syrians have left the camp, in nine groups. The last group to depart did so on January 28, 2021.
Groups released before this resolution numbered 27. They hailed from Deir Ezzor, Raqqa and Al-Tabqa, including 4,789 people in what was known as the "guarantee system" based on the outcomes of the tribal forum held on May 3, 2019 in Ein Issa town. The first group was released in June 2019. It comprised 800 people. Other groups were then released successively, and the total reached 27 groups until the recent decision taken in October
Increased killings in the camp:
Incidents of killing are continuing in the camp. On January 30, 2021, security forces in Al-Hol camp found the body of a Syrian female refugee killed by three bullets in her tent in Sector 6. The operation was probably carried out by ISIS cells, who are active in the camp. With this incident, the number of people killed in the camp reached 14 since the beginning of 2021.
The people killed included: nine Iraqi refugees, including a child and three women, three Syrian nationals, including a woman, the "Head of the Syrian Council" in the camp, a member of the ‘Asayish’ (AANES security forces) and a gunman belonging to the cells responsible for the killings. He was killed after detonating a bomb while being pursued by a patrol of the Asayish Security Forces.
This number represents a sharp increase in the rate of the killings. In 2020, a total of 33 assassinations by different methods took place in the camp. The targets were mainly ‘collaborators’ with the security forces inside the camp. The victims were 21 male Iraqi refugees, six women, including a woman of Russian nationality, two of Iraqi nationality, and three of Syrian nationality, and six men of Syrian nationality, including a guard of a relief organization operating inside al-Hol camp.
Since the beginning of the year, the killings have been carried out with silenced pistols, which represents a change in the method of killing, which was formerly carried out using sharp objects, strangulation and other methods. This shows the extent of the security breach in the camp. On 25 January 2021, the SDF, backed by the international coalition, arrested one of the smugglers responsible for smuggling women from the camp.
The "Detained" Syrian refugees
Although the evacuation of Syrian refugees from Al-Hol camp started in June 2019, reaching 27 groups before the decision, and 9 groups after it, the number of Syrians to have left since then did not exceed 7000. There are still more than 21,000 Syrians in the camp. This large number indicates a slowness in the process and mechanisms of releasing people. No awareness-raising, economic or other plans and programs are taken for the people leaving the camp by the Autonomous Administration or the civil organizations operating in the region.
Those who return from the camp encounter discrimination by local society and people who avoid dealing with and contacting them. Such discrimination is attributed among other things to fear of ISIS itself, since the refugees are women and children bearing shame because they are considered to be ISIS members. This leads to fear that residents in contact with people who returned from the camp could receive a mark in their security file by security services. This is especially so since many people have become victims of malicious reports. It is widely believed that the security services monitor those who return from the camp.
The majority of women who returned from the camp lost their husbands or family members in battles against the Syrian Democratic Forces and International Coalition, or their husbands are imprisoned in the Autonomous Administration’s prisons. Given this, those women live amid poor life conditions. In addition, they are forced to be breadwinners of their families in a society in which the norm is that male family members will be the breadwinners.
Those women’s children complain that they bear no nationality and have no solution regarding their civil status. Some of those children are now 17 years old with no identity documentation. Those children thus face severe current and future problems in facilitating and regularising their affairs.
Victims or terrorists
The al-Hol Camp includes nine sections. Eight of them house Iraqi refugees and Syrian IDPs (internally displaced persons), including those who have recently evacuated the town of al-Baghouz. The ninth section shelters ISIS families and is divided into five sub-sections.
The majority of women in the camp had lived in ISIS-controlled areas; nevertheless, they are not necessarily loyal to ISIS. Those women were living in areas, which came to be controlled by ISIS. Many marriages to ISIS members took place without real consent, as they were undertaken to avoid problems with ISIS. Although there are some women who are still loyal to ISIS, they are relatively few. On the contrary, many of these women are potential victims of the women who still support ISIS in the camp.
The sense of injustice that the majority of people living the camp feel, and the shame of their being seen as ISIS members could force those more tolerant among them to become radicalized. Children who are deprived of education could also absorb ISIS ideology in the camp. Some of the children’s only experiences are of ISIS as a controlling organization, and residence in a camp including citizens of the organization’s ‘state’. The situation is thus more complex than is sometimes presented.
Most of the returnees from the camp are victims of social stigmatization, and the situation is unlikely to be better for those who will leave in subsequent groups. A suitable environment for them is unlikely to be found, and they are set to face difficult economic conditions, a deteriorating security situation in the Deir Ezzor countryside and a fragile and broken infrastructure.
The author is a Syrian expert who focuses on security and governance dynamics in northeast Syria. CEO @DeirEzzor24, which has a group of researchers inside the country.