LONDON: As many as 750 boys, some as young as nine, are being held in prisons for people linked to Daesh in northeast Syria.
None of the boys, including at least one British national and several other Westerners, have ever been charged with a crime.
In some cases, they have been held in prisons, partly funded by the UK, for more than three years without education, family visits, proper food or even natural sunlight.
The prisons are run by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which captured the boys along with 10,000 Daesh members and their families. The SDF has refused NGO requests to evacuate injured and sick boys from its facilities for safety reasons.
Earlier this month, an Australian teenager, Yusuf Dahab, died of injuries sustained in a January Daesh raid on a prison in the Ghwayran neighborhood of Hassakeh, 40 miles from the Turkish border, while d Others are believed to have died during or shortly after the incident.
Tuberculosis is rampant and many boys are suffering from serious injuries, some of which were sustained in the January raid, and access to medical care is limited.
In February, UNICEF Representative in Syria Bo Viktor Nylund told The New York Times after a tour of the area that boys in the prisons lacked food and medicine.
But the most pressing concern is that the fate and conditions of some of the boys, dubbed “Caliphate Cubs” by their captors, are unknown.
Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the UN’s special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, told the Daily Telegraph: “There are at least 100 children missing. Either children who were killed in the attack or who were moved out of prison to places where they have not been identified. Under international law, we would call this an enforced disappearance.
“I believe there are a number of children with serious and life-threatening injuries who remain in this prison, and I believe some of those children are… from Western states,” he said. she adds.
The SDF told The New York Times in February that 121 of its members were killed in the January raid, but did not give details of the number of casualties among the detainees.
Most of the boys come from Iraq and Syria. But at least 150 are foreign nationals – posing a legal headache for the SDF and the governments of these foreign nationals, most of whom are unwilling to repatriate them – leading countries like the UK to pay to maintain the prison system in northern Syria.
US Lt. Gen. Paul Calvert, a senior coalition commander against Daesh, suggested last year that the UK alone gave around $20 million to the SDF for the prison system.
Experts have warned that funding the SDF prison system likely violates international law. UN officials wrote to the British government in February, saying its actions facilitated “arbitrary mass detention”, which was “inconsistent” with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The UK responded that it was “particularly concerned about the condition of minors – including reports of possible casualties or injuries resulting from the recent attack on Ghwayran, a lack of access to healthcare, prevalence of tuberculosis and possible malnutrition”.
But he denied that prison funding carries legal liability. “We plan to scale up humanitarian assistance to minors in detention in 2022,” he added.
Letta Tayler, associate director and chief counterterrorism officer at Human Rights Watch, told the Telegraph: “The silence on the numbers raises even more questions about why dozens of governments allow a non-state actor under -funded and struggling to manage a population. tens of thousands of foreign suspects (ISIS) and their family members, none of whom have ever appeared in court, let alone charged with a crime.
“The UK’s funding of facilities holding detainees indefinitely in life-threatening conditions without due process raises serious legal questions,” she added.
Dahab’s death rose to prominence after voice notes left by the teenager asking for help were revealed by his family in Australia following the raid.
“I injured my head and my hand,” he said. “I lost a lot of blood. There are no doctors here, there is no one who can help me.
He added that 15 to 20 children were killed in the raid, saying: “I am very scared. I need help.”
Dahab’s family announced his death on July 18. Since then, neither the SDF nor the Australian government have confirmed his death.
“The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is seeking to confirm reports that an Australian man has died in Syria,” an Australian government spokesman told The Telegraph.
Tayler said: “Yusuf could be one of many boys who have met or are about to meet the same fate. How many more lives will it take before governments take responsibility for their detained nationals illegally in life-threatening conditions in northeast Syria, mostly children?”