UNITED NATIONS (AP) — A humanitarian emergency is unfolding in the camp in northeast Syria overwhelmed with people who fled the last battlefields of Islamic State extremists — and a top priority is helping hundreds of unaccompanied children return home, the head of the international Red Cross said Tuesday.
Peter Maurer, who visited the al-Hol camp in Hassakeh province on March 21, told a small group of reporters that it was established in the 1990s to accommodate about 5,000 Iraqi refugees and is now overcrowded with between 80,000 and 100,000 people.
“Given the numbers, the Kurdish authorities and International Committee of the Red Cross are just overwhelmed in terms of registering and finding out who is coming,” he said.
Maurer, the ICRC president, explained that Kurdish local authorities who control the area separate out fleeing Islamic State fighters and boys between the ages of 12 and 18, whom they believe were most likely fighters, and put them in detention.
Women and children are sent to al-Hol, which is roughly two-thirds kids and one-third mothers, he said.
The estimates are that about 35,000 people in al-Hol are Syrians, around 35,000-40,000 are Iraqis, and the rest, probably around 10,000, are from 30-40 nationalities worldwide, Maurer said.
“Our top priority at the present moment is to identify the unaccompanied children, to notify the governments that we have found children without parents, and to see whether somewhere from China to Argentina there is family of unaccompanied children to which we can send the kids back,” he said.
Asked how many unaccompanied children were in al-Hol and several smaller camps, Maurer replied: “Certainly hundreds, maybe more.”
To complicate things further, he said that during the last few days “we have seen in those camps there are not only families of foreign fighters but we see also victims of Islamic State aggressions in the past.”
Maurer said during his visit, “we found Yazidi women who have been abducted by Islamic State into Baghouz, who have been enslaved in Baghouz, who managed to get out” of Baghouz, the last IS stronghold.
“Because they can’t prove who they are they are basically put in detention-like facility in camps,” he said.
At its height, the Islamic State group ruled a third of both Syria and Iraq, holding millions hostage to its harsh and violent interpretation of Islamic law.
The group carried out massacres and documented them with slickly produced videos circulated online. It beheaded foreign journalists and aid workers, and captured thousands of women and girls from the Yazidi religious minority and forced them into sexual slavery. Many remain missing to this day.
Maurer said the ICRC’s first priority is the return of unaccompanied children “and second we try to see whether women with their children who wish to return can be returned.”
He said some countries will accept them, and will even accept fighters who are put into either detention or reintegration and de-radicalization programs. But some countries object to taking their people back, he said, citing Britain, Europe overall, and others.
“We are just looking at a pretty stark picture of a highly complex situation in which we see that nobody is particularly interested to put structures, processers in place, to deal with the issue beyond emergency assistance,” Maurer said.
He said “the big issue” is to find a system to deal with the different categories of people and identify who’s a victim, who’s been involved in criminal activity, who remains highly radicalized — and then determine what to do with them.
“Even for me, it was quite an experience to talk to those women who are extremely radical in their approach and think Islamic State will be back, and it’s just a temporary displacement,” Maurer said. “They think nothing bad has happened.”