Home / Counter-Extremism / Indefinite Incarceration – Thousands of Children in Northern Syria at Risk of Death During Arbitrary Detention

Indefinite Incarceration – Thousands of Children in Northern Syria at Risk of Death During Arbitrary Detention

28 April, 2023

by Sam Biden, Research Assistant

Islamic State and Child Maltreatment (2017-2021)

In 2017, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched an offensive to retake Raqqa, which had served as the de facto capital of the Islamic State (IS). As the city was liberated, reports began to emerge of hundreds of children being detained by the SDF and subjected to inhumane conditions. In 2018, the situation for children in detention worsened, with the United Nations reporting that thousands of children were being held in detention centers across Syria. Many of these children were being detained on the basis of suspected or actual links to terrorist groups, including IS. The conditions in these detention centers were reported to be dire, with children suffering from malnutrition, disease and lack of access to basic necessities. Despite the international community’s calls for action to improve the conditions of detention for children in Syria, the situation remained grim.

In 2019, a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) noted that thousands of children remained in detention in Syria, with many being held in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. The report highlighted the psychological toll of detention on children, including the risk of radicalization and the likelihood of long-term emotional and psychological harm. As the conflict in Syria continued, the plight of children in detention became increasingly dire. In 2020, a report by Save the Children documented the physical and psychological abuse of children in detention centers run by the Syrian government. The report detailed the use of electric shocks, rape and other forms of torture against children, highlighting the urgent need for action to protect the most vulnerable members of society.

In 2021, the situation for children in detention in Syria remained a source of concern. Reports indicated that children as young as six years old were being detained on suspicion of having family ties to IS. The conditions in these detention centers continued to be deplorable, with inadequate access to food, water and medical care.

Child Detention Crisis

The ongoing conflict in Syria has had devastating consequences for millions of people, including children who have been subjected to grave violations such as unlawful detention, torture and forced conscription. A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) shed light on the situation of children who are currently being unlawfully detained in Northeast Syria. The report paints a bleak picture of the situation and highlights the urgent need for action to protect the rights of over 5,000 people contained in these centers, hundreds of which are children.

Some children have been detained on suspicion of being affiliated with armed groups or for their family members’ alleged involvement in such groups. Others have been detained for their perceived political or religious beliefs, or for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The lack of due process and fair trials means that many of these children have been detained without charge or access to legal representation, leaving them in a state of legal limbo.

The consequences of this unlawful detention and abuse are severe and long-lasting. Children who have been detained and abused often suffer from physical and mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. They may also struggle to reintegrate into their families and communities due to the stigma associated with detention, further exacerbating their sense of isolation and alienation. In some cases, children have been forcibly separated from their families, adding to their trauma and emotional distress, in violation of international law.

Detention Conditions

The conditions for children and adults detained in northeast Syria are dire, with reports of life-threatening conditions and human rights abuses. According to HRW, neither the children nor adults detained in these camps have been brought before a judicial authority to determine the necessity and legality of their detention. This has resulted in arbitrary and unlawful detention, with detention based solely on family ties being a form of collective punishment, which is a war crime.

The situation in al-Hol and al-Roj camps and other detention centers in northeast Syria is deeply concerning, with conditions for children being inhumane and life-threatening. The Kurdish Red Crescent (KDR) has reported that at least 371 children died in 2019 in al-Hol, many from preventable diseases or hypothermia. Additionally, the KDR reports that many children have died under preventable circumstances such as by drowning, fires or have been hit and killed by water trucks.

The camps have become increasingly dangerous, with detainees carrying out attacks against other detainees, camp authorities and aid workers. The UN reported that 90 people were murdered in al-Hol in 2021 with a further 42 deaths from January to November 2022. Mothers have reported that they hide their children in their tents to protect them from sexual predators, abusive camp guards and IS recruiters and fighters.

Prisons and temporary detention centers controlled by the SDF are holding up to 1,000 detainees from over 20 countries, mostly young men who were arrested before turning 18 with 14 to 17 being the largest age demographic in these centers. In January 2022, IS attacked one of these prisons that was holding 700 boys in al-Haskah, sparking a 10-day battle with SDF fighters backed by US and UK forces. More than 500 people died, including 374 detainees and IS attackers, according to the SDF. The northeast Syrian authorities have not disclosed any details about the dead and wounded children, highlighting the information and accountability vacuum surrounding these youths. Sources, including aid groups, estimated that hundreds of detained boys who were transferred from al-Sina’a to a new, adjacent prison called Panorama after IS’ attempted prison break in January have tuberculosis that was untreated for months.

According to another report by UNICEF, almost 850 children are currently in immediate danger and their lives are at risk due to violence, exposure to harsh weather conditions and limited access to healthcare, food and water. The report states that children in northeast Syria continue to be caught in the middle of a protracted conflict. The situation is further compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has only served to worsen the already strained conditions in the region. In addition to the immediate risk of violence, children in northeast Syria face limited access to education, which has been severely impacted by the ongoing conflict. This has caused UNICEF to estimate that around 700,000 children in Syria are out of school, with many children in the northeast region having missed years of education due to the conflict.

Repatriation – Save the Children

The issue of repatriation from conflict zones, particularly from Syria, has been a complex and challenging one, with numerous legal and ethical considerations at play. Since 2017, there have been 63 repatriation operations from Syria, with a total of 1,163 children repatriated. The majority of these repatriations have been to Uzbekistan, Kosovo, Kazakhstan and Russia, with Kazakhstan alone accounting for 36% of repatriations.

From 2020-2021, an increased number of Syrians were able to leave the al-Hol camp, following the decision in October 2020 by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) to ease restrictions on Syrians who wish to return home. A total of 18 groups of families were able to leave the camps, including a departure on 17 September of 92 families who returned to Al Raqqa city and rural areas near the city. In May 2021, 94 Iraqi families had their return to the country facilitated in an organized movement from al-Hol camp and are now staying in the Jeddah 1 camp waiting to return to their homes.

Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)

The best interest of the child is a fundamental legal principle set out in the CRC, meaning that in cases of legal ambiguity, any provision should be read in a manner that best serves the child’s best interest. The absence of knowledge and data regarding children who live in IS-controlled territories poses serious challenges in developing the appropriate rehabilitation and reintegration responses required to allow these children to return to normal lives. Studies have shown that positive connections to peers, family and the community lead to better outcomes in transitioning away from life in conflict. For children who are alleged to have been members of IS, Article 38 of the CRC requires states to respect and ensure respect for the rules of international humanitarian law applicable to them in armed conflicts which are relevant to the child, including under the Geneva Conventions.

UN experts have repeatedly stated that the return and repatriation of foreign fighters and their families is “the only international law-compliant response” to the situation faced by those detained in inhumane conditions in overcrowded camps, prisons, or elsewhere in Syria and Iraq. The CRC requires states to take all appropriate measures to promote physical and psychological recovery and social integration of a child who is a victim of any form of neglect, exploitation or abuse.


In conclusion, despite the rapid fall of IS in Northern Syria, closure for the many victims of their assaults and exploitation has not yet been obtained. Repatriation efforts appear insignificant at best, with hundreds of vulnerable children still being detained in inhumane conditions with little hope for freedom, further state agreements for the exchange of captives need to be made immediately before more fatal consequences arise. Conditions in the detention centers are not improving, despite the legal right of the ICRC to provide support to those who are suffering, direct access to these people appears a near impossibility given the circumstances, potentially leading to military intervention to alleviate any civilian detainees.

Image: Al-hol refugee camp in Syria (Source: Y. Boechat (VOA))

About Sam Biden

Sam Biden is a double law graduate from Aberystwyth University whose degree focused primarily in the enforcement and protection of civil liberties. His research surrounded areas such as data protection, protection from unlawful interference, environmental law, freedom from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, humanitarian law and natural law jurisprudence. Sam’s areas of interest include the advocating for the protection of digital liberties, ensuring of safe passage and treatment for the victims of the migration crisis and the drafting of solutions to repair corporate exploitation resulting in human rights violations and exacerbated climate damage.