Vladimir Voronkov, the UN counterterrorism chief, on Friday urged member states to repatriate some 27,000 children stranded in a massive camp in northeastern Syria.
Al Hol, the largest refugee camp in Syria, houses almost 62,000 residents, according to UN humanitarian officials. More than 80% of these people are women and children, many of whom came there after the militant "Islamic State" (IS) group lost its last Syrian stronghold in 2019.
Voronkov dubbed the situation in the camp "horrific" and "one of the most pressing issues in the world today."
The 27,000 children "remain stranded, abandoned to their fate," vulnerable to be preyed on by IS enforcers, "and at risk of radicalization within the camp," he told an informal meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday.
Responsibility of member states
Voronkov said the children in Al Hol camp are from 60 countries and are the responsibility of these states, not of Syria or the Kurdish groups that control the camp.
Only a few countries, including Russia and Kazakhstan that convened the virtual UN meeting, "have collectively repatriated nearly 1,000 children and their family members," Voronkov said.
The UN counterterrorism chief said that these children "must be treated primarily as victims,'' and those under the age of 14 should not be detained or prosecuted after repatriation.
"Every effort should be made to ensure children are not kept in institutions but allowed to reintegrate with family members within their communities," he stressed.
Trauma and stigmatization
Virginia Gamba, the UN special representative for children and armed conflict, told the Security Council that the mental health, safety and overall development of foreign children held for a long time in camps in northeast Syria and Iraq "are at stake."
"They're exposed to further trauma and stigmatization and are at risk because of their proximity to members of designated terrorist groups," she said.
Gamba stressed that the children in Syrian and Iraqi camps have a right to a nationality and identity, and that they must not remain stateless
She urged the UN member states to repatriate these children in a way that they are reintegrated into their countries.
"They must be given their childhood back in a safe environment where they can build a future away from violence," Gamba said, adding that "they deserve a chance at life, like any other child."