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Kyiv Urged To Bring Home Ukrainian Women, Children Detained In Syria

Women and children assisted by Ukrainian personnel disembark from a plane upon their arrival from Syria at an airport outside Kyiv in a photo released on January 1.
Women and children assisted by Ukrainian personnel disembark from a plane upon their arrival from Syria at an airport outside Kyiv in a photo released on January 1.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is urging Kyiv to repatriate dozens of Ukrainian women and children it says are being held in "horrific" conditions in Syrian camps.

An estimated 40 Ukrainian women and children are "unlawfully" detained in two camps in northeastern Syria, the New York-based human rights watchdog said in a statement on April 13. The majority of them are children, some as young as 2 years old, it added.

The group is among nearly 43,000 foreigners linked to the Islamic State (IS) extremist group who are being held by regional authorities.

HRW said it had sent letters to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba requesting the government take prompt action to assist and repatriate the Ukrainian women and children.

"Ukrainian women and children are being held in horrific and appalling conditions while their government chooses to look the other way," said Yulia Gorbunova, senior Ukraine researcher at HRW.

Kyiv "should comply with the regional authorities' repeated calls for countries to bring home their nationals, prioritizing the most vulnerable," Gorbunova added.

Ukraine's government, as well as administrations in several other countries with similar situations, have been reluctant to repatriate such cases, contending that it poses too high a security risk.

None of the 40 Ukrainian women and children detained at the Al-Hol and Roj camps have been brought before a court or investigated or prosecuted for any crime, and their "arbitrary" detention by the armed forces of the Kurdish-led autonomous administration of northeastern Syria violates international law, according to HRW.

The group said that the conditions in the camps were "often inhumane and life-threatening, with growing insecurity and shortages of vital aid."

The coronavirus pandemic "presents another threat to the lives of these detainees," with the United Nations reporting at least 8,537 coronavirus cases in northeastern Syria as of February.

The watchdog quoted Children in Syria and Iraq, a group of independent Ukrainian investigative journalists and activists that monitors the issue, as saying that the detainees "live in constant fear and are terrified for their health and safety."

Three of the detained women and one child were said to have disabilities, while one woman has an acute kidney disease, one child and one woman shrapnel injuries, and one child a severe gum infection.

HRW called on the Ukrainian government, which has already repatriated two women and seven children from northeastern Syria, to bring home its remaining nationals and their children.

The government should also increase consular assistance to its citizens and humanitarian aid to the camps and prisons in northeastern Syria "to complement -- not replace -- repatriations."

Citizens of dozens of countries are being held as IS suspects and family members in northeastern Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Turkey. Many countries cite the potential security risks posed by their nationals as a reason for not bringing them home.

"Detaining people in such inhuman and degrading conditions is clearly prohibited under international law," Gorbunova said, adding that countries whose nationals are being held as IS suspects had "a responsibility to protect its citizens and uphold their rights."

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