BRING OUR CHILDREN HOME – Government urged to act on 56 minors in Syria

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

At right, Children’s Rights Advocacy director, Human Rights Watch, Jo Becker, speaks during the Human Rights Watch press conference on TT nationals living in refugee camps in Northern Syria at the Kapok Hotel, St Clair, on Tuesday as HRW associate director, Terrorism/Counterterrorism Crisis and Conflict Division, Letta Tayler looks on. Photo by Ayanna Kinsale

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report has said of the almost 100 TT nationals being detained in dire conditions in camps in northeast Syria, 56 are children. The group is calling on the government to bring the children and their mothers back to TT as a matter of urgency.

HRW counter-terrorism associate director Letta Tayler said there were approximately 99 TT nationals being held in camps by US-backed, Kurdish-led forces in northeast Syria. She was speaking at the launch of the HRW report Trinidad and Tobago: Bring Home Nationals From Northeast Syria at the Kapok Hotel, Port of Spain, on Tuesday.

“We are calling on the TT government to promptly repatriate their citizens. If they can’t take everyone at the same time, they should focus on the most vulnerable, the women and the children. The adults can be prosecuted if necessary.”

The report said there are 56 children and 21 women being held in two camps, and 13 males, including a teenage boy, in detention centres.

A 17-year-old boy who was taken to Syria in 2014 said, “My father lied to me – he told me that we were going to Disneyland. It’s not my fault, it’s my father’s fault. I wish I never came here in Syria. I just want to come back home, you know.”

HRW children’s right division advocacy director Jo Becker said a survey of over 100 children worldwide who had been repatriated to their home countries from detention camps showed that they had reintegrated into their societies well.

“They are facing extreme hardships, as children in the camp have died in tent fires, drowned in sewage pits, been hit and killed by water trucks, and hundreds have died from treatable illnesses.

“Mothers hide them in their tents to protect them from sexual predators, abusive camp guards, and ISIS recruiters and fighters. Male children as young as 12 are taken away to detention centres where they are held indefinitely, without contact with their families.”

Becker said research had shown that the sooner children were repatriated, the easier it was for them to reintegrate into society.

She noted that there had been cases of children who had returned to TT being unable to access education and health care because of a lack of documents. She said that was not unique to TT, and the organisation would be looking into those cases.

Returning nationals can face TT criminal courts

Tayler addressed concerns expressed by the population, including why people who had gone to fight with ISIS should be repatriated when there was already a crime wave.

“Most of the Trinidadians are children. They did not choose to go to Syria. There are only about eight men detained in Syria from TT who went over as adults, and only five youths who went over as young children. Most of the women went over as adults, but most of them, like the children, are also victims of ISIS.

“We believe TT has the capacity to manage this population. TT has laws on the books to prosecute adults if they commit serious crimes. If there were any TT nationals who had committed serious crimes who are in northeast Syria, their victims and family members deserve to see justice served.

“I spoke to three TT detainees, two women and one man, who went over as adults. They sounded broken, and said they would be willing to serve time if their government would just take them back and let their children restart their lives in their homeland.”

She said most of the 30 adult men who had gone to fight with the terrorist group had been killed in 2019 when the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had taken back ISIS territory. She said TT nationals who had returned to the country from Syria with or without assistance from the government had not committed any crimes.

Trinidadian international criminal lawyer Sareta Ashraph said if the government was wary of prosecuting the returning nationals, there were legal professionals who would be willing to assist, especially as there were only eight adult men to be prosecuted.

“Repatriation is not the same as impunity. There is no link between repatriating nationals and impunity for crimes. The first difficulty might be in preparing the cases, but TT has an incredibly strong legal profession, and good laws on the books.

“There are international bodies that work with and in support of national prosecuting authorities to assemble cases, and there is a tremendous amount of funded international support that would be given to the TT government and legal profession if they wanted it.”

She suggested that for the trials, a brief special chamber could be set up to move the cases through the system more quickly, especially as specialist expertise would be needed, and there would be security considerations.

‘Risk of inaction is great’

Tayler said the US military had said it was willing to assist in the repatriation of TT citizens, by providing a plane which could hold all the nationals. She said the people in charge of the camps had also been asking countries to repatriate their nationals, as they did not have enough funding to keep the camps in good condition.

“The risk of inaction is great. The head of counter-terrorism at the UN has said that a failure to repatriate threatens to bring about the very outcomes we attempt to prevent, including the radicalisation and recruitment of a new generation of terrorists. Violations of human rights help fuel terrorism so this is why the safest approach is to remove them from these conditions where they are being held unlawfully.

“Many detainees have tried to escape, and have done so with the assistance of guards who are trafficking prisoners out of the camps, so if there are any hardliners Trinis detained there, there’s a much greater chance for them to escape and regroup in northeast Syria rather than coming home to families who have said they are willing to help with housing, medical services and other support, as well as helping to watch over the returnees.”

Tayler said government had said it was doing verification exercises to ensure the TT nationals in Syria were actually TT nationals, and family members in TT have offered to go to the camps privately for this. She said DNA testing had been used by many countries in such cases.

Becker noted a statement by the AG on Monday which said the Nightingale Committee, a multi-agency and multi-disciplinary team established in 2018, was working on the issue. She said while HRW applauded the idea, it had been informed that the committee had only met eight times since 2019.

“In theory we support the idea of the committee and agencies coming together to come up with a plan, but it needs to be judged by its concrete results, and we are concerned that we are not seeing anything, as for the last four years no Trinidadian national has been repatriated through the government.”

Government: We’re working on it

The AG’s statement said in its response to a February 1 letter from HRW that TT understands what is required in the best interest of its nationals, including their physical and psychological health and welfare, their fundamental rights and the national security and public interest considerations involved, and all of this was being actively addressed and balanced.

“It was misleading of HRW to say that the TT government has not taken steps to help its nationals or that the Nightingale team is not actively engaged in evaluating the national security considerations together with all pertinent considerations relevant to the return of our nationals.”

Foreign and Caricom Affairs Minister Dr Amery Browne said, “As the AG has clearly stated, the Government is committed to taking all appropriate actions in keeping with the complex and serious national security implications and other considerations associated with individuals returning from conflict zones overseas, and such work is ongoing.”