By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) – Around 2,500 foreign children are stuck in a guarded section of a Syrian camp after fleeing Islamic State’s last stronghold, a senior United Nations official said on Thursday, urging governments not to abandon them.
The children’s plight at the al-Hol camp in northeast Syria is a dilemma for nations who saw citizens leave and fight for the jihadist movement in Syria and Iraq only to find themselves in limbo after the fall of their self-proclaimed “caliphate.”
Panos Moumtzis, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis, said home nations must take responsibility for repatriating their citizens, prosecuting where necessary.
“Really nobody should be rendered stateless and every effort should be made to find a solution for these people,” he told a Geneva news briefing.
The children are among 10,000 non-Syrian and non-Iraqi nationals kept in a “restricted” section of the sprawling, Kurdish-run camp where 75,000 people live in total.
Some 211 children were among at least 260 people who died of malnutrition or disease en route to the camp since December, the latest U.N. figures show.
Britain revoked the citizenship of a teenager who left at 15 to join IS in Syria, while Austria and Switzerland have said they will not help bring home adults who joined IS.
But Moumtzis said states had a legal responsibility, especially for children, many of whom were born in IS camps. “Children should be treated first and foremost as victims” and “irrespective of family affiliation,” he said.
The situation is further complicated because most states lack the capacity to offer consular services or access their nationals in the area. “There has to be a concerted effort, this is not about blaming or ‘naming and shaming’, but it’s really about being practical and finding a way forward that would find a solution,” the U.N. official said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Gareth Jones and Andrew Cawthorne)