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Syria: UN expert condemns 'snatching' of boys in SDF-run camps

Fionnuala Ni Aolain is the first UN expert to gain access to Al-Hol and Al-Roj camps which hold approximately 56,000 people from 57 countries
A girl looks on while holding a water container as members of the Syrian Kurdish Asayish security forces inspect tents at the Kurdish-run Al-Hol camp (AFP)

A United Nations expert said hundreds of boys are being "snatched" from their mothers in camps controlled by the Kurdish-run Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the northeast of the country, warning the practice was causing irreparable harm and violated international law. 

Fionnuala Ni Aolain, UN special rapporteur for the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, is the first UN expert to gain access to the Al-Hol and Al-Roj camps.

Speaking after a six-day trip to northeast Syria, Aolain said the "cradle to the grave detention" of children broke international law and was taking place without any "legal procedure".

"The thing I will say that concerned me the most and my team the most as we visited northeast Syria was the mass indefinite and arbitrary detention of children, particularly boys, in various types of facilities," said Aolain. 

"This systematic practice of enforced separation... is in clear violation of international law."

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The independent UN rapporteur said she had met women and children from Australia, Austria, Canada, China, Egypt, France, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia and Turkey. 

In a nine-page report about her trip, Aolain outlined how "every single woman" she had spoken to said the "snatching of their children provided the most anxiety, the most suffering, the most psychological harm". 

"Boys... described the process of their abduction from Al-Hol and Al-Roj as sudden - most frequently in the middle of the night or in the marketplace - violent and causing them extreme anxiety, as well as mental and psychological suffering," Aolain said in her report. 

"Children reaching the age of 11 or 12 suffer from extreme stress and anxiety fearing their imminent removal from the camp and separation from their mothers." 

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Mothers she had spoken to added that camp authorities would take months to confirm they had taken their boys.

Western governments have faced mounting criticism for not taking back more of their citizens who travelled to Iraq and Syria to volunteer for the Islamic State group.

The SDF control both camps, which hold approximately 56,000 suspected IS members and their families who fled territories controlled by the armed group. 

Detainees outside Syria and Iraq also remain in the camp, with their countries of origin delaying or refusing to repatriate them. 

Aolain said she found no legal process that justified the snatching of young boys from their mothers. 

SDF officials told the rapporteur that the boys were removed for various reasons - including "predatory sexual behaviour, extremist ideology, or protection for such boys from unwanted sexual activity". 

In February, UN rights experts raised concerns about reports that at least 10 boys were taken from Al-Roj, while SDF officials described the reports as "far from the truth."

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