Children love to play imaginary games. In the Al-Hol displaced persons camp in Syria, children pretend to be Islamic State (IS) militants. Most can’t read or write, but they’re exposed to IS propaganda daily. Seemingly forgotten, resentment builds as they languish in harsh conditions where children and adults are murdered.
Following the territorial defeat of IS, thousands of former terrorists and their family members were placed in the Al-Hol and al-Roj camps. These camps were intended to be temporary, but people have stayed for years. National governments have struggled — and some have refused — to return people to their home societies.
Why should we care? Radicalization of young people living in these camps is occurring. “In addition to the daily violence against them,” according to Sheikhmous Ahmed, head of the Refugee Affairs Office at the Syrian Democratic Forces-affiliated Autonomous Administration in north and east Syria, “we also see many children getting radicalized by their parents, some of whom still have Daesh’s extremist ideology.”
We can prevent a generation of children from growing up to be terrorists — and children’s rights ombudspersons and commissioners hold the key.
Children’s ombudspersons monitor enforcement of children’s rights as well as advance children’s interests. They are responsible for all of their country’s children, including their children living in displaced-persons camps.
The camps are overcrowded and unsanitary. Violence, including murder, occurs in the camps, which also are unsafe due to flooding and fire. Children living in the camps experience deprivation and malnutrition. Most young people do not receive formal educations, undermining their development.
Detention in these camps, as well as the camps’ unsafe conditions and failures to provide services, violates multiple children’s rights. These dangerous living situations violate a host of human rights treaties, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Detention denies the dignity and humanity of young people who live in these camps.
Children growing up to become terrorists is just one reason government leaders need to bring them home from the Al-Hol and Al-Roj camps. Another reason: Healthy and safe environments can better ensure young people develop into adults who raise healthy families and contribute to their communities.
Children living in these desperate camps sometimes are demonized and often are easy to forget. So are their rights. But children’s rights ombudspersons and commissioners, endowed with legal powers to advocate for young people’s interests, are perfectly positioned to ensure the well-being and rights of these and all children.
Independent of their governments, they champion children’s interests through monitoring the implementation of children’s rights. Their missions are to ensure that children’s rights and well-being are taken seriously, not only by their national governments but by societal members.
Offices of children’s rights ombudspersons and commissioners are found across the world, including in many of the countries whose children are living in the Al-Hol camp, including Albania, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, Norway, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Tajikistan and the four United Kingdom countries, among others.
Some children’s rights ombudspersons have already acted on behalf of their children. Russia’s Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights escorted orphans from Al-Hol camp to Russia last winter. Belgium’s Flemish and Walloon Children’s Rights Ombudspersons have proactively called for European countries to work together to repatriate their children from the Al-Hol camp. The Children’s Rights Ombudspersons of Russia and Belgium offer good examples for others to follow.
What can children’s rights ombudspersons do to facilitate rehabilitation and reintegration of children and young people who are living in these Syrian camps? They can insist on governments’ implementation of children’s rights. They can help these children leave desperate circumstances for their homes by ensuring that the rights of these young people are enforced. They can advocate for the rights of their children to rehabilitation and reintegration into their home societies.
Rehabilitation and reintegration of these children into their home societies is essential. It will ensure young people receive psychosocial attention, health care, nutrition and other supports necessary to disengage from terrorism and help them build new lives in their home societies. Rehabilitation and reintegration will foster membership into home societies through education and renewing family relationships.
A singular, louder voice may be easier to hear. Working together, a group of children’s rights ombudspersons and commissioners may have a bigger impact than working separately. An organization of children’s rights ombudspersons and commissioners, such as the European Network of Ombudsperson for Children (ENOC), can employ its powerful voice to call for implementation of the UNCRC. Working together, ENOC leadership and its members can powerfully advocate for children living in all countries.
ENOC can use its moral authority to advocate for the rights and well-being of their children living in Al-Hol and Al-Roj camps and members can monitor the well-being of children living in the camps and assure their rights are enforced. The network can also be used to prevent these children from radicalization while bolstering their dignity and membership in their home societies.
Children’s rights ombudspersons and commissioners not only can prevent the radicalization of children, but they can also champion the rights and dignity of these and all children. By doing so, children’s rights ombudspersons and commissioners can help these children grow up to become adults who are tolerant and share beliefs about freedom, equality and humanity.
Brian Gran is a sociologist and lawyer on the faculty of Case Western Reserve University. Twitter: @ScienceRights