For more than three years, the boys have been growing up without sunlight in cells that are sweltering in Syria’s summer and freezing cold in the winter.
Some have serious injuries that cannot be treated in prison, while others have tuberculosis that spreads through unventilated cells.
They receive virtually no education, no family visits and no fresh fruit or vegetables, according to multiple first-hand sources, who described the situation anonymously so as not to jeopardize relations with the authorities.
An estimated 750 boys as young as nine, including Westerners and at least one British citizen, are languishing indefinitely in a UK-funded prison system in northeast Syria built for those with alleged ties to the Islamic State group. None of them have ever been charged with a crime, let alone tried.
The reported death of a detained Australian teenager earlier this month – and the subsequent lack of information or evidence about his fate – has highlighted how the Kurdish prison system has become a black hole, swallowing dozens of children.
Many are said to have been killed, seriously injured or disappeared without a trace since a bloody raid on a prison by Islamic State militants in January.
“At least 100 children are missing,” Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, told The Telegraph this week. “Either children who died in the attack or who have been moved from prison to locations where they have not been identified. Under international law, we would call that enforced disappearance.
“I believe there are a number of children with serious and potentially life-threatening injuries in that prison and I believe that some of those children … are from Western states.”
The Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led militia in charge of the prisons, have kept their mouths shut about the fate of the detained boys. The Telegraph understands that the SDF has rejected requests from NGOs to evacuate injured and sick boys as they pose a security risk.
Bo Viktor Nylund, UNICEF’s representative in Syria, toured the prison in February and told The New York Times that the detained boys had no food and medicine; something the SDF has denied.
“Adolescents in the detention center are provided with three main meals daily, clean water and health care is provided by the detention center’s medical staff,” the SDF said.
They acknowledged that 121 of its fighters and guards were killed in the January siege, in addition to more than 380 militants and prisoners. But they never said how many minors were injured or died, and have not responded to multiple requests for comment from The Telegraph.
“The silence on the numbers raises even more questions as to why dozens of governments are allowing an underfunded, contentious, non-state actor to manage a population of tens of thousands of foreign IS suspects and relatives, none of whom has ever had one before. court, let alone charged with a felony,” said Letta Tayler, associate director and counter-terrorism leader at Human Rights Watch.
‘Cubs of the Caliphate’
After the last fight against IS in 2019, the SDF detained an estimated 10,000 men suspected of having links with the extremist group. The SDF placed these detainees in a dozen detention centers in northeast Syria, mostly converted schools and hospitals.
In addition to the adults, about 750 boys under the age of 18 were imprisoned. The SDF called them “Cubs of the Caliphate”, the term IS used for its trained child soldiers. But many of the boys had never held a gun before. Some were taken from their mothers as adolescents because it was feared that they would disrupt detention camps with women and younger children.
Most of the boys detained were Syrian and Iraqi, but according to UN experts, about 150 came from elsewhere, including at least one from the UK.
Like the adults, these guys have languished in a legal limbo. As non-state actors, the SDF has no jurisdiction to prosecute foreign detainees, while many countries have ignored calls from the anti-IS coalition, the US and local authorities to take back their citizens.
The UK says its nationals who have traveled to Isis territory pose a security risk. The government has stripped the citizenship of some two dozen men and women, although it says it is willing to bring home unaccompanied children.
Rather than repatriate them, the UK has invested heavily in strengthening prisons in northeastern Syria.
While the government won’t say how much it spent or what oversight it has sought in return, US Lieutenant General Paul Calvert, an anti-IS coalition commander, said last year the UK had given $20 million to expand facilities. . The government said it will increase funding further this year.
In January, IS militants launched a daring attack to free supporters from the main SDF prison holding children in the Ghwayran neighborhood of Hassakeh, a town on the Khabur River, 40 miles from the Turkish border.
Ten days of bloody fighting followed as IS militants seized parts of the prison, the guards and prisoners and stopped hundreds of SDF fighters, supported by British and American special forces on the ground and American Apache helicopters overhead.
The world first heard Yusuf Dahab’s voice during this siege, in a series of voice notes in which he pleaded for help to save his life.
The Australian boy was 11 in 2015 when relatives took him to Syria, where he survived life under ISIL, the ensuing battle to defeat them, then his mother’s separation and imprisonment.
His luck then took an even worse turn when he was wounded during the siege.
“I injured my head and my hand,” Yusuf said in messages to family in Australia. “I lost a lot of blood. There are no doctors here, there is no one to help me.”
He estimated that 15 to 20 children had been murdered around him. “I’m very scared. I need help,” he said.
It was the last that the outside world heard from Yusuf. On July 18, his family announced his death and released a statement expressing their heartbreak and anger at the Australian government for not bringing him home.
But in the nearly two weeks since, neither the SDF nor the Australian government have confirmed his death, nor other circumstances of his situation, highlighting what human rights watchdogs say is an opaque and inexplicable prison system.
An Australian government spokesman told the Telegraph: “The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is trying to confirm reports that an Australian man has died in Syria.”
UN experts have warned the British government that funding a prison system in which thousands of people are arbitrarily held indefinitely without charge is likely to violate international law.
Providing aid “to promote the enforcement of mass arbitrary detention,” including of British nationals, is “simply incompatible” with the government’s duties under the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, they wrote in a letter dated Feb. 1.
The government responded in April, denying that the funding involved legal liability.
However, it added: “We are particularly concerned about the condition of minors – including reports of possible casualties or injuries from the recent attack on Ghwayran, lack of access to health care, the prevalence of tuberculosis and possible malnutrition. “
The FCDO rejected a request from the Telegraph FOI asking for UK support for detention facilities in northeast Syria and cited exemptions for ensuring national security.
But the government revealed in its letter to UN experts that it would further invest in the Northeast Syrian prison system. “We plan to scale up humanitarian aid to minors in detention in 2022,” it wrote.
How the money is spent and what supervision the government has, remains a secret. “It would not be appropriate to comment further for operational security reasons,” it wrote.
Ms Tayler of Human Rights Watch said Britain’s involvement in the detention facilities warranted further investigation. “The UK’s funding of facilities that indefinitely keep detainees in life-threatening conditions without due process raises serious legal questions,” she said.
She said the only permanent solution is repatriation. “Yusuf could be one of many guys who have met or will soon suffer the same fate,” she said. “How many more lives will it take before governments take responsibility for their nationals illegally detained in life-threatening conditions in northeast Syria, most of them children?”
Since the siege of the prison, access by some aid groups working to support detained boys in northeast Syria has been severely restricted.
One organization that has regained access to the detained minors is Fight for Humanity, a small human rights NGO that operates a program to provide them with basic educational, recreational and psychological support.
Nicolas Sion, the NGO’s head of development, said staff had conducted individual needs assessments of 600 children in prison since March. But he could not say how many children were missing, killed or injured in the January prison attack.
“It’s a question of safety for the children, it’s also a condition that we have to work there,” he told The Telegraph. “We rely on what the detention authorities want us to do.
“We know it’s not a perfect situation, but at least it’s worth something for the kids. Before we came there was nothing for them.
“We also try to do the advocacy on repatriation and reintegration… Our [position] is that they shouldn’t be there.”
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