BEIRUT (Reuters) – Kurdish-led authorities said on Monday up to 15,000 Syrians could be moved out of the overcrowded al-Hol camp in northeast Syria which holds displaced people and families of Islamic State fighters.
Kurdish fighters have seized much of northern and eastern Syria from Islamic State with U.S. backing. They have since held thousands of militants in prisons, while their wives and children – numbering tens of thousands, many of them foreigners – are living in camps.
Al-Hol camp alone houses nearly 65,000 people, including about 28,000 Syrians, 30,000 Iraqis and some 10,000 other foreigners of many nationalities, according to U.N. estimates.
“A decision will be issued to empty the Syrians from the camp completely,” said Kurdish leader Ilham Ahmed in a video published by the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the Kurdish-led SDF forces holding the region.
“Those who want to remain in the camp, this would not be the responsibility of the administration.”
UNICEF said in August eight children had died in al-Hol, where it said children from 60 countries were languishing and COVID-19 infections among camp workers had worsened conditions.
Badran Jia Kurd, a vice president of the Kurdish-led authority that runs the SDF region, said some Syrians had already left the camp and that the process would be sped up.
He cited a need to reduce the burden on the camp and step up measures to curb security incidents which he said had risen.
Kurdish leaders have repeatedly warned that the Islamic State fighters and their families pose a security threat and that they cannot detain the foreigners indefinitely, but foreign governments have hesitated to repatriate their citizens.
The United States said last week all known Americans allegedly supporting Islamic State and being held in Syria had been returned, some to face criminal charges. It urged European countries to account for their citizens.
Jia Kurd said that of the estimated 28,000 Syrians in the al-Hol camp, about 15,000 were from the mainly Arab areas of Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, which the SDF captured from Islamic State, and would be able to return if they chose to.
Many of the rest may not be able to leave if they have nowhere to go or do not want to return to territory under Syrian state rule, he added.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis and Beirut bureau; Editing by Gareth Jones)