The UK-funded ’Black Hole’ Prisons Housing Children in Cells Without Sunlight
By Campbell MacDiarmid
Story Code : 1007079
Some have serious injuries that cannot be treated in the 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 sources with first-hand information, who described the situation anonymously to avoid jeopardizing relations with authorities.
An estimated 750 boys as young as nine, including Westerners and at least one British national, are languishing indefinitely in a UK-funded prison system in north-east Syria built for people with alleged links to Daesh [Arabic acronym for terrorist ‘ISIS/ISIL’] group. None of them have ever been charged with any crime, let alone tried.
The reported death of a detained Australian teenager earlier this month – and subsequent lack of any information or evidence about his fate – has highlighted how the Kurdish-run jail system has become a black hole that is swallowing up dozens of children.
Many are believed to have been killed, sustained major injuries or disappeared without a trace since a bloody raid on a prison by Daesh terrorists in January.
"There are at least 100 children missing," Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the United Nations special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, told The Telegraph this week. “Either children who were killed during the attack or moved out of the 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 who remain in that prison and I believe that some of those children are... from Western states."
The so-called Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led militia in charge of the prisons, has remained tight-lipped about the fate of the detained boys. The Telegraph understands the SDF have refused requests from NGOs to evacuate wounded and ill boys, saying 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 lacked food and medicine; something the SDF has denied.
"Adolescents inside the detention center receive three main meals on a daily basis, clean water, and health care is provided to them by the medical staff of the detention center," the SDF responded.
They acknowledged that 121 of its fighters and guards were killed in January’s siege, alongside more than 380 militants and prisoners. But they have never said how many minors were hurt or died, and did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Telegraph.
"The silence on the numbers raises yet more questions as to why dozens of governments are allowing an underfinanced, embattled, non-state actor to manage a population of tens of thousands foreign Daesh suspects and family members, none of whom have ever been before a court, much less charged with a crime," said Letta Tayler, an associate director and counter-terrorism lead at Human Rights Watch.
‘Cubs of the Caliphate’
Following the final battle against Daesh in 2019, the SDF were left holding an estimated 10,000 men suspected of links to the extremist group. The SDF placed these prisoners in about a dozen detention centers in north-east Syria, mostly converted schools and hospitals.
Jailed alongside the adults were about 750 boys under 18. The SDF referred to them as "Cubs of the Caliphate," the term Daesh used for its trained child soldiers. But many of the boys had never even held a gun. Some were taken from their mothers as adolescents because it was feared they would be disruptive in detention camps holding women and younger children.
Most of the jailed boys were Syrian and Iraqi, but roughly 150 were from elsewhere, including at least one from the UK, according to UN experts.
Like the adults, these boys have languished in a legal limbo. As non-state actors, the SDF lacks jurisdiction to prosecute foreign prisoners, while many countries have ignored calls by the anti-Daesh coalition, the US, and local authorities, to take back their citizens.
The UK says its nationals who travelled to Daesh territory pose a security risk. The Government has stripped citizenship from some two dozen men and women, though it says it is willing to bring home unaccompanied children.
Rather than repatriating them, the UK has invested heavily in strengthening prisons in north-east Syria.
Although the Government will not say how much it has spent, nor what oversight it has sought in return, US Lieutenant General Paul Calvert, an anti-Daesh coalition commander, said last year that the UK had given $20 million to expand facilities. The Government said this year that it was further increasing funding.
In January, Daesh terrorists launched an audacious attack to break out supporters from the main SDF prison holding children in the Ghwayran neighborhood of Hasakah, a town on the Khabur River 40 miles from the Turkish border.
Ten days of bloody fighting followed as Daesh terrorist seized parts of the prison, its guards, and prisoners, holding off hundreds of SDF fighters, supported by British and American special forces on the ground and US Apache helicopters overhead.
The world first heard Yusuf Dahab’s voice during this siege, in a series of voice notes pleading for help to save his life.
The Australian boy was 11 in 2015 when relatives took him to Syria, where he survived life under Daesh, the subsequent battle to defeat them, and then separation from his mother and imprisonment.
His luck then took an even worse turn when he was wounded during the siege.
"I got injured in my head and my hand," Yusuf said in messages sent to family in Australia. "I lost a lot of blood. There’s no doctors here, there’s no one who can help me."
He estimated that 15 to 20 children had been killed around him. "I’m very scared. I need help," he said.
It was the last the outside world heard from Yusuf. On July 18, his family announced that he had died, releasing a statement expressing heartbreak and anger at the Australian government for failing to bring 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 rights watchdogs say is an opaque and unaccountable prison system.
An Australian government spokesperson told the Telegraph: "The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is seeking to confirm reports an Australian male has died in Syria."
UN experts have warned the British Government that funding a prison system where thousands of people are arbitrarily and indefinitely detained without charge likely violates international law.
Providing assistance "in furtherance of maintaining mass arbitrary detention" including of UK nationals is "simply incompatible" with the Government’s duties under the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, they wrote in a letter dated February 1.
The Government responded in April, denying that funding entailed legal liability.
However, it added: "We are particularly concerned about the condition of minors – including reports of possible casualties or injuries resulting from the recent attack on Ghwayran, a lack of access to healthcare, the prevalence of TB and possible malnutrition."
The FCDO denied a Telegraph FOI request enquiring about UK support for detention facilities in north-east Syria, citing exemptions for safeguarding national security.
But the Government revealed in its letter to the UN experts that it was to invest further in the north-east Syria prison system. "We are planning to scale up humanitarian assistance for minors in detention in 2022," it wrote.
How the money is spent and what oversight the Government has remains secret. "It would not be appropriate to comment further for reasons of operational security," it wrote.
Ms. Tayler, of Human Rights Watch, said British involvement in the detention facilities warrants further scrutiny. "The UK’s funding of facilities holding detainees indefinitely in life-threatening conditions with no due process whatsoever raises serious legal questions," she said.
She said the only permanent solution is repatriation. "Yusuf could be one of many boys who have met or are about to meet this same fate," she said. "How many more lives will it take before governments take responsibility for their nationals held unlawfully in life threatening conditions in northeast Syria, the majority of them children?"
Since the prison siege, some aid groups working to support detained boys in north-east Syria have found their access sharply curtailed.
One organization that has regained access to the detained minors is Fight for Humanity, a small human rights advocacy NGO running a program to provide them with basic educational, recreational, and psychological support.
Nicolas Sion, the NGO’s head of development, said that since March its staff have conducted individual needs assessments of 600 children in the prison. But he was unable to say how many children were missing, killed, or injured as a result of the January prison attack.
"It’s a matter of security 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 brings something to the children. Before we came there was nothing for them.”
"We are also trying to do the advocacy part on repatriation and reintegration... Our [position] is that they shouldn’t be there."