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Thousands Of Women, Children To Be Released From ISIS Detention Camps

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The ISIS caliphate fell more than a year and a half ago, but there are still almost 70,000 people living in detention camps in Syria. They're mostly women and children related to ISIS fighters. They're being held by Kurdish authorities who are independent of the central government and allied with the United States, and those U.S. allies now plan to start releasing thousands of prisoners. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has reported from those camps in the past and is on the line now from the U.K. Ruth, good morning.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Or good afternoon where you are. What did you see when you visited these camps?

SHERLOCK: Well, the conditions in both of these two camps, where these people are held, are bad but especially so in the biggest of those. That's al-Hol. It's this sprawling complex of tents that's divided into two sections. There's the annex that holds about 9,500 foreigners that's made up of women who traveled to join ISIS and brought their children with them or had children in Syria. And then the wider camp has tens of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis.

But, Steve, to understand this, you really have to know that about 34,000 of these inhabitants are children under the age of 11. And the facilities in these camps, you know, they were always basic, but they've worsened in the pandemic. Some aid groups have stopped operating there altogether, and schools have closed, and so have some medical clinics. The charity Save the Children said that this summer eight small children died of treatable diseases.

INSKEEP: Wow. Well, what - if anything - would stand in the way of simply releasing these people, particularly given that so many of them are young children?

SHERLOCK: Well, the camps are run, as you said, by the Kurdish administration in northeast Syria. It has backing from the U.S. And the Kurds say, for the foreigners in the camps, it's the governments of the countries they come from that should take them back. The U.S., Russia, Uzbekistan are among those countries that have done that. But others say - like the U.K. and Canada - that they won't do that because they think these people could be a terror threat.

I spoke with Sonia Khush, who works for Save the Children who operate in the camps, and she told me that she thinks this policy is misguided.

SONIA KHUSH: So it's when governments make that argument about, you know, we don't want to bring them home 'cause they're radical - like, they're less than 5 years old. The point we keep making to them, also, is if you leave them there, there's a good chance they'll become radical because they have no other options in life.

SHERLOCK: And, you know, this is something I'm hearing analysts who have connections inside the camp say - ISIS is already capitalizing on this. The group's believed to have paid smugglers to get loyalists out of the camp. And so now some residents are trying to signal that they want to come back to the group because they think it's the only way they can get out.

INSKEEP: Wow. But now the Kurdish authorities are saying that they want to empty this camp if they can, if they can figure out where to send everybody. Is that good?

SHERLOCK: Well, it's certainly welcomed by human rights groups. But it isn't an easy process, and it is going to take time. You know, some of the communities - well, so many communities in Syria suffered under ISIS, and so they don't necessarily want to see the return of women who might have been loyal to the group. And then you have, you know, many other Syrians who may want to go home but had their houses destroyed in the U.S.-led coalition offensive against the group.

In the meantime, you know, children are growing up in these camps. It's really quite terrible. Recently, Kurdish administrators are said to have rounded up boys older than the age of 13 and put them in prison - not because they've committed a crime but because they said they're too old to stay in these camps. The Kurds say they don't want to do this, but without more international help, they simply don't have another option.

INSKEEP: OK, thanks very much. That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock reporting today.

SHERLOCK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOULAR ORDER'S "LANGUAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.