Governments should repatriate foreign children stranded in Syria before it’s too late

Statement by UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore

04 November 2019

NEW YORK, 4 November 2019 – “The latest escalation in northeast Syria brings a renewed urgency for governments to repatriate foreign children stranded in the area before it is too late. National governments have the responsibility and opportunity now to do the right thing and bring these children and their parents home where they can receive adequate care and be safe from violence and abuse.

“According to our best estimates:

  • Nearly 28,000 children from more than 60 different countries, including almost 20,000 from Iraq, remain trapped in the northeast, mostly in displacement camps.
  • More than 80 per cent of these children are under the age of 12 and 50 per cent are under the age of 5.
  • At least 250 boys, some as young as nine years old, are held in detention, though the actual numbers are likely to be much higher.

“All are living in conditions not fit for children. Their main question to the world is: What will happen to us? 

“These children urgently need adequate care and protection.

“We know that at least 17 countries have already repatriated more than 650 children – many of whom are now living with family members, including in some cases, their mothers who have returned with them. Children are safe, attending schools and recovering from their experiences of war.

“UNICEF has supported some of these child returnees, including by helping reintegrate them into their extended families and communities.

“UNICEF commends the leadership of these countries. Their actions, and UNICEF’s long experience of supporting children, families and communities affected by armed conflict around the world, show us that where there is a will, there is a way.

“The actions of these countries, however, remain the exception, rather than the norm. Our message to governments is unequivocal: The best interests of children should be a primary consideration at all times.

“UNICEF remains deeply worried for the safety and wellbeing of these children and of the tens of thousands of Syrian children struggling to survive amidst increasingly dire conditions in the area’s camps and detention centers. This includes the 40,000 children newly displaced across Syria’s northeast. Some have been separated from their families, injured or disabled because of the violence. All of them are critically vulnerable and in urgent need of protection from further harm.

“UNICEF renews its calls for urgent action from member states and parties to the conflict, including:

  • Detention should only be a measure of last resort and for the shortest time possible. Children should not be detained based solely on suspected family ties with armed groups or the membership of family members in armed groups. If children are suspected of having committed a crime, they should be treated in line with the principles of juvenile justice, with a focus on their rehabilitation and return to civilian life.
  • In line with the best interests of the child and in compliance with international standards, governments should ensure the safe reintegration of Syrian children into their local communities and the safe, dignified and voluntary repatriation of foreign children back to their countries of origin. The preservation of family unity and the principle of non-refoulement are critical for protecting children.
  • All member states should provide children who are their citizens, or born to their nationals, with civil documentation to prevent statelessness.
  • Parties to the conflict and those who have influence over them should protect children at all times. This includes avoiding attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, like health centers, water systems and schools.
  • Parties should also allow for unimpeded access by humanitarian organizations to deliver assistance and care to children and families, including those in places of detention.

“Children, whether in the northeast or elsewhere inside Syria, must not be abandoned while the walls of war close in around them.”

Media contacts

Juliette Touma
Regional Chief of Advocacy and Communications
UNICEF Middle East and North Africa Regional Office
Tel: 00962798674628


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