Hundreds of children detained in the Hassakeh jail should never have been detained because of ties to armed groups, UNICEF said.
Hundreds of children detained in a prison in Syria who witnessed a bloody 10-day battle between US-backed Kurdish fighters and ISIL (ISIS) are living in “incredibly dire” conditions and they should not have been in the first place has not been there, the UN says.
The children’s agency UNICEF added it was ready to support a new safe haven in northeastern Syria to care for the most vulnerable children, some of whom are as young as 12. His statement Sunday comes a day after a visit by one of his teams to the jail in the northeastern city of Hassakeh.
UNICEF members, after visiting children at the prison, said they had lived in appalling conditions for years, and in January “saw and survived increased violence” in and around the facility.
More than 3,000 prisoners, more than 600 of whom are children, are being held in Hassakeh prison.
“Despite some of the basic services that are in place now, the situation of these children is incredibly uncertain,” Bo Viktor Nylund, UNICEF’s Syria representative, said in the statement.
While boys were separated from adults, the groups mixed then ISIL fighters stormed jail in a jail break on January 20th. Some prisoners escaped, while others, including child detainees, were taken hostage in the ensuing battle.
‘Treat as victims’
Nylund said UNICEF is working to provide safety and care for them, while urging all stakeholders to urgently find long-term solutions in the best interests of the children.
“Children should never be detained because of association with armed groups,” Nylund said. “Children who are associated with and recruited by armed groups should always be treated as victims of conflict.”
International rights groups, including Save the Children and Human Rights Watch, had previously said about 700 boys had been detained before the operation to remove the ISIL attackers.
The children between the ages of 12 and 18 include many who have had adult family members in prison and have been displaced from nearby relocation camps that house thousands of child fighters.
Human Rights Watch said on Friday hundreds of boys were missing in the fighting in and around the jail.
Kurdish forces take prison
At a press conference on January 31, the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said they had control taken back of the jail and confirmed that 77 jail workers, 40 Kurdish fighters and four civilians were killed, along with 374 ISIL detainees and assailants.
Kurdish authorities maintain that no prisoners have escaped, but the UK-based watchdog Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Sunday that hundreds of ISIL members had escaped.
“Some of them crossed over to Turkey,” the war monitor said.
Nylund said destruction in the surrounding area of the prison is significant with destroyed homes affecting an estimated 30,000 people. He said every effort, including by the Syrian government and local authorities, to provide immediate assistance should be supported.
He said UNICEF called for the immediate release of children in all detention centers across northeastern Syria, and that they be handed over to child protection agencies. He said the agency also demands statements from foreign children repatriate them.