The release and reintegration of Syrian residents of the Al-Hol camp are becoming major obstacles to stabilization in Northeast Syria (NES). This is particularly the case in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, the last region liberated from ISIS and the one most damaged in the battles against the terrorist organization. A complex problem has emerged in the region that is highly contingent on the security situation in Syria and Iraq.
This paper provides a preliminary analysis on the issue of return from Al-Hol camp to the rural areas of Deir Ezzor under the control of the Autonomous Administration (AA), presenting some opportunities and challenges. The report also addresses the difficulties returnees face in their daily life and obstacles to reintegration with the community.
This research paper is based on a survey of 25 women who returned with their families to towns and villages in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor. Two online interviews with community leaders in the area including a representative of a local civil society organization working primarily with returnees, and a Sheikh directly involved in the tribal sponsorship process also took place. In addition, four dialogue sessions with community leaders and notables wi in the towns of Muwaylah, Azbah, Shahil, and Jadid Uqaydat were held in February 2021.
Al-Hol camp is located 40 kilometers east of the center of Hasakeh governorate. It was set up by the UNHCR in cooperation with the Syrian government during the Second Gulf War in 1991 to house the thousands of Iraqi refugees fleeing the war. At the time the number of refugees housed reached 15,000 and included Palestinians expelled from Kuwait. The camp was reopened in 2003 along with two other camps to receive refugees fleeing the war in Iraq and was closed in 2007, until it was reopened again in April 2016 for families displaced from areas under ISIS attacks. By late 2017, the camp had a population of 20,000. Following the defeat of ISIS, it expanded to accommodate new arrivals including families of ISIS fighters. By early 2019, Al-Hol camp housed almost 74,000 people. 
Since mid-2019 residents have been discharged, according to Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). As of March 2021, 61,000 people in 16,784 families remained in the camp. These families are divided into 8277 Iraqis, 5906 Syrians, and 2565 families of foreign fighters. The UN reports at least 40,000 children of various nationalities are in the camp. The camp houses citizens from 57 countries, the vast majority of whom are ISIS families.
The camp administration is done by the commission of Social Affairs and Labor of the AA, while Bluemont NGO oversees the camp organization and provides needs of its residents. However, according to human rights reports and returnees’ testimonies, residents suffer from deteriorating humanitarian conditions, poor services, and lack of basic necessities for food, drinking water and healthcare,
In addition to the poor living conditions, the security situation is the biggest concern for camp management and the whole region. In the past year, there have been 47 murder incidents inside the camp, 30 of which were Iraqis. Moreover, a security campaign carried out by the SDF and the local police (Asayish) in March 2021 uncovered weapons and tunnels in the camp, leading to the arrest of 28 persons including senior ISIS leaders. This reflects the risks associated with living in the camp and the need to secure and monitor the camp around the clock. The AA announced that the situation in Al Hol camp has improved after the last security operation, but according to some of the people interviewed in this paper, the camp is in a “catastrophic situation” and could be described as a “ticking time bomb”
Most relevant countries remain reluctant to repatriate their citizens who joined ISIS or their families. In Syria, however, the tribal sponsorship system has released thousands of Syrians from the camp since June 2019. However, the depopulation of the camp is still very slow and inefficient. Further efforts are needed to 1) Accelerate the release of families including children and 2) Ensure a conducive environment for the reintegration of these families into their respective communities.
Other camps in the region
There are more than camps of varying sizes in NES, excluding the temporary housing facilities in schools and halls. Some camps were closed, while others are still sheltering IDPs, such as Mashte Nour in Kobani, established in 2015, Roj camp in Gire Resh village, and Newroz camp in Malikiyah/Derik region. Both Roj and Newroz were established in 2014 for Iraqi refugees fleeing ISIS attacks. Its residents were primarily Yezidis who escaped from Sinjar and the districts of Zumar and Sheikhan. The Mabrouk camp south of Ras al-Ain has a capacity of around 14,000 residents and was opened in January 2015. Al-Sadd/Al-Shadadi camp, home to 4,000 IDPs opened in June 2017. Ain Eissa camp in Raqqa held approximately 10,000 residents but was closed and burned after the Turkish Operation Peace-Spring.
Tuwayhiniya, Abu Khashab camp, Rashid, and Tashrin are some other camps in Raqqa. Most of these camps were built during the war against ISIS, to accommodate those fleeing the caliphate, in addition to Iraqis from the border-areas who sought refuge in the AA-controlled areas.
Operation Peace Spring by turkey and allied Syrian National Army in Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad led to a wave of displacement in late 2019. The Washokani camp was hastily prepared for displaced people and shelters approximately 7,500 people. The Tal Abyad camp in Raqqa was also set up and later expanded due to the influx of IDPs. In addition, many schools (especially in Hasakah Governorate) were repurposed into temporary shelters.
All camps are supervised by the commission of Social Affairs and Labor and managed by local organizations such as the Kurdish Red Crescent, and international organizations such as the UNHCR, UNICEF, Mercy Crops, People im Nadi, IRD, and IRC.
Leaving Al-Hol camp: Syrian citizens
Tribal and Family Sponsorship
One of the main ways that families are being released from Al-Hol camp is sponsorship by a tribal leader. Tribal leaders (Sheiks and notables) are allowed to request the release of individuals. These are mostly members of the tribe or large families known by the tribal leaders. Names are agreed upon by the tribal leaders and the camp administration and sponsors should be Syrians. This framework was introduced by the AANES to deal with the crisis of IDPs following the territorial defeat of ISIS in Baghouz in March 2019. According to a tribal leader in Deir Ezzor nearly 5,000 families have been released this way, including 1,200 families that went to Raqqa.
Women who returned from Al-Hol found that family sponsorship is the safest and least expensive way for families to leave the camp. Of the 25 women interviewed for this paper, eleven said they went out on bail (tribal or family sponsorship). The process is usually very slow according to returnees but it is the period after resettlement that is the hardest. The main problem is gaining acceptance by the family and community. For instance, the parents of one woman refused to let her out with her children and asked to release her alone because she was married to an unknown person (a foreigner).
In addition to family and tribal sponsorship, the framework is also open for entities to facilitate the exit of some families. For example, a consortium of five local civil society organizations (CSOs) in Deir Ezzor in coordination with the Deir Ezzor Civil Council (DCC) prepared a list of families to sponsor based on information given by relatives. According to one CSO representative, nearly 75 families were released by this initiative. However, this approach is not systematic yet and requires high levels of coordination with many stages of approval. The dependence of local organizations on funding and donor agendas further complicates this work and limits its effectiveness.
One important issue affecting the sponsorship system is corruption. Some brokers/sponsors have reportedly cashed out large sums from camp residents to be added to the lists of those sponsored and will be released. This practice is hampering the efforts of Sheikhs and dignitaries who take upon themselves the released ones. The Sheikh of a significant tribe in Deir Ezzor has expressed his dismay at some sponsors who receive “bribes”. These practices by others forced him to refrain from providing sponsorships to protect his reputation. He also confirmed that other Sheikhs had stopped helping camp residents for the same reason.
Requests to leave the camp without a sponsor
Eight out of 25 surveyed women said they had left by applying for exit approval to camp management. This mechanism is available to families living in the camp who have voluntarily entered and have no direct relationship with ISIS members. According to these women, the process included repeated requests and waiting periods for up to one year until the application was approved. According to media sources, approximately 65 families were released this way in March 2021 after their identity was verified and passed a security vetting.
Some residents resort to illegal methods to leave by paying smugglers to get their families out of the camp. Water tankers have been used to smuggle inhabitants out of the camp, nearly resulting in their deaths. However, despite talks about smuggling and while some of the interviewees spoke about it, no monitoring or documentation of these operations are available. One reason for the lack of information could be to avoid accountability when the issue is investigated and documented, reported one interview.
Six women interviewed for the survey stated that they were smuggled out. For these women, the biggest hurdle was the large sums they had to pay to smugglers. There are no precise figures or information on the amounts paid usually for smuggling, but some sources point to around 800 USD per person.
In addition to the financial burden, getting out of the camp this way is risky, as smuggling is carried out by gangs inside and outside the camp. According to a source close to one smuggled family, the smuggled groups often get attacked just after leaving the camp and before reaching the final destination. Many failed attempts have taken place with families returning to the camp.
In the absence of accurate statistics and figures on the number of returnees from Al-Hol camp to Deir Ezzor, documenting the returnees’ whereabouts is another challenge. The prevalence of smuggling operations exacerbates this problem. That being said, the distribution of the population can be grouped into three main categories:
1. Returning to areas of origin in Deir Ezzor countryside:
This category is primarily for those who return on sponsorship, as the return is to a place of residence determined by the conditions of the bail. For example, a family returning from Al-Hol through tribal sponsorship often reside in the area where the tribe is spread or in the areas in which relatives of the sponsoring family reside.
In addition, the security and economic situation is a factor in the distribution of returnees, as most returnees, mainly from areas under the control of the AANES, return to their towns and villages due to the relatively stable security situation compared to other areas, or because proximity to the family provides returnees with necessary housing and livelihood in most cases.
2. Returnees from other areas resettle in AA-controlled Deir Ezzor countryside:
Returnees who come originally from areas are now under the control of Syrian regime forces and affiliated militias. In a dialogue session held in Al-Azbah town, participants reported that seven villages east of the Euphrates are currently under the control of regime forces and allied Iranian militias, so IDPs from those villages are now temporarily living in makeshift houses on the outskirts of Azbah town.
3. Returnees to other areas in Syria or abroad:
This category includes people who come from other areas such as the Raqqa governorate or the northern Aleppo countryside. However, some information also suggests Turkey as a destination for some returnees, especially for younger ones seeking jobs or fleeing security restrictions (arrests and forced conscription).
Challenges for returnees and reintegration opportunities
The lack of adequate housing is one of the main challenges facing families returning from Al-Hol, especially for women and children. Of the 25 women interviewed in the questionnaire, 17 said they were staying with another family in the same house. This was either their extended family, husband’s parents, or even other families in the same situation. In addition, two of the women stated that they were staying in unprepared temporary shelters (an old poultry farm). According to an expert interviewed for the paper, many of the returning families found their previous homes destroyed or uninhabitable, forcing them to build tents with available materials to live in (such as jute) or to reside in another camp for displaced persons in the area (Al-Sadd and Abu Khashab camps) with fewer restrictions. Another source mentioned the spread of mud houses built hastily on the outskirts of villages and towns in some areas of rural Deir Ezzor.
Economic situation and livelihood
The availability and quality of basic services in areas of return are some of the most significant challenges for returnees, ultimately limiting the effectiveness of reintegration efforts. The lack of specialized centers to provide assistance to returnees forces women released from the camp to either rely on relatives or return to the camp. Of the 25 women surveyed, 17 reported living with their children without a steady provider, while six relied on a family member as a primary breadwinner (father, son, or brother).
In contrast, only two women said that they work and provide for the family. In this context, the limited employment opportunities available to women and the general lack of qualifications impose a crucial barrier to securing sustainable and sufficient employment opportunities to support their families. According to a local elder participating in the local dialogue sessions on the situation of the returnees, “a large portion of the detainees in Al-Hol camp prefer to stay there rather than returning to their villages, because of the economic situation”, as staying in the camp may ensure the family’s access to humanitarian assistance from the camp administration.
Community view of returnees:
Reintegration within the community is usually challenged by the perception and acceptance of returnees, especially those known or suspected to be associated with ISIS members. Several women interviewed said they suffered from a negative perception of them and were treated as if they were radicalized. this practice pushed them to live in isolation at the edges of the villages and towns they returned to. Two interviewed women were married to foreign fighters.
On the other hand, one Sheikh interviewed for this paper offered a very different account: “The returnees are from our own tribe, and we have to welcome them and give them everything we can, and there are no discriminatory views against them,” he said.
Legal issues and civil-register documents
Many returnees are unable to issue identification papers for themselves and their children, especially as the marriages have not been documented in any civil registers. This problem is particularly stark when the nationality of the father is unknown. Many children were born to foreign fighters whose real names are not known even to their spouses. Moreover, according to Syrian law, mothers don’t grant Syrian nationality to their children. It is also difficult (if not impossible) to register the children of Syrian nationals since official records are located in areas under Syrian government control in the city of Deir Ezzor, which makes the issue of formal birth registration of newborns a priority to attend to.
The threats of extremist ideology
In the absence of large programs to counter violent extremism both inside and outside the camp, the spread of extremist ideology could become a major challenge for the reintegration processes. One interviewee cited the danger associated with extremist ideology among children and youth who lived most of their lives under this ideology and “know nothing but a tent, extremist rhetoric, and the ideology of ISIS.” He also pointed to the moral dilemma in balancing the humanitarian principles and the sympathy for families of former fighters from one side, and the danger inherent in the influence and conviction in extremist ideology on these families receiving support, from the other side.
This factor also poses a challenge to the design of psychological and livelihood support programs for returnees, especially women and children. A member of a CSO mentioned the reluctance of a woman to join a professional qualification program in hairdressing as she considers it unreligious or “Haram”. There is also an urgent need to train CSO and aid workers on the design of psychosocial support programs that take into account the issue of extremist ideology and the premise of intolerance in this group.
Security concerns are a major challenge both for returnees and the local communities, especially considering the increased activity of ISIS sleeper cells and the prevalence of kidnapping and assassinations. A community leader stated in a dialogue session that the raids and security operations carried out by SDF in the area are also contributing to the stalling of the reintegration process. Calls were made by some communities for the displaced to leave the area due to their direct involvement and their role in the “security incidents and chaos.” He described the security operations taking place in the area as “harassment of returnees and their families.” Furthermore, a number of participants in the dialogue sessions pointed to the difficulty of separating the issue of returnees and reintegration from the security and political situation in Syria as a whole, pointing to the stalled political solution as an impediment that hinders stability and the improvement of living conditions of both the returnees and the communities.
Conclusions and recommendations
This paper provides an overview of the complexities involved in the return of Syrians from Al-Hol camp and the challenges of their reintegration into the community. It aims to serve as a preamble for the expansion and in-depth investigation of these issues. Given that the data in this paper point to the overlap of various social, economic, security, psychological, and administrative factors which have a great influence on the topic, as well as to the multiple levels and number of actors involved, high levels of coordination are needed to deal with this problem.
The lack of clear information on exit mechanisms, the number and distribution of returnees, poor planning and coordination at different levels and among different actors are the first factors that should be taken into account to foster opportunities for resolution and transition to stability. This also points to the need to systematically intensify documentation, verification, and assessment. These must be built on to develop plans, programs, and mechanisms that ensure the synergy of efforts and the cumulative impact in responding to immediate humanitarian challenges as well as more serious, complex challenges linked to the social, security, and psychological context of returnees and communities alike.
 Syria war toll tops 100: Internal Security Forces Asayish Announces the End of the First Phase of the Security Campaign within the Al-Hol Mini-State 02.04.2021. Seen at 13.04.2021 https://bit.ly/3a8zVK4
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