The situation of civilians in the northeastern Syrian city of Al-Hasakeh is deeply troubling. On 20 January, ISIL fighters launched apparently coordinated attacks on a prison there, enabling dozens of inmates, many of them suspected ISIL members, to escape and sparking fighting between ISIL and the Kurdish-led Syrian Defence Forces (SDF), including in residential areas.
The SDF subsequently said it had recaptured many of the escapees, but a number are reportedly hiding in populated areas in Al-Hasakeh, specifically in the Ghweiran and al-Zuhoor neighbourhoods.
The SDF has declared a curfew in all areas under its control in the city and has, with air support from international forces, surrounded the prison. However, detainees, many of whom are suspected to have been ISIL fighters, are said to be in control of the prison’s main building and have taken some prison staff hostage.
The Ghweiran prison is one of the biggest detention centres in northeast Syria, housing an estimated 5,000 male detainees, many in prolonged pre-trial detention or internment. The exact composition of the prison population is not clear but it includes many suspected ISIL fighters, including Iraqi and Syrian nationals.
We are particularly disturbed by reports that a significant number of boys, possibly several hundred, are held there and are extremely concerned for their safety and well-being. The detention of children should, as ever, be a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.
In response to Thursday’s attacks – the biggest since ISIL was declared defeated in Syria in 2019 – international forces have carried out several airstrikes near the prison, including on areas where fugitives are believed to be hiding.
In addition, thousands of people are said to have fled the immediate area for fear of further attacks by ISIL and to escape ongoing clashes.
We remind all parties to the conflict, as well as governments with influence over the parties, that international law requires them to do their utmost to protect civilians, including in the planning and execution of military and security operations.
These latest developments in Al-Hasakeh highlight the desperate situation of thousands of detainees, including suspected ISIL members, across Syria. We have previously warned about the squalid and insecure state of detention facilities run by the SDF, where detainees are held in overcrowded conditions, do not have access to proper medical care and cannot see their families. There have been several riots, instigated on occasion by detainees with links to ISIL, and attacks on these locations by ISIL sleeper cells, as appears to have been the case in Thursday’s attack on Ghweiran prison.
In addition, we remain deeply concerned by the situation of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis and ‘third country nationals’ with presumed family links to ISIL members, who are confined in overcrowded displacement camps such as Al-Hol and Al-Roj in northeastern Syria. Acts of violence, including killings by unidentified perpetrators, and dire living conditions continue to affect the camps’ residents. This makes it all the more important, as the High Commissioner has previously stressed, that countries of origin should repatriate their nationals, especially women and children, in accordance with their obligations under international law.