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NGO warns that harsh Syrian camp conditions "could radicalise"

A Kurdish administration envoy has held talks with Finnish officials and five complaints have been filed over the fate of women and children at the camp.

Suomalaisnaisia al-Holin leirillä Syyriassa.
Finnish women at the a-Hol refugee camp in northern Syria. Image: Antti Kuronen / Yle

Conditions at the al-Hol refugee camp in north-eastern Syria are extremely harsh, head of Finnish Red Cross SPR aid operations Kalle Löövi told Yle on Thursday.

Finland has been involved in organising 30 new beds at the camp’s field hospital and SPR aid workers are currently deployed at the facility.

However Löövi would not disclose whether or not the Finnish aid workers have met any of the 33 Finnish women and 11 children said to be living at al-Hol.

"Our aid workers work at the hospital. We wouldn’t even discuss whether or not we have had contact with people of specific nationalities. People are at the hospital as patients and they are receiving care," Löövi declared.

He added that the camp houses people who have been prisoners of the extremist group Isis as well as family members of Isis fighters. In that sense, residents comprise a diverse group of people with different backgrounds. He noted that the majority of people at the camp are Syrians but altogether residents represent more than 60 nationalities.

Löövi said that it is possible for people to become radicalised in the camp’s grim conditions.

"If you want them involved in normal society, it would be best if they are in their own communities," he noted.

Löövi said that the term "Isis camp" that has been widely used in the media to describe al-Hol is incorrect.

"It is not an Isis camp, but a camp established by Syrian Kurdish regional administrative officials, where they have settled evacuated people," he explained.

He didn’t say whether or not Finnish citizens at the camp should be repatriated, however he did say that citizens should be removed.

"All citizens of whatever nationality who did not take part in the war are civilians and they should be removed. It would be wisest to send people to their home countries."

Half of field hospital patients young children

Löövi told Yle’s Aamu-tv breakfast television show that a few thousand of the camp’s 70,000 residents have serious injuries, because before being relocated to the camp, they had lived in areas that had been subjected to heavy bombing.

Patients at the hospital have been receiving treatment for infected wounds, shrapnel injuries and broken bones. Hospital workers have also reported encountering severely traumatised children, the aid worker said.

Löövi said that the field hospital has so far treated more than 2,000 patients. In addition, there are three mobile health centres that have cared for over 12,000.

"A quarter of the patients are infants who are in poor shape because of fever and diarrhoea. Altogether half of hospital patients are small children," Löövi added.

He described conditions at al-Hol as poor, adding that it was designed for fewer residents. In addition to a shortage of medical care, clean water and food are also in short supply and hygiene is inadequate.

The camp is currently receiving 50,000 litres of clean water daily. The Red Cross is also building toilet facilities and organising food deliveries.

Finland in talks with Kurdish authorities

Meanwhile Finnish interior ministry officials are said to have held talks with representatives if Syria’s independent Kurdish administration about Finns at the al-Hol camp.

The Democratic Union Party, PYD, controls Kurdish areas in Syria. Salih Muhammad, a member of the party’s leadership recently visited Finland. Muhammad told Yle that he has held discussions with interior and foreign ministry officials.

"I provided information about the situation in northern Syria. The interior ministry had many questions about Isis. I told what we know and promised to help Finnish officials," Muhammad commented.

Discussions about al-Hol often centre on what should be done about foreigners guilty of criminal offences. The Kurds support the idea of an international tribunal, with the caveat that people found guilty of committing crimes in the area would also be sentenced there.

"There is evidence as well as witnesses in the area," Muhammad noted, adding that capital punishment no longer exists in the area.

Some Isis fighters are currently imprisoned in Kurdish areas. Isis victims claim that many foreign women have had a hand in atrocities perpetrated by the extremist group. Muhammad said that women should also be tried.

Complaints to Chancellor of Justice

In another development regarding Finnish Isis fighters’ families in Syria, the office of Finland’s Chancellor of Justice said Thursday that it had received five complaints regarding the government’s position on removing the women and children from al-Hol.

Three of the grievances condemned Finland for not moving to evacuate the women and children from the camp and called for the authorities to bring them to Finland, adding that the relatives are prepared to foot the bill for evacuating them. However they pointed out that the women and children cannot be removed without assistance from Finnish authorities.

Two of the filings opposed the possible evacuation of Finnish women and children from the refugee camp, noting that “integration” would be problematic and that their return could foment terrorism.

The first complaint was submitted at the beginning of June. The Chancellor’s office said it could not speculate on a timetable for resolving the complaints.

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