Children of Isil's caliphate left to toil in squalid refugee camps




 

Eight-year-old Hamed cast a critical eye at the at tent peg, raised a hammer above his head and began thwacking it into the hard, stony ground.

It is heavy work, and he would rather be in school. But he has little choice.

"I get about 2,000 lira for putting up one tent," he said, using the popular term here for Syrian pounds. "I can do three or four a day, so that is 8,000."

That, he said, is just about enough to feed himself, his mother, and her newborn baby twice a day. "But we can't eat all the time," he said. "My mother explained, we can't spend so much money on food because we need to buy stuff for the baby now."

Hamed is one of about 41,000 children in al-Hol, the largest of three sprawling camps in north eastern Syria that houses former members, children, and prisoners of the Islamic State terrorist group.

The fate of the children who emerged from Isil's doomed caliphate is a matter of humanitarian urgency and critical to international security.

And yet the lack of provision made by world governments, including Britain's, is striking.

The Telegraph has seen dozens of malnourished infants as Isil families left Baghouz, Isil's last bastion, in the past two weeks.

At least 108 children have already died en route to or soon after arriving at the camp, mostly from severe acute malnutrition, pneumonia, and dehydration, according to the international Rescue Committee.

The vast majority of them were under five years old, and most of those babies younger than one. Many are also carrying serious injuries from shrapnel.

The casualties included Jarrah Begum, Shamima Begum's newborn son, who died of a lung infection last month.

Unicef has described the living conditions for those children who reach the camp as "extremely dire."

Hamed, who spoke to the Telegraph with the permission of his German mother and on condition of anonymity, said he bitterly misses his old life in Europe.

"If there was a school, I'd go to it," he said, as he took a pause in his tent work to speak to the Telegraph. "But there isn't one here."

"When I was in Germany I was learning, then in Doula I learnt nothing," he said, using the Arabic word for "State" - the term many Isil families use for the group.

"They just teach like the Quran... and they teach you that you have to fight. But I said: 'I don't want to fight'. I don't like to fight. I just want to be a normal one, I just want to live in a house and make my job. I don't want to fight, I don't want to be a warrior."

He said he had left Germany when he was five years old, and only emerged from the Islamic State two months ago.

The camp, he said, is a miserable and filthy place. "Kids poop everywhere," he said. "You have to watch where you walk. You can't just sit anywhere, like you can in Germany."

It is not surprising. Adults in the section of the camp where Hamed lives told the Telegraph many of the young children have chronic diarrhoea.

"Play", if there is such a thing, involves picking on one another or chucking rocks at moving cars.

"They call me a dog and things. They think it is a joke," said Hamed, when asked about his friends. "My mother doesn't like me to be like the other children. She says maybe there is a little baby there, like three years old, and maybe you'll hit him. Even though I don't like to throw rocks," he said.

"It's not a game. They come, they throw, the glass breaks," he said. "In Germany it is not like this, you're not hitting on cars. If you want to play you go to your friends, you have friends, they don't call you anything, you play a bit."

Most children have little time for that though.

Adults here told the Telegraph that almost every child from about the age of eight upwards is a low-paid labourer in the camp's grey economy.

"They're already entrepreneurs. I think they wake up and the first thing they think is: who am I going to hit up for money today?" said Lorna Henri, a 54-year-old woman from the Seychelles who has become the de-facto guardian of two unaccompanied children in the camp. "I try to give them what I can."

Ms Henri said boys generally sent by their mothers to run errands in the camp market, which children can access more easily than adults, and put up tents. Girls clean or offer to cook.

The market, in the larger and more loosely regulated section of the camp for Syrian and Iraqi citizens, is crowded with small boys hauling hand carts for 200 Syrian pounds per errand.

Such Dickensian scenes are not unusual amidst humanitarian crisis. And across the Middle East, children are generally expected to pull their own weight at an earlier age than in the West.

But the prospects for these children are bleak in more than one way.

Radical Isil supporters continue to exert influence inside al-Hol, including by harassing women who want to remove their veils. There have been reports of punishment tent-burnings by an underground "religious police", and several women from different countries who the Telegraph spoke to complained about being labelled "infidels" by their fellow inmates.

Without intervention, there is a good chance the children here will be brought up in the same poisonous ideology that turned many of their fathers into terrorists.

The United Nations has expressed "alarm" at the situation. Last week Henrietta Fore, the executive director of UNICEF, urged member states "to take responsibility for children who are their citizens or born to their nationals, and to take measures to prevent children from becoming stateless."

Some governments have heeded the call. Last week, the French government said it had evacuated several children.

But Kurdish officials have told the Telegraph that Britain has refused to take back British Isil members or their children in the camps on the grounds that it has full confidence in the legal and administrative system of Rojava, the unrecognised Kurdish proto-state in northern Syria.

Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, last week claimed that it would have been "too risky" to send British officials to save Jarrah Begum, although he remained a British citizen after his mother was stripped of her own citizenship.

However, the al-Hol camp is run by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led Western-backed armed group that Britain is allied to. Journalists, including from the Telegraph, and aid workers visit the camp on a regular basis, safely and without incident.

Nor is it true, as Mr Hunt claimed, that journalists are afforded special protection unavailable to UK officials in Syria or in the camps.

In al-Hol, the foreign women constantly exchange rumours about which governments might take Isil members back. For their children, who committed no crime, the only thing on the horizon is more arduous work.

"I'd like to...sell stuff. Or you know, build houses," shrugged Hamed, when asked what he would like to do when he grows up. Those are the only careers on offer in al-Hol camp.

He picked up his hammer, and went back to hitting the tent peg. His blows made little impact on the stony ground.

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