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At Least 575 Tajik Women And Children Stranded In Syrian Refugee Camps

A Tajik government source says Syrian refugee camps currently house at least 575 Tajik women and children whose families had joined the Islamic State (IS) militant group.

A source within the Tajik government, speaking on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service on September 12 that most of the Tajiks are in the Al-Hol refugee camp, located in northeastern Syria.

"About 90 of them are women, more than 200 girls, and more than 240 boys," the source said, adding that some children are as young as 1 year old and most are orphans.

The majority of them arrived at the camp earlier in 2019 after being freed by IS fighters in Baghuz, the extremist group's last stronghold, which fell to Kurdish-led forces in March.

"This is not a final statistic, in reality the number of Tajik citizens could be much higher," the Tajik government source said.

The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria on September 11 described the situation at the Al-Hol camp as "appalling," and expressed concerns that most of the 3,500 children held there lack documents and are at risk of being left stateless.

"Up to 70,000 individuals remain interned in deplorable and inhumane conditions at Al-Hol camp, the vast majority of whom are women and children under the age of 12," commission representative Paulo Pinheiro said.

Pinheiro said many UN member states were unwilling to repatriate the children, particularly those aged of 12 to 18, due to fears that they might have links to extremism.

'Woefully Inadequate'

The Tajik source said that of the 70,000 refugees at Al-Hol, 10,000 are foreigners.

In describing the conditions at Al-Hol, the UN commission said that the population had ballooned from 10,000 people in a matter of months, and that the international community's humanitarian response "remains woefully inadequate."

It said hundreds of preventable deaths have been recorded and that at least 390 children had died from malnutrition or untreated infections.

IS once controlled large swaths of territory across Syria and Iraq, attracting fighters from across the world to join the group's so-called caliphate.

Authorities in Tajikistan have estimated that about 2,000 of its citizens left the country after 2014 to join IS. Official numbers previously placed the number of Tajik women and children living under IS control at about 400.

The Tajik government, which tightly controls religious activities in the predominantly Muslim country, offered an amnesty in 2015 to IS fighters and their families who returned.

Many who took Dushanbe up on its offer were showcased as participants in the government's anti-extremism campaign.

As IS fighters in Syria suffered major battlefield defeats in 2019, Tajikistan has said it does not intend to leave any Tajik children behind in Iraq and Syria, fearing they might pose a long-term security threat.

The government has since been engaged in an active effort to secure the repatriation of Tajik women and children, including more than 80 children who were repatriated from Iraq.

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