(Port of Spain, Trinidad) – Over 90 nationals of Trinidad and Tobago, including at least 56 children, are unlawfully detained in life-threatening conditions as Islamic State (ISIS) suspects and family members in northeast Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. The government of Trinidad and Tobago has taken almost no action to help them return, even as countries including the United States and Barbados repatriate their own nationals.
Conditions in the camps and prisons holding Trinidadians and other ISIS-linked suspects and family members are increasingly dire. Turkish airstrikes in November 2022 hit a security post at one camp, killing eight guards, and came perilously close to striking one of the prisons. Health care, clean water, shelter, and education and recreation for children are grossly inadequate. Mothers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they hide their children in their tents to protect them from sexual predators, abusive camp guards, and ISIS recruiters and fighters. Children have drowned in sewage pits, died in tent fires, and been hit and killed by water trucks, and hundreds have died from treatable illnesses.
ISIS rebuild their lives, and fairly prosecute any adults linked to serious crimes.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed six Trinidadians held in the camps and prisons in 2022 and 2019, and seven family members, an attorney, and three advocates representing the detainees from December to February 2023. In addition, Human Rights Watch reviewed court documents related to cases filed by the families seeking to compel the government to bring home their loved ones. The names of those detained are withheld to protect their privacy.
Approximately 90 to 100 Trinidad and Tobago nationals are detained in northeast Syria by US-backed, Kurdish-led regional forces, according to family members and advocates. They include an estimated 21 women, at least one of them a grandmother, and at least 56 children in Roj and al-Hol, two locked camps for families with alleged ISIS links. Forty-four of the children in the camps are age 12 or younger and 15 are under age 6, family members said. At least 33 children were born in Syria including one child, born in al-Hol, who is only 3. In addition, at least 13 Trinidadian males, including at least one teenage boy, are held in other detention centers. At least six of the older boys and men – the teenager, 17, and five men ages 18 to 20 – were taken to Syria by family members when they were children.
All six Trinidadians whom Human Rights Watch interviewed in locked camps and other detention centers in northeast Syria said that more than anything, they wanted to go home.
“My father lied to me – he told me that we were going to Disneyland,” said a detained 17-year-old Trinidadian boy taken by his father to Syria in 2014. “It’s not my fault, it’s my father’s fault. I wish I never came here in Syria. I just want to come back home, you know.”
A 19-year-old Trinidadian youth said: “My dad told me I was going to go to a hotel in Egypt and swim in a pool. I was 11 years old. I only knew the names of countries like Trinidad and America.” He was among about 30 foreign youths – older teens and young men – detained 23 hours a day in a cell in Alaya prison that was just big enough to fit all their mattresses on the floor. The youths had only one toilet and shower and the stench permeated the cell, he said.
Three Trinidadians who came to Syria as adults said they wrongly thought they were going to a Muslim utopia, only to learn once they arrived that ISIS would not let them leave.
“This is a nightmare I cannot wake up from,” said a detained Trinidadian woman, adding that she was willing to serve prison time in Trinidad if she and her family were allowed home. “As Muslims we wanted to experience the Islamic State like Christians want to visit Jerusalem,” said the woman, one of nine members of the same family detained in northeast Syria. “It was so easy to get to Syria…. But then we found there was no way out.”
Most of the Trinidadians were rounded up in late 2018 or early 2019 by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as they toppled the last remnant of ISIS’s self-declared “caliphate” in northeast Syria. They are among nearly 42,000 other foreigners from about 60 countries and more than 23,000 Syrians held as ISIS suspects and family members in northeast Syria.
In addition, four women from Trinidad and Tobago are imprisoned in Iraq with their seven children, family members said. The women were convicted of ISIS links in neighboring Iraq, where Human Rights Watch has found serious, widespread flaws in prosecutions of terrorism suspects, including of foreign women.
None of the detained foreigners has been able to challenge the necessity and legality of their detention, making their detention arbitrary and unlawful. Their detention conditions are cruel and degrading, and in many cases inhuman, and may amount to torture. Governments that knowingly and significantly contribute to the detainees’ abusive confinement may be complicit in their unlawful detention.
At least 36 countries have repatriated some or many of their nationals from northeast Syria. Repatriations have increased since October 2022 with at least 10 countries, including Barbados, bringing back some or many of their nationals. Many repatriated children are successfully reintegrating in their home countries, Human Rights Watch research has found.
Yet authorities in Trinidad and Tobago have not taken steps to bring home their nationals detained in northeast Syria for investigation and, if warranted, prosecution, citing security concerns. It is only known to have allowed the returns of eight nationals – a woman with two children, another woman and two teenage girls, and two young boys – and none since 2019. Most made it out of Syria without the government’s help.
Human Rights Watch wrote to the minister of national security on December 21, 2022, requesting details on Trinidad and Tobago’s policies and practices regarding the repatriation of its nationals from northeast Syria, but despite repeated requests, had not received the requested information as of February 15, 2023. On February 15, 2023, Attorney General Reginald Armour wrote to Human Rights Watch that his office “has been working assiduously with all stakeholders,” including other government ministries, on a policy framework for repatriations, but gave no timeline. A separate February 15, 2023 communication from the Ministry of Foreign and CARICOM affairs also indicated that it was “actively engaged” on the issue.
The government of Trinidad and Tobago should urgently ensure that all its nationals detained in northeast Syria and Iraq can come home, giving priority to children and their mothers, and to particularly vulnerable detainees. The government should also provide individualized rehabilitation and reintegration support for returnees, ensuring that the best interests of the child guide all decisions regarding returned children. Once home, adults implicated in serious ISIS-related crimes can be prosecuted in line with international due process standards. Donors, United Nations entities, and other countries with close ties to Trinidad and Tobago should support this process.
“Most of the Trinidadians detained in northeast Syria are children who never chose to live under ISIS,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “These children should have the chance to go home, go to school, and enjoy their childhood instead of suffering because of their parents’ decisions.”
Source: Human Rights Watch