Overcrowded prisons and camps in northeast Syria raise fears of COVID-19 outbreak
AMMAN — There have been three cases of COVID-19 recorded in the areas under the control of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA), prompting local health officials to quarantine at least two of the three neighborhoods in which the patients lived.
Though officials were quick to act, the prospect of an outbreak in AA-controlled areas is alarming, given its large population of Internally Displaced People (IDPs), as well as prisons and camps populated by suspected members of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and their families, in addition to a smaller population of political prisoners.
SDF Prisons are a “disaster”
In response to rising concerns over the outbreak of COVID-19 in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), on April 4, the political arm of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), announced the formation of a committee tasked with investigating the fate of prisoners and kidnapped people.
While the AA has welcomed the SDC’s initiative, it stressed that all of its prisons, run by the SDF, are “open to concerned parties,” and that “they had been visited more than once by several international humanitarian organizations, including the International Red Cross Committee and Human Rights Watch.”
On the contrary, Fadel Abdulghani, the director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), told Syria Direct that “international organizations are not allowed to visit [the SDF-run] prisons and inspect their conditions,” which he described as a “disaster” due to their poor living conditions.
Nine main prisons exist in the SDF-controlled territory, most of which hold those accused of being members or sympathizers of IS. Among the prisoners, there is a “serious fear of the spread of coronavirus due to the severe overcrowding in these detention centers,” according to Abdulghani.
This was confirmed also by Sara Kayyalli, a Syria researcher with Human Rights Watch, who told Syria Direct that the living conditions in these prisons are no better than those of the government-controlled prisons, as they are “massively overcrowded and lack medical care.”
The main prisons in AA areas
Most detention centers in northeast Syria used to be “schools or buildings built for other purposes and have been transformed into prisons,” Bassam al-Ahmad, the director of Syrians for Truth and Justice, told Syria Direct.
The AA insists that all of those in its detention centers are either members of IS or have committed crimes; however, several sources spoke to Syria Direct expressed doubts about the veracity of that claim.
According to Abdulghani, although most of the prisoners in the SDF detention centers are IS members, “there are also political prisoners, among others.” He further added that “even if the detainees are [IS] members, they still have rights.”
The SNHR estimates that there are over 3,000 non-IS affiliated prisoners in detention centers in SDF-controlled areas, some of whom are civilian activists or political prisoners.
Further, there are “around 12,000 foreign [IS] members in the SDF prisons, in addition to 15,000 Syrians who are accused of being loyal to or being members of the group,” Rami Abdulrahman, the director of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), told Syria Direct.
AA officials, including the Minister of Health, Minister of Interior and Foreign Minister, did not respond to Syria Direct’s requests for comments on this report.
IDP and IS camps prepare themselves for the virus
There are more than 200,000 IDPs living in al-Shahba area in Aleppo province alone, all of whom are serviced by only one hospital that already suffers from shortages of beds and rooms, according to a report by the Kurdish Red Crescent provided to Syria Direct. In total, there are of 600,000 IDPs living in northeast Syria.
Al-Hol camp, located by the country’s northeastern border with Iraq, presents a similarly concerning scenario. The camp hosts around 65,000 individuals who either are family members of former IS fighters or used to live under the group’s control before it was defeated by the SDF in March 2019.
The possibility of the spread of COVID-19 “adds an extra layer of difficulties to the already dire conditions in the camp, which lacks food, water and medical supplies,” Issa Dahir, the head of the jointly-run International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) field hospital in al-Hol, told Syria Direct.
The field hospital headed by Dahir is made up of 16 specialists, supported by 72 local staff. There is also another hospital in the camp run by the Kurdish Red Crescent and another local humanitarian organization.
Although al-Hol does not have any active isolation centers at the moment, the ICRC has recently constructed facilities for this purpose and is expecting to open them pending ongoing stocking of medical supplies.
Further, though the camp initially suffered from shortages in essential Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), shipments of PPE are expected to arrive soon from the ICRC, according to Dahir.
He also noted that he had seen no cases of patients with symptoms similar to those of COVID-19 in the al-Hol field hospital as of the date of publishing.
However, the field hospital’s ability to treat patients with COVID-19 is limited. “If a patient needed a ventilator, I would send them to Hasakah hospital on an ambulance,” Dahir explained, noting that the trip from al-Hol to Hasakah hospital could take up to an hour and a half.
The densely populated camp also gives little in the way of sanitation, with limited access to clean water and tents clustered closely together. According to an April 1 report by the International Rescue Committee, each person in al-Hol is only allotted about the same amount of space as a parking spot.
The living conditions are similarly crowded in the two other camps in AA territory hosting former or alleged IS members’ families, according to the International Crisis Group.
Still, there seems to be widespread awareness of the danger posed by COVID-19 within the camps. “Everyone is aware, no one is greeting each other; they wave or greet with the elbow,” Dahir explained. “They are taking basic hygiene measures very seriously and are staying at home if they are sick.”
In order to ease overcrowding, residents of al-Hol camp and prisoners whose affiliation with IS was deemed to be weak were previously released back to their home communities under the tribal sponsorship program. However, no such releases have taken place since March 13, according to the Qamishli-based Rojava Information Center.
Further, the SDF and its partner, the International Coalition to Defeat Daesh, have made no attempts to conduct prisoner-release campaigns to reduce the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Instead, the Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve announced on April 4 that $1.2 million worth of equipment was provided to “detention and hospital facilities in Hasakah and Al-Shaddadi” for “detainee support and COVID-19 prevention efforts in northeast Syria.”
The equipment included medical resources, personal protective equipment, in addition to “riot gear for guard forces, including masks, shields and batons.”
Prisoners accused of being IS members in an SDF prison in al-Hasakah city in northeast Syria, 26/10/2019 (AFP)
By Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim, Will Christou