Geneva – Denmark’s government has abandoned an extremely vulnerable Danish child who has been in a Syrian prison camp for multiple years now despite his deteriorating health, warned Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor in a statement today. The statement urged Denmark to halt the arbitrary and unlawful detention of the boy and his mother and evacuate them immediately.

The six-year-old Danish citizen is being held in a prison camp in north-east Syria, despite being a child with a rapidly worsening health condition. Alarmingly, the boy has been having problems with breathing, hearing, and both cognitive and social development for the past several years. Despite the continuous deterioration in his health—confirmed by the Danish Health Authority (SST) itself in a confidential assessment to the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs—and the SST’s multiple recommendations to urgently evacuate him and his mother, they remain abandoned in the al-Roj camp, trapped in an indefinite limbo. The boy’s aunt in Denmark is afraid that he will die there.

   How sick does the only child left need to be before the Danish government respects his legitimate rights and repatriates him and his mother from the prison camp?   

Michela Pugliese, Migration and Asylum Researcher at Euro-Med Monitor

According to the Kurdish Red Crescent, at least 371 children died in 2019 in al-Hol, the larger of the two camps, many from preventable diseases or hypothermia, while more than 62 children reportedly died in the camps in 2021, according to the UN. The camps are clearly unsuitable for children, yet most of the thousands of foreign ISIL suspects and family members still detained in northeast Syria are youths under the age of 12. Though they are far too young to have played an active role in ISIL, their governments refuse to take them back, citing national security concerns or fearing public backlash despite their established nationality; a total of 19 children with Danish citizenship have been trapped in the al-Roj and al-Hol prison camps in Syria, and thus trapped in the centre of a Danish political dispute.

According to Denmark’s own national security and intelligence service (PET), none of the children poses a terrorist threat, and in reality, the risk of indoctrination actually increases the longer a child remains in a radicalised environment such as an IS prison camp in northeastern Syria. Instead of evacuating them to prevent re-victimisation, however, the Danish government in October 2019 passed a new law to administratively strip Danish citizenship from Danes with dual citizenship if the Ministry determines that such a person has caused damage to the “nation’s vital interests”.

Last week, the Danish government decided to evacuate a Moroccan-Danish mother and her two children from the al-Roj camp to Denmark, but only after stripping the mother of her Danish citizenship. Therefore, the six-year-old boy is now the only Danish child still being held in the closed camp, and the Danish government seems to have no plans to repatriate him and his mother to Denmark in the near future, despite its unequivocal awareness of their dire conditions.

In May 2022, two Danish specialists assessed that the boy had chronic ear-nose-throat disease, chronic diarrhoea, and general poor well-being, with signs of anxiety and depression. More recently, the Danish Health Authority itself estimated that the boy’s condition had worsened worryingly and that he should be operated on, but that undergoing the operation in Syria would be a great risk. “The unlawful and prolonged confinement of this six-year-old Danish boy in north-east Syria has already deprived him for too long of his fundamental human rights as both an ill person and a child, including the rights to health, education, safety, non-discrimination, and dignity, as well as freedom from ill-treatment and arbitrary detention,” said Michela Pugliese, Migration and Asylum Researcher at Euro-Med Monitor.

“The only question,” added Pugliese, “is how sick does the only child left need to be before the Danish government respects his legitimate rights and repatriates him and his mother from the prison camp in which they are living in life-threatening and deeply degrading conditions?”

In separate rulings in February and October 2022, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child found that France and Finland violated the rights to life and to freedom from inhuman treatment of children they had not repatriated from north-east Syria. Similarly, in September 2022, the European Court of Human Rights declared that France breached the rights of women and children seeking repatriation by failing to adequately examine their requests.

Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor urges the Danish government to evacuate the six-year-old boy and his mother without any further delays and support their reintegration into their home country, keeping in mind that neither the children nor the adults detained in north-east Syria have been brought before a judicial authority in order to determine the necessity and legality of their detention, making their detention arbitrary and unlawful. Denmark’s government must also take all reasonable measures to protect the rights of nationals abroad facing life-threatening risks or torture, and give due consideration to the best interests of the child when assessing any requests for children’s repatriation.