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GENEVA (22 April 2021) – UN human rights experts* today called on Switzerland to repatriate two sisters, aged 8 and 14, who are being held at a squalid camp in north-eastern Syria after they were allegedly abducted by their mother five years ago when she went to join Islamic State fighters.

The two fathers of the girls, who both live in Geneva, have asked the Swiss Government to take the necessary steps to repatriate their daughters who were ostensibly taken by their mother on a vacation in August 2016, but ended up in Syria.

“Children should not have to bear the terrible burden of simply being born to individuals allegedly linked or associated with designated terrorist groups,” the experts said.

“Deprived of their liberty for several years already in the camp of Al-Hol and then in Roj, denied of their right to return to Switzerland and be reunited with their families, the detention of these two children increasingly exposes them to all kinds of abuse.”

The half-sisters’ medical situation is of great concern, the experts added. The eldest girl has anaemia and is believed to have suffered a severe shrapnel wound to her leg. She is said to have undergone three operations. The youngest girl is also believed to be in poor health. There are serious concerns they might both be lacking necessary medical care, including specific health services and orthopaedic devices for the eldest.

The experts expressed deep concern about the humanitarian situation of the girls whose situation of vulnerability is exacerbated by the complex and uncertain environment, and the makeshift, squalid and precarious conditions of the camps in north-eastern Syria.

Children detained for association with armed groups should be recognised as victims of serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law; their rehabilitation and reintegration and, if possible, family reunification should always be a priority, they said.

The girls’ mother was arrested by the Syrian Democratic Forces and transferred, along with her daughters, to the Roj camp in the summer of 2019, where they are still reportedly being held today.

“The detention of these two Swiss girls in these conditions is contrary to their best interests and contravenes international human rights conventions to which Switzerland is a party,” the experts said. “In this respect, Switzerland’s position not to actively intervene to repatriate the mother of the two children should not be a reason to leave these two girls in such a distressing situation in which they are held now.”

The Swiss authorities have a duty to ensure effective protection of their nationals abroad, especially those in a situation of vulnerability, including children, and in this case particularly girls, where they are at risk of serious human rights violations or abuses, they said.

Several thousand children are still living in camps in north-eastern Syria in similar conditions to those of these two girls. “The return of children to their country of origin is a humanitarian imperative and human rights obligation. The repatriation of these two children should not be further delayed,” the experts said.

* The experts: Fionnuala Ní AoláinSpecial Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorismSiobhán Mullally, Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children,Morris Tidball-Binz, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on minority issues; Michael Fakhri, Special Rapporteur on Right to Food; Leigh Toomey (Chair-Rapporteur), Elina Steinerte (Vice-Chair), Miriam Estrada-Castillo, Mumba Malila and Seong-Phil Hong, Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; Elizabeth Broderick (Chair), Melissa Upreti (Vice Chair), Dorothy Estrada-Tanck, Ivana Radačić, and Meskerem Geset Techane, Working Group on discrimination against women and girls; Balakrishnan Rajagopal, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context; Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation; Dubravka Simonovic, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences;and Tlaleng Mofokeng,Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.