The deplorable conditions of an ISIS-infiltrated refugee camp near the Iraq-Syria border’s have made it a ”breeding ground for the next generation” of the terrorist organization, prompting the Biden administration to move to repatriate its occupants to their home countries, according to officials.
The plan is to work with other nations to repatriate refugees from the Al-Hol camp, located in rural Syra, senior officials confirmed to NBC News. So far, six European nations and Australia have pledged to transport their citizens from the camp back to their home countries, the five officials said.
The US has offered to help other countries return their citizens home by transporting them out of the northeast Syria camp on US military aircraft, as well as assist with identifying refugees and offering countries legal advice, officials said.
Al-Hol camp was opened in 1991 during the first Gulf War. The population of the camp has exploded in recent years to tens of thousands of residents, officials said, resulting in a humanitarian crisis that ISIS has exploited to recruit new members as it plots a comeback.
The conditions of the camp are grim, NBC reports. The residents, living in tattered white tents, suffer under the relentless desert heat during the day and the bitter cold at night. Access to water is limited and sanitation conditions are poor.
Most of the camp’s 57,000 residents are children, who receive minimal schooling, according to aid organizations.
Areas of the camp are completely impossible for officials to control, as ISIS — assisted by thousands of women still loyal to the group — recruits more members in exchange for basic services or forced through threats of violence, according to US military officials.
Of the 57,000 residing in the camp U.S. officials told NBC that roughly 28,000 are from Iraq and 18,000 from Syria. Another roughly 10,000 residents of al-Hol are from elsewhere, the said.
“This place is a literal breeding ground for the next generation of ISIS,” Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, commander of U.S. Central Command, said in a statement after recently visiting al-Hol. “ISIS seeks to exploit these horrific conditions.”
In just the past three years, the population of the camp exploded from around 10,000 to 57,000 — about 90% of whom are women and children, including 40,000 children under the age of 12, according to the US government
According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, about 8,000 of the women in the camp are “jihadists and wives and widows of ISIS fighters,” who have organized religious police forces.
Last month Syrian Democratic Forces concluded a three-week operation at the al-Hol, assisted with US intelligence, that found that found girls “chained and tortured by ISIS operatives,” according to the US military.
During the operation, SDF arrested around 300 ISIS operatives, confiscated explosives and hand grenades and “ removed ISIS supply and logistics materials from the camp,” the military said. Two SDF soldiers were killed in the operation.
“The situation in al-Hol is an international crisis that requires an international solution, and the only permanent solution is the repatriation, rehabilitation, and reintegration of camp residents,” Kurilla said in a statement on the operation.
Senior officials told NBC the US has no military solution for al-Hol. Instead, the country has asked each country with citizens in the camp what they can do to help repatriate them and plans to improve living conditions at the camp for residents who cannot leave.
While the US has made all its efforts to bring its own citizens from the camp back home, other countries have been less willing, officials told the outlet. Many of the camp’s residents have no ID or passport, and may lie about their country of origin and many countries are concerned they could be welcoming ISIS sympathizers.
“Most of the residents can and should be rehabilitated and returned to society. Just like all people, they wish to contribute to society and raise their families in peace,” Kurilla said in a statement. “Most of them reject and fear ISIS. Most wish to return safely to their homelands, to reenter the workforce and return their children to school.”
Iraq is the administration’s focus in the repatriation effort, as nearly half of the camp residents are Iraqi citizens, officials told NBC.