(New York) – Trinidad and Tobago should heed the renewed call by the United Nations’ top counterterrorism expert to bring home all its nationals detained in northeast Syria for alleged association with the Islamic State, Human Rights Watch said today. The UN made the expert’s findings public on December 18, 2023.
In July 2023, the UN expert, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, visited locked camps and other detention centers in northeast Syria where United States-backed, regional forces are holding an estimated 90 Trinidadians, including at least 21 women and 56 children. The Trinidadians are among more than 55,000 Syrians and foreigners from dozens of countries, most of them children, detained in camps and prisons for alleged ISIS ties. Most have been detained since at least 2019.
“The government of Trinidad and Tobago should heed the UN expert’s appeal and immediately repatriate all of its nationals from Syria, most of whom are children who are victims of ISIS,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “Instead of dragging their feet, Trinidadian authorities should follow the example of dozens of countries that together have repatriated thousands of their nationals.”
During her visit to Roj camp in Syria, Ní Aoláin interviewed a Trinidadian mother detained there and the woman’s son, now 21, detained at a locked “rehabilitation” center for boys and young men. In a formal communication to the government of Trinidad and Tobago, Ní Aoláin expressed her “extreme concern” regarding the son’s “profound vulnerability in detention” and his “severe and evident state of trauma and suffering.” The woman told Ní Aoláin that her husband, the boy’s stepfather, took them to Syria when her son was 11. The son has been detained by regional authorities since he was 16 and has had very limited contact with his mother from that point on.
Since 2019, at least 39 governments have repatriated well over 8,000 of their nationals from the region. Trinidad and Tobago have repatriated none of their nationals.
In a December 18 response, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was “committed to returning its nationals from northeast Syria and is making the necessary legislative and regulatory arrangements” to facilitate repatriation. Many, if not most, of the countries that have repatriated their nationals have done so without special legislation.
In comments to the media on December 26, former Speaker of the House Nizam Mohammed, who chairs an advisory committee on repatriation created by Prime Minister Keith Rowley in March 2023, said the panel has not received resources or even responses from the government to its repatriation proposals. Committee members have “found ourselves in a dead-end position,” Mohammed said, calling the government’s response “most regrettable.”
Ní Aolaín, whose mandate as the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism ended in November, has repeatedly said that governments have an obligation to “urgently repatriate” their nationals from northeast Syria, calling repatriation the “only human rights compliant response” to ending their unlawful, indefinite detention in dire conditions, with no due process. She reiterated in her October complaint to the government of Trinidad and Tobago that “return is an absolute imperative” and highlighted that conditions in Roj camp, where the Trinidadian mother Ní Aoláin interviewed was detained, amount to “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”
None of the detained Trinidadians have been charged with a crime or had access to a judge to challenge their detention. Most are children who were born in the detention camps or taken to Syria by their parents and never chose to live under ISIS.
In February 2023, Human Rights Watch published a report documenting the unlawful detention of Trinidadian nationals in life-threatening conditions in northeast Syria and urging the government of Trinidad and Tobago to bring them home.
“Every day that passes with no action by the government of Trinidad and Tobago adds to the suffering and despair of the Trinis detained in northeast Syria and their relatives who have been waiting for years for their return,” Becker said. “The government should not wait any longer and should take urgent steps to bring their nationals home.”