The beheading of two Egyptian girls inside Syria's notorious Al Hol camp for suspected ISIS family members serves as a "horrific" reminder of the threat children face there, the head of the US military's Central Command said following a visit to the site.
Al Hol in north-eastern Syria is home to more than 53,000 people. Thousands have suspected ISIS ties but many came to the camp to flee ISIS violence.
The bodies of the two Egyptian girls were found in the overcrowded camp's sewage system days after they went missing, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The group said the girls had been beheaded, a form of killing frequently used by ISIS.
"The more than 25,000 children at the camp are in danger," Centcom commander Gen Michael “Erik” Kurilla said in a statement on Sunday.
"The recent beheading of two Egyptian girls, ages 12 and 13, inside the camp is a horrific reminder of that."
The camp's inhabitants come from more than 60 countries but in several cases have been stripped of their citizenship and rendered stateless.
About 10,000 of Al Hol's population are non-Arab foreigners, with the rest mostly from Syria and Iraq.
Gen Kurilla emphasised the return of detainees to their home countries was the only long-term solution for the camp that has been characterised as a breeding ground for ISIS radicalisation.
He urged the "repatriation, rehabilitation and reintegration" of Al Hol residents, after his visit during which he witnessed "heartbreaking" conditions.
"There is no military solution here; military and security forces cannot solve the humanitarian crisis and long-term security problems presented by the camps," Gen Kurilla said.
Supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in improving camp conditions is a key short-term goal for the US-led anti-ISIS coalition's operations there.
"It is clear to me that there are thousands of women and children here who would embrace the chance to just go home, escape this squalor and misery, and live a normal life. But the longer we leave them here in these conditions, the greater the chance they will instead raise the next generation of extremists," Gen Kurilla said.
Thursday's visit was co-ordinated specifically for talks on repatriation and not in response to the girls' killing, a Centcom representative told The National.
A Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) report on the camp this month detailed Al Hol's increasingly dire conditions, which it claimed were characterised by severe overcrowding, inadequate makeshift shelters, limited access to food, clean water and basic services such as health care and education.
The report also found that last year two young boys died in the camp while awaiting approval to receive emergency medical care.
"People in the camp are exposed to high levels of violence, exploitation and abuse on a daily basis, while children and other vulnerable groups bear the brunt of the insecurity and deprivation," the MSF report said.
Amid those conditions, the threat of radicalisation among the residents persists.
In 2019, women in the camp shouted at an Al Arabiya TV camera that "our faith, ideology have been implanted here forever, and America, the Kurds, the infidels, and the Jews will not be able to remove it. This is a belief that has been instilled in our children too ... the caliphate will return again."
In August of last year, the Washington Institute argued that an ISIS presence would persist without international action to move the camp’s ISIS families through "deradicalisation programmes and ultimately repatriate them in their home countries".
In June, Belgium repatriated six women and their 16 children from Al Hol in the largest airlift by the country to bring back the families of ISIS fighters.
"This can be done and in fact has been done successfully for hundreds who have returned home and now contribute to their societies," Gen Kurilla said. "However, the longer we wait to repatriate, rehabilitate and reintegrate, the more challenging this effort becomes."