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Shaheen, Graham Announce Legislation to Address Growing Humanitarian and Security Crisis at Detainee and Displaced Persons Camps in Syria

**Senator Shaheen created the ISIS Detainee Coordinator position, which was signed into law as part of the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.** 

(Washington, DC) – U.S. Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) today introduced the Syria Detainee and Displaced Persons Act to address the growing humanitarian and security crisis posed by the camps housing ISIS-affiliated detainees and displaced persons in Syria. The largest camp, al-Hol, is located in northeast Syria and houses more than 56,000 individuals – more than three-quarters of whom are women and children, and half are under the age of 12. Insufficient medical facilities, irregular water and inadequate sanitation are contributing to a humanitarian and security crisis in the camps that is growing more dire by the day. On September 18th, the Syrian Democratic Forces, supported by U.S. troops, completed a 24-day security operation which yielded 300 ISIS operative arrests and freed six women from slavery. The operation comes on the heels of a breakout of ISIS prisoners at the al-Sina prison earlier this year, leaving hundreds dead and many more unaccounted for. The camps need urgent humanitarian and security attention to alleviate the acute issues they face and investment in long-term efforts to counter violent extremism and repatriate their inhabitants. Left unaddressed, the camps risk devolving into a humanitarian catastrophe, and the thousands of detainees “represent an ISIS Army-in-waiting,” according to General Michael Kurilla, Commander of U.S. Central Command. 

In the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, Shaheen included language to establish an ISIS Detainee Coordinator at the State Department to oversee U.S. government efforts to address the camps and detention facilities. That position was ultimately filled by the Coordinator of the Counterterrorism Bureau, however the position’s statutory mandate subsequently expired at the end of 2021.  

“The camps for detained and displaced persons are a constant reminder of the horror wrought during ISIS’s reign of terror –  many of the camps’ inhabitants have themselves been victims of ISIS brutality. The deteriorating sanitary conditions and lack of basic needs in the camps not only risk a humanitarian disaster but also exacerbate the existing security concerns in the camps,” said Senator Shaheen. “We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to this growing issue or we will risk enabling the resurgence of ISIS’s primeval, hateful ideology. The Syria Detainee and Displaced Persons Act will ensure that a senior official at the State Department is leading our government’s efforts to work toward closing the camps, addressing the humanitarian and security concerns in the camps and coalescing the international support needed to achieve an enduring defeat of ISIS.” 

“I am increasingly concerned that ISIS will gain strength in Syria, and with it the threat of continued terrorism in the Middle East,” said Senator Graham. “This summer, I visited the al-Hol refugee camp in northeastern Syria and, unfortunately, I can say the situation on the ground is unnerving and growing more dangerous. This bipartisan legislation will allow for better coordination by placing a senior level official in charge of addressing the challenges with repatriation, prosecution, and ultimate closure of the al-Hol refugee camp. This will in turn mitigate the radicalization potential in the camp and ensure the safety of our homeland by working to prevent ISIS from reemerging and becoming even stronger than they once were.” 

To confront the systemic challenges the camps face and direct the whole-of-government effort needed to address those issues, the Syria Detainee and Displaced Persons Act would: 

  • Establish that it is the policy of the United States to repatriate and – where appropriate – prosecute inhabitants of the camps with the intent of closing them as soon as practicable; 
  • Modify the FY20 NDAA requirement for the ISIS Detainee Coordinator by: 
    • renewing the position until January 31, 2025; 
    • elevating the position to be a Senior Coordinator; and 
    • expanding the mandate of the position to explicitly include all inhabitants of the camps, not just fighters and ISIS-affiliated individuals; 
  • Direct the development of an interagency strategy on how to address the camps, with an emphasis on efforts to address acute humanitarian and security concerns; repatriation and prosecution efforts; and a framework to measure progress; and 
  • Create a comprehensive, annual, interagency reporting requirement to detail progress consistent with the required strategy and stated policy. 

Senator Shaheen has long led efforts to address the national security and humanitarian crises caused by the rise and subsequent fall of ISIS. Shaheen created the Syria Study Group to complete a comprehensive assessment of the conflict in Syria and ways to address the consequence of the violence. One of the Study Group’s recommendations included the establishment of the ISIS Detainee Coordinator position Shaheen created in the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. In 2018, she led a delegation with Senator Graham to Syria and Iraq, where she visited the detainee and displaced persons camps and met with officials on ways to address security and humanitarian needs.