Advocates fear for women and children in Syrian camps following death of Yusuf Zahab

Advocates for women and children stuck in Syrian detention camps say they have grave concerns two young boys could be taken off their mothers and sent to an adult prison “any day”.

Their fears have been heightened by the news a 17-year-old boy from south-west Sydney has died, following an attack on the prison he was detained in earlier this year.

Yusuf Zahab, 17, had been held in the Gweiran prison in north-east Syria for three years without charge, after his parents took him to the war-torn country as an 11-year-old.

They were following his brothers, one of whom went on to become a senior Islamic State figure.

The prison came under attack from Islamic State in January, at which time Yusuf sent a series of panicked voice notes begging to be rescued. 

He hadn’t been heard from since and the family now believes he has died, but questions remain about when he died and the exact cause. 

Yusuf was separated from his mother in 2019 after the fall of Islamic State.

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Sydney teen believed to have been killed in Syria months after distress call

The Kurdish authorities in charge of the detention camps housing women and children left behind by Islamic State, generally remove boys as they hit puberty and put them into adult prisons.

Family friend and spokesperson Kamalle Dabboussy, whose daughter Mariam and three grandchildren are in one of the detention camps, said they fear two more boys may soon be taken from their mothers.

“We have two boys currently who are reaching very close to an age where they can be moved,” he said.

“In fact, they probably are at the age where they could be moved any day.

“They’ll end up in the same place, possibly facing the same fate as what Yusuf faced.”

Man looks solemnly at camera
Family friend and spokesperson Kamalle Dabboussy says they fear two more boys may soon be taken from their mothers.(ABC News: Shaun Kingma)

Save the Children Australia has echoed Mr Dabboussy’s concerns about the boys, and is calling for the repatriation of around 60 Australian women and children in the camps in north-east Syria, including Al Roj.

A fortnight ago, France repatriated 50 of its citizens from north-east Syria, and several other nations have brought citizens home in recent months.

Countries must take responsibility for own citizens, former diplomat says

Former US diplomat Peter Galbraith has been in and out of Syria and had been making inquiries about Yusuf’s welfare.

He said Kurdish authorities did not have enough resources to deal with teenage boys and governments around the world need to take responsibility for their citizens.

“They couldn’t just bring them with their mothers or younger siblings, so they ended up putting them in a detention centre and in this case, it was simply a wing of the prison,” he told the ABC.

“So this was a very difficult situation for them and if countries had stepped up and at least been willing to take their children, if Australia been willing to take their children, then this tragedy wouldn’t have happened.”

Mr Dabboussy said they managed to get a message to Yusuf’s mother in one of the Syrian camps before it was reported by the media.

“She’s absolutely devastated, she’s lost all her sons, as a result of what’s happened,” he said.

“Regardless of the circumstances, a mum is a mum, and she feels this deeply — as does his sister who’s also in the camp.

Dozens remain in camps

The Morrison government repatriated eight orphaned children in 2019, but dozens of women and children remain in the camps.

Mr Dabboussy said the conditions are horrific and called on the Albanese Government to act.

“There’s lack of access to medical care, children are malnourished, like my granddaughter is severely malnourished, according to reports that I’m most recently receiving,” he said.

“The long-term illnesses that they’re all facing are really taking a toll on them … there will be another death soon.”

In a statement, a spokesperson from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said they were seeking to confirm Yusuf’s death, and repatriations take time.

“The Australian government remains deeply concerned about the situation of Australians in north-east Syria, including the welfare of those detained in prisons and other detention centres,” the statement said.

“Repatriations require a whole-of-government approach and the balancing of risks.

“Our approach on repatriation will be guided by ensuring the safety of the Australian community.”