UN experts appalled by death of young Australian boy in Syrian detention facility

GENEVA (25 July 2022) – UN experts* today expressed frustration and grave concern following confirmation of the death of Australian teenager Yusuf Zahab in a North-East Syrian detention facility.

The boy is believed to have died from injuries he sustained compounded by subsequent lack of adequate medical treatment during and after the January attack by ISIL on Al Hasakah camp in North-East Syria. In three previous communications to the Australian government (AUS 1/2021, AUS 1/2022, AUS 2/2022), the experts expressed their concern about the detention of children and boys in North-East Syria, including in the Al Hasakah facility, highlighting the dire detention conditions, and urging the government to repatriate their nationals.

“Zahab’s death was utterly preventable, he should simply never have been held in this prison. He should have been returned to his homeland and his family with the possibility of living a full and decent life, the right to a protected and safe childhood,” the experts said.

The UN experts have repeatedly called for a human rights compliant solution to the situation of boys including teenagers being held in Al Hasakah and other sites of arbitrary detention in the region.

“None of these boys, including Yusuf Zahab were subject to any judicial process justifying their detention, and all of them are being held in conditions that could amount to torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment under international law and which have a strong impact on their physical and mental health”, the experts said. “The boys are victims of terrorism and deserve to be treated with compassion, dignity and a modicum of human decency. Their release from these prisons and detention sites is necessary and overdue.”

They urged that other children injured and harmed both physically and mentally in the prison attack be immediately removed from the detention facility and given access to necessary medical assistance and adequate medical care, rehabilitation and psychological support. The Experts are united in the view that the best interest of the child principle applies to all boys in detention and must be respected at all times. The experts pressed governments whose boy-children remain in detention to bring them home, in line with accepted extra-territorial human rights obligations to protect the lives of children. States must abide by their obligations according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and to ensure assistance and protection to children who may be victims of trafficking, the experts said.

The experts strongly regretted that despite their entreaties, the government of Australia has thus far failed to repatriate their nationals – who are primarily women and children –from camps and detention facilities in Northeast Syria.

“The repatriation of vulnerable women and children is entirely feasible and possible. The Government of Australia has the capacity to do so. Many other governments are currently doing it. Australia has an advanced child welfare, education, criminal justice and health system which is imminently capable of addressing the needs of these children and their mothers. Failure to repatriate is an abdication of Australia’s treaty obligations and their deeper moral obligations to protect Australia’s most vulnerable children,” the experts said.

The UN experts urged the Australian government to move speedily to prevent further deaths of their nationals in North-East Syria and safeguard the health and welfare of their child nationals by expedient repatriation.


*The experts: Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism; Morris Tidball-Binz, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Mr. Fernand de Varennes Special Rapporteur on minorities issues; Ms E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; Siobhán Mullally, Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children; Mr Michael Fakhri, Special Rapporteur on the right to food;Mr Balakrishnan Rajagopal, Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing; Ms. Sorcha MacLeod (Chair-Rapporteur), Ms. Jelena Aparac, Mr. Ravindran Daniel, Mr. Chris Kwaja, Mr. Carlos Salazar Couto Working Group on the use of mercenaries; Ms. Miriam Estrada-Castillo (Chair-Rapporteur), Mr. Mumba Malila (Vice-chairperson), Ms. Elina Steinerte, Ms. Priya Gopalan, and Mr. Matthew Gillett - Working Group on arbitrary detention; and Ms. Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right to health.