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Following Deadly Earthquake in Syria, Risch Joins Shaheen, Graham, Menendez in Legislation to Address Conditions of Displaced Persons Camps

WASHINGTON – Following a fatal earthquake that has killed thousands of people in Syria and Turkey, U.S. Senators Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, joined U.S. Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in reintroducing the Syria Detainee and Displaced Persons Act .  This legislation would empower a senior coordinator to synchronize the whole-of-government effort needed to address growing humanitarian and security crises at detainee and displaced persons camps in Syria.

“This week’s earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey has devastated an already suffering Syrian population living in displaced persons camps. The detention of foreign terrorists in makeshift prisons in these camps represents a terror threat to the United States and our allies. Worse, families in these displaced persons camps are at risk for radicalization and remain a primary recruiting source for the Islamic State and other terrorists,” said Risch. “So far, the pace of repatriation of these individuals has been lacking. This legislation rightly mandates the Biden Administration appoint a senior government official to do the hard work necessary to ensure these fighters and families don’t pose an ongoing threat to Americans and our interests.”

“ISIS detainee camps have become hotbeds for radicalization across Syria, and in the wake of this tragic deadly earthquake, there is real concern of spiraling humanitarian and security challenges that could exacerbate extremism and long-term instability in the region. The U.S. must prioritize establishing a policy toward these camps and ensure robust humanitarian assistance is delivered to save lives and aid already vulnerable populations. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s in the best interest of our national security to address the inadequate conditions of the camps that threaten to become even worse in light of this devastating earthquake,” said Shaheen. “To confront these growing humanitarian and security challenges, we must empower the ISIS Detainee and Displaced Persons Coordinator position, which I established in 2020, to synchronize the whole-of-government effort needed to comprehensively address the camps. The Syria Detainee and Displaced Persons Act lays out the tools the Biden administration can use to prevent ISIS from re-establishing a foothold in the region by empowering the Coordinator to address the conditions in the camps and facilitating the repatriation of individuals. We must take action today to prevent a resurgence of ISIS.” 

“I continue to be concerned that ISIS will gain strength in Syria, and with it the threat of continued terrorism in the Middle East. I also fear that the recent massive earthquake in Syria and Turkey will add fuel to the fire,” said Graham. “This past summer, I visited the al-Hol refugee camp in northeastern Syria and, unfortunately, I can say the situation on the ground was unnerving and growing more dangerous. This bipartisan legislation will provide a long-term solution by addressing the challenges with repatriation, prosecution, and ultimate closure of the al-Hol refugee camp and others. This will mitigate the radicalization potential in the camps, and ensure the safety of our homeland by working to prevent ISIS from reemerging and becoming even stronger than they once were.”

“I am proud to join my colleagues in introducing the Syria Detainee and Displaced Persons Act, which serves as a necessary step to secure our gains in the ongoing fight against ISIS, and to address the significant humanitarian and security concerns surrounding detainee and displaced persons camps in northeastern Syria,” said Menendez. “By strengthening the ISIS Detainee coordinator’s position and directing the creation of an interagency strategy to improve camp conditions, our bipartisan legislation sends the clear message that Congress remains committed to defeating ISIS and to addressing factors that contribute to instability. Particularly in the wake of the recent earthquake, which may exacerbate devastating conditions in such Syrian camps, our bipartisan legislation is continuing our efforts to address security threats and humanitarian needs, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to secure its passage.”

As a result of ISIS’ reign of terror across the region, camps to house detained and displaced persons were created as short-term solutions. However, over time these camps have turned into long-term risks for stability in the region as humanitarian conditions worsen and violence by ISIS members and affiliates rises. Left unchecked, these camps, which house nearly 60,000 people, have been described as an ISIS “army-in-waiting.” Due to the fragility of the camps prior to the recent earthquake, concerns are growing that the earthquake could further de-stabilize the camps and contribute to the plight of the inhabitants.

Specifically, 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 through January 31, 2025;
  • Elevating the position to the level of 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.

Full text of the bill is available here.