According to World Bank estimates, by the end of 2020 close to 82.4 million individuals were forcibly displaced and an additional 20 million people are now living in extreme poverty in the countries affected by conflict. Over the past year, ongoing conflicts in some of the worst affected states like Syria, Somalia and Yemen continued while unrest in Myanmar, Afghanistan and Ethiopia intensified.
In February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine and the President announced that people with combat experience would be released from prison. By March, 33 prisons were in active conflict zones and at least five prisons had been attacked by Russian troops, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice. Prisons in the conflict zones have had difficulty providing for basic needs like food, medicines and hygiene supplies, as well as electricity generators, cars and body armor, with the prison system taking measures to evacuate people to detention facilities in other regions of the country.
As the pandemic continues, prisons in fragile and conflict-affected states lack even basic equipment to prevent outbreaks and provide healthcare for people who contract COVID-19.
As the pandemic continues, prisons and detention centres in fragile and conflict-affected states lack even basic equipment to prevent outbreaks and healthcare for people who contract COVID-19. Further, millions in conflict settings are yet to receive a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccine – by 2021, only 1.2% of the population in Ethiopia, South Sudan and Yemen were fully vaccinated, 3.5% in Somalia and 4% in Syria.
There is limited information on vaccinations in prisons in conflict areas. As of September 2021, among the countries classified as sites of high and medium intensity conflicts by the World Bank, vaccinations of people in prison and prison staff had commenced in Libya, Central African Republic and Mozambique, but the progress was unclear. Less than 10% had been vaccinated in Myanmar, Cameroon and Burkina Faso compared to over 80% vaccinated in Afghanistan and Iraq. Vaccinations had not commenced in Haiti, Burundi and Chad, and no information was available for nine countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Yemen and Ethiopia.
The pandemic has also created new challenges such as fears of reduced donor funding and interference with vital access to NGOs and other humanitarian assistance organisations who play an important role in monitoring prison contexts, providing developmental assistance and rebuilding justice systems. For example, in July 2021, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has not been able to resume its purely humanitarian visits and activities in prisons in Myanmar, which have been on hold since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It did, however, regain access to people in prison in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, to provide basic needs, water and sanitation, and to help people in prison contact their families.
Poor detention conditions and the torture or ill-treatment of people detained following armed conflict has been the subject of several high-profile cases recently. In early 2022, as part of efforts to seek accountability for torture and inhuman treatment of detainees in Syrian prisons, a German court convicted a Syrian official of crimes against humanity, and the US imposed fresh sanctions on Syrian prisons and officials. In January 2021, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the conditions of detention of Georgian civilians and prisoners of war in Russia following the 2008 conflict violated the prohibition of ill-treatment due to the lack of space in the detention centres, insufficient bedding, poor sanitary conditions, lack of basic health facilities, and the humiliating treatment of detainees. This could have significant implications for the detention of Armenians in prison conditions far below the minimum acceptable standards following the armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2021.
In conflict areas, the lack of stability, constant power struggles and frequent escalations in civil wars continues to make prisons a vulnerable target for external attack and prison escapes. In March 2021, al Shabaab militants stormed a jail in Somalia and freed 400 individuals, many of whom were imprisoned al Shabaab members, and killed seven soldiers. One of the first actions of the Taliban after it seized power in Afghanistan was to take over the infamous Pul-e-Charkhi and Bagram prisons and free the Taliban members who were imprisoned. In Yemen, a January 2022 airstrike targeted a Houthi rebel-run prison and is claimed to have killed at least 82 detainees and wounded 265 persons. A major prison break in Haiti – where the political situation was once again in turmoil in the background of allegations of an attempted coup in 2021 – led to at least 250 people escaping from prison and the death of 25 bystanders.
Recently, conflict-related sexual violence against men and boys has gained greater attention including at the UN Security Council open debate on conflict-related sexual violence in 2021. There have been reports of men and boys being used for forced labour, use as human shields, and sexual exploitation. According to a 2021 UN report, out of 18 conflict-affected states, the majority of incidents of sexual violence against men and boys occurred in detention settings. In Afghanistan, the practice of bacha bazi, or the commercial sexual exploitation and abuse of boys and young men, by security forces has been documented.
Children are often subject to harsh detention conditions and treatment in fragile and conflict-affected contexts, including the lack of adequate food and medical services. Between 2019 and 2020, 318 children, mostly of non-Afghan nationality, were held in prisons and detention centres in Afghanistan with their mothers who were detained on grounds of association with the Taliban or ISIL-K. Further, children of ISIS members in Syria and Iraq are imprisoned in a detention camp for families, and once they reach the age of 18, they are transferred to the general prison alongside wounded ISIS fighters. In the conflict in early 2022 to take over the prison in Al-Hasakeh, Syria, which houses around 700 young boys, ISIS fighters reportedly moved into the part of the prison holding the boys and used them as human shields.