Western governments have shirked their responsibilities for far too long.
Across the globe, hundreds of thousands of citizens have been evacuated to their home countries in recent months—the largest repatriation in history. But these coronavirus airlifts have passed over a particularly desperate group: the children of foreign Islamic State fighters. For years, the fate of these foreign families—originating from an estimated 70 countries—has hung in the balance as governments battle over the extent of their responsibilities. The need for an expansive, compassionate, and rigorous solution has never been more urgent nor the stakes higher.
Some 70,000 women and children previously associated with the Islamic State caliphate are being held in northern Syria in camps controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a mostly Kurdish militia that defeated the militant group with the backing of the United States, United Kingdom, and other members of the international coalition. Of those, an estimated 11,000 to 13,500 are foreign to Syria and Iraq, and most are children. (Separately, some 2,000 foreign men and 9,000 locals from Syria and Iraq are imprisoned in nearby camps.)
The situation at al-Hol and Roj detention camps is precarious at the best of times. The camps face severe overcrowding (the population of al-Hol ballooned nearly 700 percent last year) and high rates of child mortality. Children made up nearly three-quarters of deaths at the camp last year, many of them dying from preventable causes such as malnutrition and hypothermia.
The SDF has struggled to maintain control over the detained populations, at time ceding control to extremists implementing rules not dissimilar to those of the caliphate. Hisba—or religious police—enforce rules around clothing and behavior within the camp, even carrying out executions. Children have appeared in videos shot at the camp chanting Islamic State slogans and praising the group’s flag. Indoctrination of children, and implementation of the group’s austere reading of sharia, or Islamic law, is very much ongoing, raising concerns over both child welfare and the future security risks posed by leaving them in the camps.
There are also very acute external threats to the integrity of the camps. Any assault by regime forces, Turkish-backed rebels, or Islamic State sleeper cells on SDF positions could see camp guards redeployed to battlefronts, leaving the camps unguarded. Already, this has happened at least once. When Turkey began Operation Peace Spring in October 2019, with the stated goal of creating a “safe zone” 20 miles deep on its border with the SDF, Turkish shelling in the vicinity of a camp at Ain Issa led at least 750 people with suspected links to the Islamic State to flee the camp.
Conditions at al-Hol have deteriorated since Turkey invaded northeastern Syria in October. A number of international aid groups have been forced to suspend work in the camp to protect their staff from direct shelling by the Turkish military. And, as expected, the SDF started redeploying some of the 400 guards at the camp to confront the Turkish incursion.
At the time of writing, Kurdish authorities retain control over the two primary detention facilities for foreign women and children. Yet as the case of Ain Issa camp shows, this is not something that can be guaranteed in the long run.
The spread of the coronavirus has raised the stakes. The camps are overcrowded and lack adequate water—making social distancing and hand-washing all but impossible.
Save the Children has warned that the poor health of many of the detained children make them particularly vulnerable should the virus spread. The area where the foreigners are housed is particularly underserved.
Given the myriad internal and external dangers facing the camp, there has never been greater urgency for foreign governments to act. There is no guarantee that in a month from now, these children will still be safely detained in these camps or that governments will still be able to reach the camps or have any control over what happens to their citizens.
Ultimately, there are three key options: leave everyone there and hope for the best; repatriate some individuals and leave the rest to their fate; or install a principled and active policy for repatriation and reintegration.
As it stands, public opinion polling shows strong opposition to repatriating Islamic State fighters or their families—one poll last year showed 89 percent of French respondents were worried about the prospect of Islamic State members being returned to France and 67 percent objected to the return of children.
Leaving the situation as it is is leaving the disease of jihadism to fester and grow in a new generation—and we will suffer its consequences again at some point in the future.
Keeping fighters and their families in camps increases the likelihood that eventually some, quite possibly many, of these individuals will escape or be released by some confluence of circumstances. The SDF is unlikely to be able to sustain the camps as external pressures mount.
Once they do escape, these foreign Islamic State families will not be any less radical than they were before. They will continue to be a real threat in the region, and many may well be able to find their way back to Europe at some point. Leaving the situation as it is is leaving the disease of jihadism to fester and grow in a new generation—and we will suffer its consequences again at some point in the future.
When it comes to repatriation, the least morally ambiguous case is that of young orphans. A handful of Western countries, including the U.K., Sweden, France, and Australia, have repatriated a very small number of orphaned children—most handing them over to grandparents or other family members. (Other countries, particularly in Central Asia, have been far more proactive, repatriating hundreds of women and children and rolling out elaborate rehabilitation programs.) Even in cases where public opinion might be opposed, this should be nonnegotiable. There is no concept of morality that permits leaving orphans to die.
For children who are still with their mothers, illegal, forcible separation is hardly an option. But most European countries have balked at the suggestion of repatriating adults along with children and opted instead to leave the children in the camps with their mothers. Some mothers have formally given up custody of their children, signing away their parental rights in a bid to offer them a chance of a better future or out of health concerns. Others have resorted to paying smugglers to sneak them out of the camp. Unfortunately, some still remain committed to Islamic State ideology, awaiting the group’s resurrection to liberate them together with their children.
A handful of governments have made a stronger effort to repatriate their own nationals than others. Malaysia, Kosovo, Russia, and Uzbekistan are countries that have made concerted efforts to begin repatriations, with Moscow’s efforts among those to particularly emphasize children, according to the International Crisis Group. Conversely, Morocco, Tunisia, and other North African countries have done
But even in cases where foreign governments have yielded to the moral imperative of repatriating children, abandoning their mothers or fathers, we return back to the first scenario. Most of these people will not just roll over and die—as much as some members of the public want. They will try, and likely succeed, to escape. They will regroup. And they will fight back.
If foreign governments, particularly Western ones, want to prevent a resurgence rather than be drawn back into an endless battle, they would be wise to take a proactive stance.
To start with, foreign governments must develop a robust system for determining the guilt or innocence of all of their detained foreign nationals, such as with an international task force.
This joint effort should gather evidence for prosecuting the crimes committed by individuals affiliated with the Islamic State. Plea deals for the return of some men could be made contingent on collaboration with authorities. Local journalists and investigators could be employed to gather the evidence to build such cases.
There is already some movement toward something like this. Last year, the Swedish government sought support from European allies for an international tribunal to prosecute war crimes perpetrated in Iraq and Syria by Islamic State fighters. In April, Germany began unilateral prosecution of individuals believed to have committed crimes in Syria, under the concept of universal jurisdiction. The German government, and legal experts involved, should be consulted regarding evidence gathering and prosecuting. There are also precedents in the international courts established to prosecute crimes committed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia that could serve as models for a tribunal based in Iraq.
Those found guilty could serve sentences in Iraq and, where possible, be treated with the latest and best deradicalization programs.
Those acquitted, those found to be victims of the Islamic State, and children should be repatriated and given adequate psychological, psychiatric, and even spiritual support—with the aim of fully reintegrating them into mainstream society. This is the only way to defuse the potential threat that they pose in the long run.
Delivering proper judicial accountability to individuals will inevitably require time to implement properly, so the pro-socialization initiatives will need to start even before any repatriation program—certainly for the younger children. Youth rehabilitation centers can serve as an immediate and relatively straightforward solution, building on and developing the existing youth facilities already present in the region for these purposes.
For example, facilities such as the Hori center near Qamishli are already functioning as juvenile rehabilitation facilities for orphans of any nationality. Actors must work quickly to scale up their capacity and should be able to do so with funding and expertise from European states and international aid organizations. This center’s deradicalization abilities are currently limited, but they do offer a means by which orphaned children can be taken out of the camps and given the close monitoring and support they may need—without the legal hurdles of immediately repatriating them to European countries.
NGOs, legal groups, and social and health care workers are far better able to evaluate and support children held in these centers rather than working in the extreme environment in the detention camps. Facilities of this kind can serve as halfway houses while the long-term solutions are pursued. The international community could supply psychological, social, and legal experts to be permanently based in these centers.
In these centers, which operate like boarding schools, children would continue to have access to their family members but would be offered structure, housing, education, and medical support. Here, European governments could work with staff on the ground to predetermine the best strategies, on an individual basis, for repatriating and resocializing every child.
An increase in aid will obviously be necessary. The humanitarian situation in the camps has been widely denounced by aid agencies for years, as they have struggled with access and funds. The lack of political will to deal with the Islamic State supporters and their families is matched by a lack of resources to adequately meet their daily needs, with issues of malnutrition and ill-health prevalent and a complete lack of adequate infrastructure for the short- or long-term care of vulnerable children. Diplomatic and financial resources need to be invested into developing this short-term infrastructure until the adequate long-term solutions have been reached.
Though there may not be much political appetite for this policy at the moment, it should appeal to nearly any nation’s long-term strategic interests. The Islamic State once festered and grew in the prison of Iraq and Syria; let us not allow such a mistake to occur again.
Originally published in Foreign Policy, June 2020.