The French government has repatriated a group of seven “particularly vulnerable” children from refugee camps in north-eastern Syria.
The children, reportedly aged between 2 and 11, had been living in the Kurdish run al-Roj and al-Hol camps, where many relatives of I.S fighters and sympathisers have been held since 2019.
In a statement released on their website, the French foreign ministry thanked local officials for their cooperation and said that:
“These particularly vulnerable minors were taken in accordance with the authorizations given by local officials. On their arrival in France, they were handed over to the French judicial authorities and are taken care of by social services.”
The repatriation of these children comes following recent meetings between the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and a French delegation led by Eric Chevallier, former ambassador to Syria. Discussions regarding “work on refugee camps, the rehabilitation of children and women, and compensation for those affected by terrorism” took place, with the subsequent repatriation cited in the official handover document.
The move is part of a protracted repatriation process that has seen 34 French children brought back from northeastern Syria since the defeat of Islamic State in the region, with 17 in 2019, 10 in 2020 and seven in 2021.
However, despite the return of these children, the number of those who remain stranded at these camps is too high. The Human Rights Watch 2021 World Report found that:
“…more than 250 French children and their mothers (were left) in indefinite and arbitrary detention in deeply degrading, and often inhuman and life-threatening conditions”
This was reiterated by the Collectif des Familles Unies (United Families Collective), a group made up primarily of relatives of French detainees in the camps, who said that:
“this operation once more leaves behind the overwhelming majority of children, who are suffering and awaiting their return, but also sick women suffering from serious medical conditions”
Kurdish authorities have also been urging countries to repatriate their citizens, stating that they do not have the resources to hold them indefinitely. Thirteen French jihadists have already escaped custody in Syria, potentially creating security risks.
In December 2020, Germany and Finland repatriated their citizens bringing back five women and 18 children from Kurdish camps. However many European governments still remain concerned about the potential security risks of returning these families. The UK government has repeatedly sought to block the repatriation of Shamima Begum and deprived her of her UK citizenship to stop this from happening. The Supreme court ruling on this case is expected in the next few weeks and this may force the Home Office to revise their stance.
While the repatriation of these French children is a step in the right direction, the number of women and children that are currently held in such camps remains far too high. Leaving them to languish in these camps puts them at risk of illness and possible radicalisation.
IOHR is urging European governments to address this issue and to ensure that the rights of their citizens are protected.