Iraqi authorities handed over 188 Turkish children of suspected Islamic State members to Turkey on 29 May at Baghdad airport, where they boarded a plane and prepared to fly home, officials from Iraq’s judiciary and UNICEF said.
“The central investigations court which is responsible for the terrorism file and foreign suspects has handed the Turkish side 188 children left behind by Daesh terrorists in Iraq,” said Judge Abdul-Sattar al-Birqdar, the spokesman, in a statement.
He added that the figure included a few who had “come of age” and had been convicted of illegally crossing the border and served out their sentences. Children can be held responsible for crimes in Iraq from the age of nine.
Reuters reported in March that about 1,100 children of Islamic State fighters are caught in the Iraqi justice system. The youngest stay with their mothers in prison, and at least seven children have died because of poor conditions.
Several hundred older children are being prosecuted for offences ranging from illegally entering Iraq to fighting for Islamic State. Some 185 children aged between nine and 18 have already been convicted and received sentences from a few months to up to 15 years in juvenile detention in Baghdad.
During the Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s visit to Ankara on 15 May, Turkey’s ambassador to Iraq Fatih Yildiz told Turkish state news agency Anadolu that Turkey planned to bring the children back.
“We aim to bring a significant number of children, even if not all of them, before the Ramadan feast. We are working on that,” Yildiz told Anadolu at the time. “We have agreed with the Iraqi side to alleviate the unjust suffering of the children,” many of which have family in Turkey, he added.
Turkey is not the only country to have repatriated its nationals born to Islamic State members. France and Germany, Sweden, Tajikistan, Chechnya, Kosovo, and Russia, have all taken back some of their women and children. In April, Germany repatriated all the children of ISIS members detained in Iraq and earlier in May, Kazakhstan brought home 231 of its citizens from Syria, including 156 children of ISIS fighters. Britain and the United States have refused to take back their nationals.
The US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) captured thousands of foreign ISIS fighters and their families in the dying days of the so-called caliphate. Many now reside in Syria’s vastly overcrowded al-Hol camp. Conditions in the camp have been described as extreme and UNICEF has described the children of foreign ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria as the “world’s most vulnerable children”.
“They live in appalling conditions amid constant threats to their health, safety and well-being. They have little family support: While most are stranded with their mothers or other caregivers, many are completely alone,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said in a recent statement.
The camp contains 29,000 children of foreign fighters, mostly under the age of 12, according to UNICEF estimates. Some 20,000 are Iraqi nationals, while the remaining 9,000 are from 60 other countries. A further 1,000 are believed to be in Iraq. The wives and children of ISIS suspects face discrimination in Iraq. Many have been disowned by their relatives and abandoned by the Iraqi government.
According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), some 45,000 children born under ISIS rule in Iraq are undocumented, leaving them marginalized and effectively stateless. These children have difficulty accessing healthcare and are effectively barred from going to school. They will not be able to marry or own property.
UNICEF has urged government to respect the rights of children protected under international law. “These children must be treated primarily as victims, not perpetrators,” UNICEF said in its statement.