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The extremist organization Islamic State (IS) may have been mostly defeated, ceding most of its territory in Iraq and Syria during the 2018 offensive led by the United States (US) and losing its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during a US operation in October 2019. However, the international community is still refusing to deal with the people left behind. About 3,000 women and 7,000 children from countries other than Iraq and Syria are being held at al-Hol camp in north-east Syria, according to the Kurds guarding the camp and Human Rights Watch.
IS emerged in 2014, advancing rapidly across Iraq and Syria and founding a so-called ‘caliphate’. It became known for kidnappings and filmed beheadings of local and foreign soldiers and civilians, including journalists and NGO workers, and terrorist attacks. It recruited its followers and soldiers mostly in Arab countries but also abroad. An estimated 41,000 people from other parts of the world left their homes to join the group – about a third of them from Europe, including the Caucasus. Some took children with them and others had children there.
More than 550 Western women moved to Syria and Iraq to join IS, a number unmatched by any other jihadist group. According to a 2018 paper published by the International Society of Criminology, ‘Many women travelled either with their families in support of their jihadi husbands who had decided to join IS as foreign fighters, or as newlyweds with husbands they had found on the internet, to avoid travelling unaccompanied and arriving in IS-controlled territory unmarried. Others travelled with relatives, with a group of female friends, only with children or alone. … In most cases, they are descendants of Muslim immigrants, but there is also a significant number of converts.’
With time, many of these women had children, born in Iraq or Syria but with an unclear status. They are now mostly held in camps, waiting to see what will happen of them. Russia, Saudi Arabia and Morocco have taken some of their citizens back, while the US has repatriated eight women and children. The United Kingdom has no plan to repatriate anyone, fighters or their families, whereas France has taken a few orphans back. Tunisia seems to be stalling on helping its stranded citizens. Although claiming to attach ‘special importance’ to the cases of detained children as part of its ‘firm belief in human rights’, so far Tunisia has helped bring only three of these children home from Libya.
The Netherlands, at this year’s United Nations General Assembly, announced it wanted to put on trial IS fighters, with the Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok saying, “Given the global impact that IS has had and the large number of countries directly or indirectly involved, we have no other choice than to tackle this issue together. The Netherlands wants to work with Iraq and other countries on steps that can be taken at national, regional and international level. … As soon as we have the evidence we need, it will be time for the next steps: prosecution and trial. There can be no justice unless these individuals are brought to trial. Like Amal Clooney, who is closely involved in this initiative, we want to see those guilty of war crimes and genocide in the dock. For the time being, however, the route to the International Criminal Court in The Hague is closed off, since the UN Security Council is blocking this option, and Iraq and Syria are not parties to the ICC.”
Around 20,000 IS fighters are detained in Iraq, of which around 1,000 are from 50 different countries. Human rights groups have criticized Iraq’s courts for handing down death penalties – the sentence usually given to those found guilty of joining IS – based on confessions rather than material evidence, a worrying practice in a country where force is frequently used during investigations. Also in Iraq, children suspected of IS affiliation are treated as criminals. Security officers often torture them to elicit confessions, regardless of their actual involvement, and courts prosecute and sentence them to prison as terrorists.
“You can generalize and say that in all the Western countries that I’ve looked at, the general population as well as most of the political class are very much against the return of women who either married and travelled to Iraq or Syria with husbands that joined IS or who they think joined IS themselves as individuals,” Belkis Wille, a senior Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Fanack.
“With regards to children, many countries are generally happy to take orphans back, but when it comes to children who are in prison in Iraq or north-east Syria, I’ve seen many Western countries not wanting to take them home. Because they’re concerned that by law, they might also be required to bring their mothers back, and so in those cases sometimes they left the children. In Iraq, where some women have been sentenced to death or life in prison, they have been more willing to repatriate the children home.”
This is the case for France and Belgium, which have only received children whose extremist parents were dead. Most are orphans but some were taken to Iraq or Syria by their fathers, who were killed there while their mothers remained in Europe. The UK has taken a stricter stance, the government deciding that children of British IS members stranded in Syria will not be allowed to return. Sajid Javid, the former home secretary, concluded after a review that it would be too dangerous to send officials to retrieve the children from Syria, despite the camps being regularly visited by British aid workers and journalists.
The question of danger is a recurring theme in politicians’ speeches, as there are concerns about repatriating individuals who might believe in terrorist propaganda or have fought for IS. “All we can say is that if someone is not suspected of having committed a crime, then they cannot be held as a prisoner; if they are suspected then they should be investigated for that,” Wille said. “And when it comes to children who are not said to having committed any crime, they should be given every opportunity to go home and return to a normal life, and they shouldn’t be punished for anything their parents might have done.”
Bosnia, meanwhile, is trying to reintegrate about 30 women and 70 children, although it faces several challenges in doing so, such as how to confirm the identities of Syrian-born children of Bosnian citizens, how to care for the former IS followers and whether to prosecute the women who are returning. In Germany, a Berlin court told the Foreign Ministry that three German children along with their German IS mother must be brought back from a Syrian refugee camp, citing state obligation to protect citizens abroad.
In Australia, concerns centre around the safety of retrieving citizens during an active conflict. The security situation in north-east Syria has deteriorated since President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops, paving the way for a Turkish invasion in October 2019. Some European nations took advantage of a five-day ceasefire in mid-October to repatriate their citizens, but the Australian government has maintained its position that it will not risk a single Australian life to retrieve any citizens, and that their return could pose a risk to the community.
A group of 36 IS women and children living in al-Hol camp have formally suggested they could be placed under restrictive anti-terrorism control orders on their return home. For those stranded in north-east Syria, simply surviving is becoming harder and harder. For example, two Dutch women and their three children left the camp and approached the Ankara-based Dutch embassy on 30 October, asking to be repatriated, which the government seems unwilling to do.
“In terms of international law, there is no international legal principal that requires a country to repatriate their nationals,” Wille explained. “But under international law, countries are not allowed to turn away people who are their nationals if they make it home.”