US President Donald Trump has demanded that European countries take back around a thousand foreign fighters with European passports who are currently detained in Kurdish prisons in North east Syria. After pressure from Washington and requests for help from the Kurdish authorities, European countries are trying to establish an International Tribunal in Iraq to process jihadists rather than repatriating them.
But a pressing issue has risen. What to do with the hundreds or even thousands of children in refugee camps whose parents were European jihadists who died during the fighting?
“The aim is to rescue these children from extremism; to enable them to go back to their countries for full rehabilitation and reintegration in their communities,” the spokesperson for the Syrian Kurds, Kamal Akef, said in a statement.
The first European country to respond to this appeal has been Sweden. In April, Sweden’s Foreign Minister, Margot Wallström, said that the country wants to facilitate the return of children of Swedish nationals who travelled to Iraq and Syria to join DAESH. And in May a Swedish delegation travelled to Syria for the handover of seven children.
The example of Sweden has been followed by other European states. In June, twelve orphaned children of French jihadists were flown home, along with two Dutch orphans, who will be handed over to the Netherlands the French foreign ministry has said.
Belgium has also decided to repatriate orphans of ISIS jihadist who had Belgian passports. “The choices their parents made cannot be forgiven or justified. But these were choices made by the parents, not the children.” Belgian Deputy Prime Minister, Alexander de Croo, told Radio 1. “A number of children were abducted and are now stranded in the camps in terrible circumstances”.
In February, the Belgian National Security Council stated that orphans under ten-years-old would be assisted to return to Belgium. The fate of children over that age would be assessed on a case-by-case basis. But the decision to bring ISIS orphans back to Belgium has been controversial: the former Federal Secretary of State responsible for Asylum and Migration, the Flemish nationalist, Theo Francken, told VRT News that it was a PR stunt by Belgian Foreign Minister, Didier Reynders, (Mouvement Reformateur) motivated by his ambition to become the new Secretary-General of the Council of Europe.
Other nations like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Norway have also repatriated children who belong to Islamic State families.
Kurdish-led authorities in northern Syria have also called on foreign states to take back the wives of Islamic State fighters, but European States put a stop to this process as many of the wives reportedly supported Islamic State both before and after their arrest. The most notorious case is that of Shamina Begun, who left the UK in 2015 to join Islamic State and is now pleading to return to the UK, claiming she had been “brainwashed” by Islamic State and “regrets everything” although she said she did not regret travelling to Syria, but did not agree with everything that IS had done.
The plight of these Syrian children represents the endless tragedy of war. For seven years they have been deprived of education. Schools were destroyed or closed. Many of them have been profoundly traumatized by life under ISIS: “they grew up watching public torture, violence and mass killings every day. Four-year-olds even learnt to recognize the sounds of different aircraft and tell the difference between bombers and reconnaissance planes”, the interim mayor of Raqqa told The European Post in September 2017, when the battle to reconquer the city was almost complete. “There are plans for them to be assisted by professional psychologists but in spite of everything that can be done the dreadful after-effects of this trauma will last for many years.”
Syria will have to reshape its future with these children and must do everything possible to avoid them becoming a lost generation.
Cover pic @ Melih Cevdet Teksen Shutterstock.com