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EU states reluctant to repatriate women, children still in Syria

European countries, such as France and Spain, have recently upped repatriation efforts to bring back their citizens held in jihadist camps in Syria, but as the process remains slow, the women and children living in the camps in poor conditions risk being radicalised, sexually abused, forced to work or to get married

By: EBR - Posted: Monday, February 6, 2023

In several European countries, such as France, Albania and Germany, public opinion is in favour of repatriating women and children. Family associations and civil society regularly appeal to governments to speed up the process.
In several European countries, such as France, Albania and Germany, public opinion is in favour of repatriating women and children. Family associations and civil society regularly appeal to governments to speed up the process.

European countries, such as France and Spain, have recently upped repatriation efforts to bring back their citizens held in jihadist camps in Syria, but as the process remains slow, the women and children living in the camps in poor conditions risk being radicalised, sexually abused, forced to work or to get married.

On 24 January, France repatriated 47 French women and children held in camps in northeast Syria. France has one of the toughest policies in Europe when it comes to repatriating families, and in 2019, when the Islamic State fell, the country decided not to repatriate its nationals held in Syrian camps.

The country then pursued a case-by-case policy before being condemned several times in 2022, first by the Committee on the Rights of the Child and then by the European Court of Human Rights.

More recently, on 16 January, the UN Committee against Torture condemned France for not caring for the mothers and their children. The condemnations seem to have borne fruit since July, as increasingly large groups of women and children are being repatriated.

In July, 16 mothers and 35 children were repatriated; in October, 15 women and 40 children were returned.

But, “things are moving slowly”, and the selection criteria for returning to France remains “opaque”, Simon Foreman, a member of the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH), told EURACTIV. According to him, there are still around 100 French children and 50 French women on the ground.

In Europe, there is no common repatriation policy, and each country has its own strategy. For example, in France, repatriated mothers go directly to prison, whereas in Belgium, they are tried but not incarcerated.

Sweden is less strict. While it allows for returns, its intelligence services conduct a thorough investigation to assess potential risks to national security.

Since the war in Syria began in 2011, most citizens who have left to fight abroad are from Belgium and France. Last June, 16 Belgian children and six mothers were repatriated.

In March 2021, the European Parliament took a position in favour of the repatriation of children from Syrian camps.

Public opinion in favour of the return of children

In several European countries, such as France, Albania and Germany, public opinion is in favour of repatriating women and children. Family associations and civil society regularly appeal to governments to speed up the process.

The children of former IS members are “ultimately the victims of IS and they have a right to a better future away from its deadly ideology,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said last year.

When dealing with children, a “duty of humanity and vigilance” is required because “they have not asked for anything,” French Justice Minister Eric Dupond Morretti said at a Senate hearing last October.

“Everyone understood that these children had to be saved and that it was inconceivable to separate them from their mothers,” confirmed Ludovic Riviere, a French lawyer for one of the families.

European children still in Syria

However, families of jihadists are still held in the Syrian camps, especially in Roj. Swedish intelligence services have stated that of the 300 people who have left the country since 2012, only 150 have been repatriated.

Of those that remain in the camps, France has not repatriated 100 children and 50 women who are still prisoners, Riviere added.

In Albania, 43 women and children have been repatriated since the spring of 2022. Interior Minister Bledi Cuci said Albania had a list of citizens still in camps and that efforts to repatriate them would continue.

Germany, on the other hand, has repatriated all women and children detained in Syria as of November 2022.

“The intention of the German government was to ensure that all German children from the camps in northeast Syria could return to Germany. We have succeeded in this,” Baerbock told ARD.

Risk of radicalisation in camps

Plagued by extreme temperatures, poor access to drinking water and disease, living conditions in the camps are extremely precarious, and children die every day, warned Foreman.

In the Kurd-controlled camps, women and children are even more at risk and are very prone to radicalisation. Radicalised women tend to impose strict rules over the lives of other refugees in the camp and violently threaten those willing to return and register on repatriation lists.

In addition, a World Vision 2022 report found that 34% of children in the camps said they had experienced at least one form of violence with 9% saying the abuse was sexual. Another 32% were married at an early age, 58% of boys said they were involved in child labour, with 49% of girls saying the same.

The report found that 95% of women said they felt hopeless and had no access to mental health support, healthcare or protection with some even resorting to suicide, and 83% of children said they were in need to safe spaces and protection.

World Vision recommended that women and children be prioritised in the camps in terms of humanitarian efforts.

“These women and their children face chronic and high levels of violence, including neglect, verbal, physical and sexual abuse, as well as child marriage and child labour. Boys are especially at risk of recruitment into armed groups, and later radicalisation,” the report noted.

Key recommendations from the organisation, include more action from home countries and quicker repatriation processes.

“Many security experts agree that any security risk can be better managed if those in the camps are repatriated to their home countries in a controlled manner,” Christophe Paulussen, an international law expert at the Asser Institute and the International Centre for Combating Terrorism in The Hague, told EURACTIV.

“These children are in hotbeds of radicalization at the mercy of Daesh,” Foreman warned.

“While repatriations seem to be accelerating in Europe, the question now arises as to whether to return children whose mothers do not want to return: whether or not to bring them back to their home countries and make these children “the foolish choices of their mothers? ” asked Riviere.

*first published in: Euractiv.com

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