Marta Lopes, Strong Cities Network (SCN) Coordinator at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) – Simeon Dukic, SCN Manager Balkans and Central Asia at ISD.
The question of what to do with returning foreign fighters has been a largely confused public debate. The issue grabbed U.K. headlines by storm when the videos of Shamima Begum appeared online. The Bethnal Green school girl was denied consular services from the U.K. government and even had her citizenship revoked for joining ISIS. Elsewhere on the continent, Danish and Swedish politicians have also been reluctant to accept their citizens back while Belgium and France are limiting repatriation of some children.
Recently, France condemned the decision of an Iraqi court to sentence 11 French foreign fighters to death, but still rejects their repatriation. Such cases reveal a concerning paradox: while there is an important debate around the responsibility European governments have towards their citizens, most governments have been asserting a hard line. However, repatriation seems to be the only acceptable solution in the long term based on practical, legal and moral grounds. Individuals who are not repatriated might suffer the death penalty and be exposed to inhumane treatment, and this is regardless of their active involvement in terrorist organisations. Not only are these alternatives unacceptable according to Western liberal standards, they also incur significant security risks.
In contrast to other European states with better resources, Western Balkans countries are actively repatriating their citizens, including fighters. Last August, North Macedonia was one of the first countries to repatriate seven foreign terrorist fighters, who are currently on trial. More recently, Kosovo repatriated 110 of their citizens from Syria. The justice minister stated that the government will “not stop until each Kosovo citizen is back home.” Four men were immediately detained due to terrorism related allegations, and ten women were placed under house arrest. Kosovo has already put a plan in place to rehabilitate and reintegrate returnees. Despite Bosnia and Herzegovina having only repatriated one foreign terrorist fighter who was under INTERPOL’s Red Notice, the Bosnian security minister claimed that negotiations are underway with the relevant stakeholders in Syria on repatriation, while security agencies identify Bosnian citizens in the camps. To facilitate the process, the federal government is establishing a multi-stakeholder coordinative body which will include the Ministry of Security and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs among others.
Central Asian states are following a similar path. In January, Kazakhstan received 47 citizens. Two men were sentenced to eight years in prison for terrorism. The number of returnees was more than five times higher in the next wave of repatriation in May, resulting in the evacuation of 231 Kazakh citizens. Upon their return, 16 men and four women were detained on suspicion of joining terrorist groups abroad. The rest of the women were placed in a month-long reintegration programme at a center near Aktau in Western Kazakhstan. The Kazakh president emphasized the positive aspects of this policy, claiming that the women who returned in January 2019 were employed, had restored ties with relatives and abandoned radical beliefs. A former National Security Committee colonel explained that the reason for active repatriation is not only based on humanitarian grounds, but also aims to strategically neutralise the threat before terrorists return on their own. Similarly, Tajikistan brought back 84 children from the camps in Iraq. The Tajik foreign minister announced a new state policy to repatriate all of its citizens from Syria and Iraq, prioritizing children.
These countries are committed to bringing their citizens back home and reintegrating them into society despite a range of risks. Both Western Balkan and Central Asian states have had difficult transition periods since the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union characterised by bloody (civil) wars, malign foreign influence and economic stagnation. Instability, ethnic tensions, lack of rule of law, and widespread corruption have provided fertile ground for recruitment into extremist groups, while weak institutions were not able to respond. Moreover, these countries will face a number of challenges, especially on the local level. Children and adults not suspected of terrorism are returning to their communities where they might face antagonism. Local authorities will have to nurture social cohesion to mitigate the risks of recidivism of the returnees and promote tolerance within the community to create an environment for successful reintegration. Moreover, local authorities will bear the administrative costs; namely, to support returnees with reintegrating into the job market, despite high levels of unemployment, in order to solve their housing situation and other social services.
Western European countries have the necessary structures in place to implement successful reintegration processes by utilizing established multi-agency approaches. The U.K. government has actually already implemented specific policy changes to deal with returnees. The U.K. CONTEST strategy was updated in 2018, when 425 citizens, or 50% of the total British contingent, had already returned from Syria and Iraq. The Desistance and Disengagement Program builds on a multi-agency approach to assess the threat posed by an individual and provide tailored support to returnees. Such coordination structures are generally non-existent in the Western Balkans and Central Asia on the local level, thus, local authorities need support to establish and sustain reintegration efforts.
There is an opportunity to build cooperation through existing networks and international structures. The Strong Cities Network (SCN) connects 128 cities throughout the world, facilitating the exchange of good practices and lessons learned related to preventing violent extremism (PVE), and supporting cities to develop and promote local PVE approaches. For example, the SCN established six local prevention networks across Jordan and Lebanon inspired by the Danish model of multi-agency cooperation with the aim to equip those cities with the necessary skills and tools to address issues relating to violent extremism, including reintegration. While the project faced challenges in adapting to a challenging environment, the readiness of Danish cities to support their Middle Eastern counterparts is highly commendable. With strong presence in both Western Europe and the Western Balkans, and plans to expand into Central Asia, the SCN can support less institutionalized settings that might struggle with returnees’ reintegration by sharing good practice examples from experienced SCN member cities.
In these polarized times, Europe has to stand up for the values it promotes as the debate around active repatriation evolves, and draw on examples from states around the world to maintain social cohesion across its borders. The Western Balkans and Central Asia serve as an example of a pragmatic approach that takes responsibility for its citizens and puts the emphasis on resocialization and reintegration. European countries with developed institutional structures should look to the example set by these states on the policy level, and focus on working with existing networks on the operational level to deal with the 1,192 individuals that have already returned to the EU in May 2018. If governments do not get this right, not only do they face higher security risks in the future, they will also demonstrate that the values they promote are amenable, questioning the already fragile concept of liberal democracies.
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