Since the military victory over the Islamic State (ISIS) in March 2019, Kurdish camps in northern Syria remain filled with former fighters of the organization and their wives and children. Of the foreign fighters who travelled to Syria, around 2,838 came from just four countries: Belgium, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. In 2019, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) revealed that about 29,000 children of foreign fighters are stranded in Syria, and most are under the age of 12. Among them, 20,000 come from Iraq and 9,000 come from 50 different countries, many of them European. In addition, there are 1,200 children of foreign fighters in Iraq, more than 200 from France.
The numbers of foreign fighters’ families in Syrian and Iraqi camps raises the issue of bringing them back to their home countries. European countries adopted a cautious policy in dealing with the expatriation of foreign fighters and their families. For instance, the French government is dealing with foreign fighters’ issue on a case-by-case basis and refuses to repatriate adults, including mothers who refuse to be separated from their children. In mid-June, the French government repatriated fifteen orphans of French combatants and two children whose mothers authorized their travel to France.
The European Court of Human Rights condemned France, demanding it reconsider this approach. Although the French government took note of this condemnation, and recalled that France had already repatriated several families of jihadists in early July, the numbers of expatriated people remains low. France has been the most blunt about its approach, but the European Union (EU) countries in general remain hesitant about the expatriation of jihadists and their families.
The obvious fear of the EU states is that the returnees will have opportunities to commit terrorist acts within their borders and that these people, either radicalized in the camps or who fought for ISIS, will have direct access to citizens to spread this radicalism and perhaps induce others to terrorism. Any terrorist act committed by returnees will put governments in a precarious position politically, radically decreasing their popularity. This is the fundamental calculation that makes all EU politicians in all European countries hesitant to take any bold steps in this regard. There are further costs, of a more literal kind: European states that bring back foreign fighters and their families who cannot be held on criminal charges will have to allocate greater budgets to intelligence agencies to monitor them and to reintegration programs.
The children, and some of the wives, of foreign fighters are considered to be victims themselves, forced involuntarily into ISIS’s ranks. However, the horrific experiences and the heinous crimes that they witnessed or committed during the war might contribute to their indoctrination. Many children have acted as soldiers for the ISIS and other terrorist groups in the Iraq-Syria zone. This might lead them to become a source of serious threat to the security of European countries. Although some EU countries provide comprehensive reintegration programmes for foreign fighters and their families, these programmes have no guarantee of success in deradicalizing returnees or neutralizing the risk they pose to society. Even though the participation of children in deradicalization programmes can lead them to give up on radical ideas, the stigmatization of children and families of foreign fighters by society can also pose a real risk for their relapse. It has been demonstrated that stigmatization and alienation are one of the push factors of the radicalization of foreign fighters.
The risk of bringing families of foreign fighters home is high-risk from a security perspective, and this has to be acknowledged. Nonetheless, the conditions in which those families are living in the camps remain harsh and inhuman. Children live in inhuman conditions, lacking basic necessities, including water, food, education and health care, and face imminent risk of death. At least 62 children are believed to have died in the camps because of these conditions since the beginning of 2021. The harsh conditions in which those families are living raises serious questions of responsibility the international community and the countries from which those families come.
The EU states accept the responsibility of care—in all senses—for their citizens who are stranded in the camps. The families and the children of foreign fighters remain citizens of EU countries. Thus, they have the right to be treated as citizens and should be allowed to return to their home countries. The EU states’ refusal to bring back their citizens not only contributes in the short-term to enduring suffering; it carries a message that denies belonging to segments of the population. In a more practical sense, many reports warn against the radicalization of children inside the camps: the longer children are left in those camps, the more likely jihadists will be able to indoctrinate them and put them on the battlefield, including in Europe.
The subject of foreign fighter returnees has attracted an enormous amount of research and analysis over the past few years. All the studies and the analysis that were conducted stressed that children are suffering in Syrian and Iraqi camps, which should give a sense of urgency to EU states to take on the responsibility of bringing their citizens back. There are risks, and EU states will have to devote serious resources to monitoring and integrating the returnees, but this is not a problem that will get better over time: it is highly important to ensure that they come back as soon as possible. The longer they stay in the camps, the more opportunity extremists have to recruit them for the next round of jihad.