Since the fall of the caliphate, thousands of European foreign fighters and their families have been stranded in Syria and Iraq. So far, European capitals have been reluctant to repatriate their nationals and children born in the territories formerly controlled by the Islamic State, despite experts warning that inaction may be more dangerous in the long run.
A study from July 2019 estimated that some 5,500 foreigners in Syria and Iraq were either coming from the EU27 or were born to the parents of EU nationals, though the numbers may be higher due to gaps in the available information and under-reporting by countries.
More than a third are children and women, of whom at least 371 have already returned.
In a report released last month, the UN Syria Commission, set up in 2011 to investigate violations of international law, called on countries of origin to take steps to register infants born in Syria, repatriate their children and refrain from stripping parents of their nationality.
The response from European capitals has been mixed, with some countries, such as Belgium, setting age limits, while others being only willing to repatriate orphans. Still others, like Denmark, are planning to strip foreign fighters of citizenship.
“Generally speaking, despite the calls of experts and international organisations to do otherwise, European countries remain very reluctant to engage in active repatriation,” says Christophe Paulussen, an international law expert at Asser Institute and the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague.
“The people who have left to support Daesh and to join this fight, have left freely,” argued MEP Jérôme Rivière of Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National. “And, even though the conditions were ‘slightly’ brutal, stayed there.”
“To earmark considerable funds for people who have made the free choice to act as terrorists seems to me as something problematic and not necessarily good management of public funds.”
Rivière sees it relatively just and legitimate that crimes committed in Syria be tried in the territories and by populations who have suffered them.
“I think the responsibility of politicians such as ourselves is first and foremost to protect their citizens,” the French MEP opined.
Paulussen disagreed. “Such an argument doesn’t really stick as many are very young children, who did not decide to go to Iraq/Syria.”
Assessments by security experts, largely ignored by European capitals, indicate that in the long-term, it is safer to bring the children back and while there are hazards to repatriating parents, such risk is more manageable than allowing people to fall off the radar.
Paulussen argued that the lack of European political will to engage in active repatriation is explained both by fear of repatriated persons taking part in future terrorist attacks as well as “non-rational emotions and symbolism, even if not doing anything, as many experts have argued, will only make us less safe in the long term.”
Political leaders are “showing muscles, demonstrating that they are ‘tough’ on terrorism, especially now that they have to compete with increasingly popular populist parties,” suggested Paulussen.
While repatriation is widely seen as a national security issue and, as such, the sole responsibility of member states, the EU could play a vital coordinating role.
“Cooperation at the European level, for example in terms of intelligence sharing, will be essential,” Paulussen said, “because at some point, former returnees will walk the streets of Europe again, either because they cannot be prosecuted due to a lack of evidence” or after serving their sentences.
“It will also be important to share good practices in terms of rehabilitation and reintegration to minimise the possible security risk of former returnees as much as possible.”
While European repatriation efforts remain lacklustre, the bloc could engage with the experience of Central Asian countries, who have been actively bringing back their citizens.
In a three-phase operation conducted between January and May 2019, Kazakhstan has repatriated 595 of its citizens and sent the majority of the women and children to adaptation and rehabilitation centres. Here, the returnees were given into the care of medical workers, psychologists and theologians before returning to their communities.
Kazakhstan also tried and sentenced 33 male fighters, who will also undergo rehabilitation while serving their sentences.
“Reintegration is hard,” admitted Sabinella, a young widow brought back from Syria last year, speaking at a conference in the European Parliament on the Kazakh repatriation experience on 4 February. “But the continued support of the family and counselling help.”
In November 2019, Kazakhstan repatriated 14 more children from Baghdad, who have spent the past two years with their mothers, currently imprisoned for terrorist activities.
The effectiveness of Kazakhstan’s and other Central Asian nations’ deradicalisation and reintegration efforts remain to be seen.
“The girls from other countries were saying ‘how we envy you, yours are taking you back and we will have to stay here longer,'” Sabinella concluded in her emotional testimonial.
“We were comforting them, saying ‘maybe there will come a time when you will also be taken back. The gates of this camp will open and you will run towards your homeland.'”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]