When Belgium said in March it would repatriate some women who had joined the Islamic State, along with their children, Jessie Van Eetvelde greeted the decision with relief – although she knows it will likely mean jail time.
She and her two children have lived for at least two years in detention camps in Syria. Her dream, she says, is for her children, whose father fought for the Islamic State, to go to school in Belgium. For this, she is ready to pay the price of having joined the militant group in 2014, if Belgium takes it back.
“Maybe they have realized that those who want to come back are sorry and want a second chance,” Ms Van Eetvelde, 43, recently said in a WhatsApp voicemail message.
Many European countries have been reluctant to allow the return of those linked to Daesh, but some, like Belgium and Finland, are now listening to advice from security experts and rights groups who say repatriations are the safest option.
“Europe has long criticized the United States for Guantánamo Bay, but now you have a Guantánamo in the desert,” said Chris Harnisch, a former counterterrorism official at the State Department who organized the repatriation. of U.S. citizens in 2019 and 2020.
Two years after the Islamic State lost its last territorial foothold in Syria, more than 200 women from 11 European countries and their 650 children live in two Syrian camps, Al Hol and Roj, according to figures compiled by Thomas Renard, researcher at the Egmont Institute, a Brussels-based think tank.
Although Europeans make up a small fraction of the 60,000 people held in the camps, who are mostly Iraqis and Syrians, European governments face increasing pressure to bring adults to trial amid an argument according to which inaction of countries violates their commitment to human rights.
Security experts, rights groups and lawyers for those who have been to ISIS territories recognize that European governments face legitimate security challenges, as well as political momentum in certain areas. countries that fear terrorist attacks. But a growing number of government and intelligence officials say leaving European citizens in Syria carries greater risks, including that they could join terrorist groups that target Europe.
Countries like the United States, Kazakhstan and Turkey have repatriated many of their own citizens to prosecute them and, in some cases, reintegrate them into society.
Kurdish leaders in the region that oversees the camps have not prosecuted women, whose roles under ISIS’s rule often remain unclear. And because the administration is not internationally recognized, no prosecution would always get them out of their legal limbo.
Most European countries say they have no legal obligation to help their citizens in the camps and that adults who joined ISIS should be prosecuted in Iraq and Syria.
Yet Belgian Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne said his government would organize the repatriation of 13 women and their 27 children in the months after the country’s intelligence services announced ISIS was gaining power. in the camps. He said authorities had received “clear advice” that bringing women and children to Belgium was the safest option.
An internal European Union document this year described the Hol camp as a “mini-caliphate”.
“A returnee will always present a risk, some of them low, others very high,” Renard said, adding that returnees could potentially radicalize detainees in prison or attempt attacks. “Yet the consequences of non-repatriation increasingly outweigh these risks.”
Rights groups say the children have done nothing wrong and are suffering from disease, malnutrition and sexual assault. Hundreds of people have died and dozens of coronavirus cases have been reported in camps, non-governmental organization says Save the children.
There are also concerns about adolescents who traveled to ISIS territories as young children with their European-born mothers and who are at greater risk of radicalization. They are being left behind because countries only accept younger children.
Letta Tayler, senior counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch, said European governments “created levels of children.” She said, “The most desirable are orphans – the least desirable are adolescents.”
The advocacy group Stay says many women in the camps have been trafficked, raped and forced into marriage and domestic servitude.
However, in several European countries, repatriations remain out of the question, said a French intelligence official who requested anonymity to raise the subject. Part of the reluctance, security analysts say, is that returnee women may or may not receive light prison terms.
Britain has stripped British citizenship from nearly 20 women who joined ISIS, in some cases bringing them to justice to prevent their return. France has refused numerous calls for repatriation, even as some of the women have gone on a month-long hunger strike. The Netherlands and Sweden said they could take in children, but without their mother.
Ms. Van Eetvelde, a former cashier born near Antwerp in northern Belgium, traveled to ISIS territory with her husband in 2014. Now in Roj camp, she hopes to return to Belgium for herself and her children, who are 3 and 5.
She remains mostly cut off from the world, and even her lawyer, Mohamed Ozdemir, said he had not been able to communicate with her in recent months. Cell phones are not allowed, so Ms Van Eetvelde communicated with The New York Times through voice messages sent via the phone of another woman in the camp whom The Times contacted through her family and his lawyer.
In January, a Belgian court sentenced her in absentia for participating in the activities of a terrorist organization, Ozdemir said. The court sentenced her to five years in prison.
Mr Van Quickenborne said any woman wishing to return to Belgium would have to prove that she did not want to harm the country. “If they did not distance themselves from the ideology of ISIS, they will stay put,” he said.
This repatriation plan is likely to put pressure on neighboring France, which has the largest contingent of European citizens in camps and prisons in Iraq and Syria. Yet as France reels from years of terrorist attacks, the government has opposed calls for the repatriation of people who have left to wage jihad.
Although France has taken in 35 children from the camps on a case-by-case basis, 100 women of French nationality and their 200 children remain mostly in the Roj camp, according to Jean-Charles Brisard, director of the Paris-based Center. for the analysis of terrorism.
France was to repatriate at least 160 of them in early 2019, according to intelligence documents unearthed by the newspaper Release this spring and seen by the Times this year. But the situation in the camps became too volatile, the French intelligence official said, and the plan was scrapped.
“We thought that was going to happen and that the dominoes could have started to fall with other European countries,” said Harnisch, the former US counterterrorism official. “But the French government cut the power at the 11th hour.”
Today, a growing number of European countries are taking action.
In Denmark, authorities announced this month that they would repatriate three women and 14 children. Germany and Finland repatriated five women and 18 children in December, and a spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry said last month the country was working “at full capacity” to welcome children from camps including mothers. are of German nationality.
In Britain, Tory lawmakers have called for the repatriation of some British citizens, arguing it would be safer to prosecute them in the country than to leave them in the camps.
The parents of a French woman in the camps have filed a complaint against France before the European Court of Human Rights for the repatriation of her and her children. And three French lawyers asked the International Criminal Court to examine whether the country’s policy makes President Emmanuel Macron an accomplice in war crimes.
A French woman who went on hunger strike in Roj camp said there was no running water and many people there had breathing problems. (The Times is not publishing her name because she says she has received death threats from ISIS supporters who oppose their return to France.) “It is very difficult to see doctors and dentists – there are no drugs, “she said, adding that the French women wanted to return” to be tried, imprisoned “.
Jussi Tanner, a Finnish diplomat responsible for repatriation to his country, said the return of women and children was not a question of “if, but when and how”.
“Getting them home as quickly as possible is better from a security point of view than pretending the problem goes away when we look away,” he said. “You can leave them there, but they’ll come back anyway.”
Claire Moses, Christopher F. Schuetze and Jasmina Nielsen contributed reporting.