How France finally made the difficult decision to repatriate its ISIS families

At dawn on July 5, a group of 16 women and 35 children landed in Paris. When the women left France years ago, they were going to what was then ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria. Now they have returned as single mothers from detention camps in northeast Syria. After three years of pitfalls and indecision, France has finally decided to repatriate some of its citizens. While bringing people affiliated with the Islamic State back to French soil can seem incredibly risky at best and naïve at worst, repatriation remains the most effective solution to the foreign fighters’ dilemma.

Over the past 10 years, nearly 2,000 people have left France to join terrorist organizations like Daesh. About 20% of them were women. Since the military defeat of the so-called “caliphate” in 2019, several thousand foreigners affiliated with the Islamic State have been detained in Kurdish camps and prisons in northeast Syria. However, despite appalling living conditions, illnesses, deaths and reprimands from international organizations, Kurds, the United States and the families of detainees, France had, until July, brought back only 35 children, and that on a case-by-case basis. Several hundred French citizens or residents – 67 men, 75 women and 250 minors – remain in Kurdish camps and prisons.

France having now doubled the number of children repatriated with this latter group, and having also brought back mothers, may indicate a positive change in policy; France and its European partners should also bring the rest of their citizens back from Syria. But tracing the developments that led to this change helps explain why it could also be a little more than damage control.

Faced with the dilemma of what to do with ISIS affiliates detained in Syria, countries are taking different approaches, ranging from withdrawing citizenship in the UK to actively repatriating citizens, as in the case of Kosovo. France has largely chosen over the years to shirk its responsibilities and argued that IS affiliates should be tried in the region – aware that this was not a feasible legal solution. As human rights organizations began to condemn the horrific conditions of the “European Guantanamo”, more and more European countries began to repatriate: Belgium repatriates minors under the age of 12. Germany brought back 22 women and 69 children and the Netherlands began repatriating women for trial.

France has not only become increasingly isolated among its European partners, but has also had to face increasing pressure from its citizens. In 2021, two families took France to the European Court of Human Rights, alleging that “the refusal to repatriate their daughters and grandchildren exposes them to inhuman and degrading treatment”.

Prosecuting French returnees requires less evidence and carries longer sentences, compared to other European countries

Last year, a French woman detained in a Syrian camp died of severe diabetes, leaving behind her 6-year-old daughter. Pressure intensified in February when the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child concluded that “the failure of France to repatriate French children…in life-threatening conditions for years violates their right to life, as well as their right to be free from inhuman violence”. and degrading treatment”.

Yet France firmly maintained its position. Repatriations are not easily marketed as a political victory and France has been traumatized by multiple deadly terrorist attacks over the past decade. Terrorism remains a politicized subject in France. Government officials have hinted that Paris will start moving forward on the issue of repatriation once recent presidential elections are over – a clear policy priority over humanitarian, legal and security considerations.

But other considerations helped push France’s latest decision. Jean-Charles Brisard, president of the French Center for the Analysis of Terrorism points out several recent developments. First, the repatriation was “mainly linked to the deterioration of the security situation in the region”. Faced with rising tensions and fears of a Turkish offensive, the Syrian Kurdish authorities declared a state of emergency on July 6, mobilizing all their forces. With the conflict escalating and fewer personnel available to guard camps and prisons, detainees – including those strongly suspected of maintaining links to ISIS – could take the opportunity to flee.

During a Turkish attack in October 2019, for example, 10 French women were able to flee the Ain Issa camp. And among the women repatriated this month is Emilie Konig, who is on the US and UN terror blacklists.

Emilie Konig walks around Camp Al Roj in northeastern Syria on March 28, 2021, where she was detained along with other suspected relatives of ISIS operatives.  Konig, one of many French jihadists, was repatriated from Syria on July 5.  AFP

A second reason is the increased activity of the Islamic State in the region. The most significant was the attack on a prison for IS fighters, including foreigners, in Hasakah, Syria, in January 2022: hundreds of fighters reportedly escaped and, although many were recaptured, dozens are still missing and could join IS. A final reason was to anticipate an “imminent” decision against France from the European Court of Human Rights.

Repatriation is a crucial step, but it is only the beginning of a longer process. Most of the repatriated minors are under the age of five, including seven orphans. Upon arrival, minors are generally separated from their mothers before undergoing a medical and psychological examination and being placed with foster families. Child protection officers assess the need for specialist counseling and whether the child can return to their family of origin. The social reintegration of these children will be a long-term challenge.

epaselect epa07254308 Children of suspected Islamic State (IS) fighters are examined by medical teams as they board a Russian plane on the runway at Baghdad International Airport in Baghdad, Iraq, on 30 December 2018. Iraq repatriated 30 children of suspected Islamic State fighters, most from former Soviet states, such as Tajikistan, Chechnya and Russia.  The handover was attended by Russian Presidential Commissioner Anna Kuznetzova and Russian Ambassador to Iraq Maksim Maksimov.  A security source said that

Repatriated adults, for their part, are arrested on their arrival in France and placed in an isolation unit during pre-trial detention. A repatriated minor will turn 18 in the coming days and has also been arrested for security reasons. Since 2016, repatriated women have also been prosecuted more rigorously, including for association with a terrorist group, endangering children or war crimes. The average prison term is six years and eight months. Compared to other European countries, prosecuting repatriated French women for terrorism offenses requires less evidence and leads to longer sentences. Since the beginning of 2022, repatriated women can be assessed in special units and distributed to ordinary detention, isolation or prevention units. After release, a multidisciplinary program supports their rehabilitation and reintegration.

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Repatriating foreign fighters might not seem like the most attractive political decision. Returnees may be involved in terrorist attacks and security agencies are not always able to thwart them. Nevertheless, repatriation is the safest option. It makes it possible to bring the perpetrators to justice, to assess their risk and to support the disengagement from a violent ideology.

Children, in particular, should be seen as victims instead of paying for their parents’ decision and being abandoned in nurseries of extremist socialization. Finally, the Europeans cannot continue indefinitely to unload their problematic citizens on the Kurds, who have already paid a high price to defeat Daesh.

If this repatriation of minors and French mothers is a positive signal, it must be the start of a broader campaign to meet France’s obligations. This would be the perfect opportunity for European countries to develop a common repatriation strategy. France should also set up mechanisms for bilateral exchanges on concrete cases to complement existing international investigations on the Islamic State, such as those carried out by the UN, in order to exchange “evidence from the battlefield”. for the prosecution of returnees, for example, for crimes committed against members of the Yazidi community. community.

France finally seems ready to take its responsibilities towards its citizens and to take security considerations seriously in the short and long term. Together with other European governments, it should now work to repatriate all remaining men, women and children, prosecute the adults and prepare for the long road of rehabilitation and reintegration of returnees. Only then will they be able to live up to the high standards of accountability and respect for human rights that they should expect of themselves and of their partners.

Published: 08 July 2022, 06:00 PM

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