LONDON –Since before the fall in March 2019 of the Islamic State (ISIS) group’s self-proclaimed “caliphate” in Syria, Kurdish forces have managed several camps in Syria’s northeast, housing thousands of civilians who fled the fighting.
The largest is Al-Hol, which also houses the wives of foreign Islamic State (ISIS) fighters and their children.
The Kurds, backed heavily by a US-led coalition in the fight against ISIS, have repeatedly demanded that countries of origin repatriate foreign fighters and their families.
But many nations have been slow to oblige, other than to bring back orphans.
Two Belgian researchers confirmed in a study published Wednesday that more than 600 children of European militants, nearly a third of them French, are currently being held in two Kurdish-controlled camps in northeastern Syria, denouncing the “inaction” of their countries.
Touma Renard and Rick Colsaet, experts on militant affairs at the Egmont Institute in Brussels, said in their study that “between 610 and 680” children from European Union citizens are currently detained with their mothers in the Rouge and Al Hol camps in northeastern Syria.
If these children are added to about 400 adults – including militants detained in particular in the Syrian city of Hasaka – there are in total about 1,000 Europeans detained in the Iraqi-Syrian region, according to the study, which was based on official data, expert estimates, and statistics from field NGOs.
The French top the list of those European detainees, as there are between “150 to 200” adults and “200 to 250” children, the vast majority of them in Syria.
The French are followed by the Germans, then the Dutch, then the Swedes, then the Belgians, then the British, according to the study that pointed out that there are at least 38 detained Belgian children and 35 British minors.
The researchers considered that with regard to adult militants who fought in the ranks of Daesh and whose countries have ruled out the possibility of taking them back, the detention of these “outside any international legal framework” and the ambiguity surrounding the possibility of them getting a trial where they are, is reminiscent of the case of the detainees in the American Guantanamo camp.
“Today, with these European detainees, we are witnessing a similar situation” of the Guantanamo detainees, Touma Renard said, calling for consideration of the possibility of trying them before the courts of the Kurdish administration.
As for the children, according to the researcher, “they are victims of the choices of their parents, victims of war and the extremely difficult conditions in these camps, as well as victims of the inaction of European governments.”
Renard stressed that European governments “are fully aware of their situation, but have chosen not to return them to their homelands, often in contravention of the recommendations of their administrations and their specialised agencies to combat terrorism.”
The researcher rejected the idea that these children would be “ticking bombs” if they were returned to their countries.
“Sixty to 70 percent of them are under the age of five, almost all of the others are under the age of 12, and there are only a handful of teenagers,” Renard said.
Last September, a number of French lawmakers proposed an initiative to repatriate French children and their mothers, provided that the necessary care is provided for the children and that the mothers are brought before the French justice for trial.
The move coincided with a letter addressed to President Emmanuel Macron, which was sent by the families of 200 French children being held in Syria.
So far, France follows the principle of ‘case by case’ to return ISIS children from Iraq and Syria. If the child is an orphan, the repatriation is possible.
However, if the child has a living parent, then the approval of repatriation by the parent is required. Some lawmakers are against this approach and argue that all children and their mothers should be repatriated.
So far, the process of returning children seems very complicated, because the areas, under the control of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, also known as Rojava, do not have the status of a recognised state before the international community, and Paris has frozen diplomatic relations with Damascus since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011.