European eye on radicalization
Since the military victory over the Islamic State (ISIS) in March 2019, Kurdish camps in northern Syria have been filled with the organization’s former fighters and their wives and children. Of the foreign fighters who traveled 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) announced that about 29,000 children of foreign fighters were stranded in Syria, most of them under the age of 12. Among them, 20,000 are from Iraq and 9,000 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 number of families of foreign fighters in Syrian and Iraqi camps raises the question of returning them to their home countries. European countries have adopted a cautious policy in dealing with the deportation of foreign fighters and their families. For example, the French government treats the problem of foreign fighters on a case-by-case basis and refuses to return 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 had approved their travel to France.
The European Court of Human Rights condemned France and asked it to reconsider this approach. Although the French government took note of this condemnation and recalled that France had already repatriated several families of jihadists at the beginning of July, the number of emigrants remains small. France has been the most outspoken in its approach, but European Union (EU) countries in general remain reluctant to expatriate jihadists and their families.
The obvious fear of EU states is that the returnees have opportunities to commit acts of terrorism within their borders and that these people, who have either been radicalized in the camps or have fought for ISIS, have direct access to citizens to combat this radicalism disseminate and possibly induce others to engage in terrorism. Any act of terrorism committed by returnees will leave governments in a politically precarious position and radically diminish their popularity. This is the basic calculation that makes all EU politicians in all European countries reluctant to take bold steps in this regard. There are other costs in the literal sense: European states that bring back foreign fighters and their families who cannot be prosecuted must allocate more budgets to intelligence agencies for their surveillance and reintegration programs.
The children and some of the wives of foreign fighters are themselves considered victims who were involuntarily pushed into the ranks of IS. However, the horrific experiences and heinous crimes they witnessed or committed during the war could contribute to their indoctrination. Many children have acted as soldiers for IS and other terrorist groups in the Iraqi-Syrian zone. This could result in them becoming a serious threat to the security of European countries. Although some EU countries offer comprehensive reintegration programs for foreign fighters and their families, these programs do not guarantee success in deradicalising returnees or neutralizing the risk they pose to society. While children’s participation in deradicalization programs can lead them to abandon radical ideas, society’s stigmatization of children and families of foreign fighters can also pose a real risk of relapse. Stigma and alienation have been shown to be one of the push factors in the radicalization of foreign fighters.
The risk of bringing families of foreign fighters home is high risk from a security perspective and this needs to be recognised. However, the conditions under which these families live in the camps remain harsh and inhuman. Children live in inhumane conditions, lack basic needs such as water, food, education and healthcare, and face imminent risk of death. At least 62 children are believed to have died in the camps as a result of these conditions since early 2021. The harsh conditions in which these families live raise serious questions about the responsibility of the international community and the countries from which these families come.
EU countries are taking responsibility for caring for – literally – their citizens stranded in the camps. The families and children of foreign fighters remain citizens of EU countries. Therefore, they have the right to be treated as citizens and should be allowed to return to their home countries. The refusal of EU states to bring their citizens back is not only contributing to lasting suffering in the short term; it carries a message denying affiliation with sections of the population. In a more practical sense, many reports warn against the radicalization of children in the camps: the longer children remain in these camps, the more likely jihadists will be able to indoctrinate them and take them to the battlefield, including in Europe.
The issue of foreign fighter returnees has attracted a tremendous amount of research and analysis in recent years. All studies and analyzes conducted stressed that children are suffering in Syrian and Iraqi camps, which should give EU states a sense of urgency to take responsibility for the repatriation of their citizens. There are risks and EU countries need to devote serious resources to monitoring and integrating returnees, but this is not an issue that will improve over time: it is vitally important to ensure they return as soon as possible. The longer they stay in the camps, the more opportunities extremists have to recruit them for the next round of jihad.