Calls grow for hundreds of European children in Syrian camps to return home

Watchdogs say youngsters linked to ISIS lack basic services in detention facilities

Children hold onto water containers in al-Hol camp, Syria, January 8, 2020. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic     SEARCH "ISLAMIC STATE PRISONERS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
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Hundreds of European children are still detained in Syrian ISIS camps, prompting fresh calls for them to be returned home.

The youngsters are housed in camps where extremist fighters and their families were held after the defeat of the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria.

Watchdogs say the children lack basic services such as health care and sanitation and that efforts to bring them home have been hindered by the pandemic.

Children were among four people who died in a fire at the notorious Al Hol camp in March.

In a new report, the Open Society Justice Initiative said more than 600 children of European nationals were still living in the camps.

They include children from Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden.

Activists said it was effectively impossible for women and children in the camps to obtain travel documents prove their nationality.

They said European governments should act to bring them home immediately rather than reviewing each case on its merits.

“European states still overwhelmingly refuse to repatriate their child nationals from the camps,” said Georgiana Epure, a fellow at the advocacy group.

“Children in Syrian camps have been unlawfully detained for more than two years in inhumane and life-threatening conditions.”

The number of returns slowed during the pandemic. Denmark said in May that it would repatriate 22 women and children from Syria, while a Dutch woman and three children were returned to the Netherlands in June.

France’s Defender of Rights, Claire Hedon – an official with power to investigate abuses – said it was no longer tenable to judge each case on its own merits.

She said she would take up the case of French children in Syria before a UN committee and the European Court of Human Rights.

“The risks faced by these children… jeopardise not only their future but their very existence,” she said. “The conditions of their detention constitute serious violations of children’s rights.”

Security fears

About 5,000 European nationals are estimated to have joined ISIS in the years after it proclaimed its caliphate in 2014.

European countries say that security concerns over children linked to ISIS mean they need to take a case-by-case approach.

Some of the children were born in ISIS territory and are feared to have been indoctrinated by the extremists.

But the Justice Initiative report said the youngsters should be seen as victims rather than potential threats.

“Their age, level of maturity, commitment to ISIS ideology, training and engagement in ISIS activities varies,” it said.

“The idea that they exercised individual agency and informed consent in supporting or conducting violence is highly questionable.”

Updated: July 28, 2021, 10:01 AM