France repatriates dozens of children and their mothers from Syria camps

Al Hol and Roj camps still house thousands of youngsters in squalid conditions, many from families of ISIS fighters

Mostly women and children inhabit Roj, a camp where relatives of suspected ISIS terrorists are held, in Syria's north-eastern Hassakeh province. AP
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France has repatriated 35 children and 16 mothers from camps in north-east Syria that have been holding family members of ISIS suspects for years, its Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday.

A statement from France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor said the children were handed over to welfare services and will be medically monitored.

The mothers, aged between 22 and 39, were handed over to judicial authorities, the statement said.

Fourteen of the women are French citizens and the other two mothers of French children.

Twenty eight children were returned to France with their mothers. In addition, authorities said another seven, who had been were found on their own in the Kurdish-run camps, were repatriated to France.

During its more than decade-long civil war, Syria became a harbour for ISIS, which controlled much of the country and neighbouring Iraq from 2014 to 2017 and recruited Europeans as fighters — and as wives.

European countries have been struggling for years to decide what to do with their citizens who went to Syria during the conflict, including women who ended up in the Al Hol and Roj camps for displaced people after the militants were defeated in 2017.

Conditions in the severely overcrowded camps have been described as dire and unsafe by aid organisations working on the ground, including Save the Children, which has long campaigned for European countries to repatriate its child citizens.

The group said there were more than 7,300 children from 60 countries across the world living in both camps, in addition to 18,000 Iraqi children.

An estimated 60 British children and 15 British women are among those living in Al Hol and Roj.

More than 60,000 people live in Al Hol camp, almost half of them children, with “devastating” levels of poverty and violence, which a recent Save the Children report said makes it “one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a child”.

In 2021, an average of more than two people were killed each week at Al Hol. Of the 163 who died that year, 62 were children, while there have been at least 130 murders since March 2019, the organisation said.

Save the Children’s research included accounts from children who have seen their neighbours killed in their tents and others who have seen shootings, stabbings and people being strangled while going to the market or to school.

Deteriorating conditions in the so-called “widow camps” have left children suffering from “regular nightmares that involve killing and violence, and struggling with insomnia”, the report said, with many feeling “hopeless about their futures”.

Last year, Danish intelligence confirmed that at least 30 children from the camps had been kidnapped and trafficked by ISIS.

Backed by several human rights organisations, Save the Children has for years been calling for “urgent efforts” to return the children of foreign fighters and their mothers to their home countries. But many European countries have been hesitant to do so, citing security reasons.

Six children and their mothers were this year repatriated from Al Hol and Roj to Sweden and 11 were returned to the Netherlands. Denmark and Germany have also repatriated groups of children and their mothers.

In March, Save the Children welcomed the repatriations but said they were “simply not enough”. The charity said it would take 30 years before foreign children in the camps return home should repatriations continued at their current rate.

The UK has repatriated only seven children and no adult women, some of whom the Home Office has deprived of their British citizenship.

Before Tuesday’s arrivals, France had repatriated 126 children since 2016.

Updated: July 05, 2022, 1:32 PM