Europe shows 'out-of-step' UK how to reintegrate ISIS children

Campaigners want women and their children living in camps in Syria to be allowed back to Britain

Children with British citizenship are stuck in camps such as Syria's Al Hol, says a UK charity.
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The UK has been accused of breaching international law by abandoning child victims of ISIS who remain in camps in Syria unable to return home even though hundreds have established new lives across Europe.

London has “weaponised” its powers of granting and rescinding citizenship to deprive the children and their mothers of their ability to be repatriated, a UK charity said.

The non-profit, Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (Ecpat), warned that the UK is failing to comply with obligations on the protection of children from exploitation, particularly the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict.

ISIS made its last stand on the border of Syria and Iraq nearly five years ago but the question of how to deal with the children of women who joined the extremists has yet to be fully resolved.

A separate report explores how European countries are seeking to bring to justice women who travelled to join ISIS and to reintegrate their children.

The International Centre for Counter Terrorism (ICCT) compares how Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands deal with women who went to join ISIS and try to manage relationships with their children.

The four countries represent more than half of all adults who travelled to join ISIS, with significant numbers of women prosecuted for terrorism.

But as the report, Female Jihadis Facing Justice, outlines, efforts have been made there to bring children home.

In contrast there has been a trickle of children repatriated to the UK, with 10 brought home at the end of last year and a further 60 trapped in camps in camps in Syria.

The UK organisation Ecpat has recently been giving evidence to parliament’s Accountability for Daesh Crimes inquiry.

Laura Duran, Ecpat’s head of policy, advocacy and research, said the UK's breaches of international law centre on its failure to allow all children born to fighters of ISIS and other groups stranded in Syria to return to the UK.

Ms Duran told The National the UK government had been “weaponising” its powers to prevent individuals to return.

“There are children who are stranded in Syria who travelled there with their parents when they were really young or were born there but have British nationality," she said.

“They are likely to have suffered lots of horrific experiences, for example being imprisoned in Syria or in the camps with their families. The priority is for all British children currently living in Syria to immediately be allowed to return.”

Those who should be identified as victims of trafficking from returning, include Shamima Begum, who ran away from her home in London aged 15 to join ISIS, she said.

“There are other people in Syria who were recruited as children and who now maybe adults and may have been recruited as really young children and who may still be children.

“They are the ones who should be identified as victims, such as Sahmima Begum, and allowed to return.”

In contrast, since 2019, Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands have repatriated 319 children from camps, and 113 women, figures in the ICCT study show.

Perhaps the best known woman to have joined ISIS is Laura Hansen, from the Netherlands, who was sentenced to two years in prison for travelling to Syria to join ISIS after returning with her two children. Her life story was turned into a play.

The ICCT report looks at how countries are dealing with children of the women who have been repatriated.

While many have been brought to court and convicted, there have also been efforts to ensure their children can have some contact with their mothers and at least attempt to build normal lives.

In Belgium, detention or conviction does not automatically strip someone of custody of their children.

It is considered important to maintain a continuing relationship between mothers and children, particularly for children that grew up in the Syrian camps, say the ICCT researchers.

If needed, children can stay with their mother in prison until the age of three.

Germany allows children to stay in prison with their mothers up to age six in some states, while in France women have access to dedicated places that resemble small apartments where they can stay for a few hours with their children.

Tanya Mehra, one of the report's authors, said European countries are seeking to integrate children where possible.

“One of the challenges is that the children have a very strong bond with their mother and that might be even stronger given what they’ve been through so maintaining that is important,” she told The National.

“The children are very young, they might be influenced by ISIS ideology but it doesn't mean that the moment they come back they will be an immediate security risk.”

Ms Mehra, a senior research fellow at the ICCT, said women can only be held accountable for any crimes they’ve committed if they are repatriated with their children.

“Germany and some of the Nordic countries have made it a policy to repatriate and you can see the numbers picking up," she said. "What is clear is that the UK is not repatriating as many women as other countries.”

Katherine Cornett, from the UK human rights campaigners Reprieve, told The National the UK was “badly out of step with almost every single one of its allies” on the issue of repatriating children.

She said there are only about roughly 25 British families in total remaining in Syria, a relatively small number compared to other nations.

"In 2023 alone, France repatriated more women and children from north-east Syria than there are Brits left there,” she said.

Reprieve’s investigations have shown that more than two-thirds of the British women detained in North-East Syria were trafficked either as children, by their coercive husbands or a male relative, or groomed by a trafficking gang.

Ms Cornett, the head of Reprieve's Unlawful Detention team, explained that “over several visits to Camp Roj we have got to know the British women there well”.

“They are scared of dying there, terrified their children will be forcibly taken from them when they reach adolescence, and miss their families terribly.

“Where there is a case to answer, they are willing to face British justice, but that can’t happen until the government repatriates them.

"They are now stuck, imprisoned without trial, raising small children in appalling conditions, because their government refuses to bring them home. It is a matter of time before a British mother or child dies in the detention camps.”

The UK’s Home Office said, where unaccompanied minors and orphans are brought to its attention, it will seek to enable their return on a case-by-case basis, and subject to national security concerns, but the process is made more difficult by a lack of UK diplomatic presence in Syria.

In some circumstances they may also pose national security concerns that need to be carefully managed, it said.

Updated: January 31, 2024, 10:04 AM