Europe’s Dilemma: Take In ISIS Families, or Leave Them in Syria?

When Belgium stated in March that it will repatriate some ladies who had joined the Islamic State, together with their youngsters, Jessie Van Eetvelde welcomed the choice with reduction — though she is aware of it would possible imply time in jail.

She and her two youngsters have been dwelling for not less than two years in detention camps in Syria. Her dream, she says, is to have her youngsters, whose father fought for the Islamic State, attend faculty in Belgium. For that, she is able to pay the worth of getting joined the militant group in 2014, if Belgium will take her again.

“Maybe they realized that those who want to go back are sorry and want a second chance,” Ms. Van Eetvelde, 43, stated lately in a WhatsApp voice message.

Many European nations have balked at permitting the return of individuals linked to ISIS, but some, like Belgium and Finland, are actually heeding the recommendation of safety specialists and rights teams who say that repatriations are the most secure possibility.

“Europe has long criticized the U.S. for Guantánamo Bay, but now you have a Guantánamo in the desert,” stated Chris Harnisch, a former State Department counterterrorism official who organized the repatriation of American residents in 2019 and 2020.

Tatiana Wielandt and Bouchra Abouallal in the Ain Issa camp, Syria, in 2019. The Belgian ladies, now 26, had joined the Islamic State.Credit…Issam Abdallah/Reuters

Two years after the Islamic State misplaced its final territorial foothold in Syria, greater than 200 ladies from 11 European nations and their 650 youngsters live in two Syrian camps, Al Hol and Roj, in accordance with figures compiled by Thomas Renard, a researcher on the Egmont Institute, a Brussels-based suppose tank.

Although the Europeans symbolize a small fraction of the 60,000 folks being held in the camps, who’re principally Iraqis and Syrians, European governments are dealing with rising strain to convey the adults again to face trial amid an argument that the nations’ inaction violates their dedication to human rights.

Security specialists, rights teams and attorneys of those that went to ISIS territories acknowledge that European governments face respectable safety considerations, together with political dynamics in nations terrified of terrorist assaults. But a rising variety of authorities and intelligence officers say that leaving European residents in Syria comes with better dangers, together with that they might be part of terrorist teams that focus on Europe.

Countries just like the United States, Kazakhstan and Turkey have repatriated a lot of their very own residents to prosecute them and, in some instances, reintegrate them into society.

The Kurdish management in the area that oversees the camps has not prosecuted the ladies, whose roles underneath ISIS’s rule typically stay unclear. And as a result of the administration just isn’t internationally acknowledged, any prosecutions would nonetheless not get them out of their authorized limbo.

Most European nations say that they don’t have any authorized obligation to assist their residents in the camps and that adults who joined ISIS ought to be prosecuted in Iraq and Syria.

Rights teams say that the youngsters in the detention camps have completed nothing flawed and are affected by malnutrition and illness.Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

Yet Belgium’s justice minister, Vincent Van Quickenborne, stated his authorities would manage the repatriations of 13 ladies and their 27 youngsters inside months after the nation’s intelligence companies reported that ISIS was gaining energy in the camps. He stated the authorities had acquired “clear advice” that bringing the ladies and kids to Belgium was the most secure possibility.

An inside European Union doc this yr described the Hol camp as a “mini-caliphate.”

“A returnee will always present a risk, some of them low, some of them very high,” Mr. Renard stated, including that returnees might probably radicalize inmates in jail or try assaults. “Yet the consequences of non-repatriation are increasingly outweighing those risks.”

Rights teams say that the youngsters have completed nothing flawed and are affected by illness, malnutrition and sexual assault. Hundreds have died, and dozens of coronavirus instances have been reported in the camps, in accordance with the nongovernmental group Save the Children.

There can also be concern about teenage boys who traveled to ISIS territories as youthful youngsters with their European-born moms and are at increased threat of radicalization. They are being left behind as nations take in solely youthful youngsters.

Letta Tayler, a senior counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch, stated that European governments have been “creating tiers of children.” She stated, “The most desirable are the orphans — the least desirable are the teenage boys.”

The advocacy group Reprieve says that many ladies in the camps have been trafficked, raped and compelled into marriage and home servitude.

Yet in a number of European nations, repatriations stay out of the query, stated a French intelligence official who requested anonymity to debate the subject. Part of the hesitancy, safety analysts say, is that repatriated ladies might obtain mild or no jail sentences.

Britain has stripped British citizenship from almost 20 ladies who joined ISIS, in some instances taking them to court docket to stop their return. France has turned down quite a few requires repatriation, whilst a few of the ladies staged a monthlong starvation strike. The Netherlands and Sweden stated that they may take in youngsters, however with out their moms.

Fatiha Lakjaa, whose grandchildren are in Syria, throughout a 2019 protest in Brussels urging Belgium’s authorities to take in the youngsters of ISIS militants.Credit…Francois Lenoir/Reuters

Ms. Van Eetvelde, a former cashier who was born close to Antwerp in northern Belgium, traveled to ISIS territory together with her husband in 2014. Now in the Roj camp, she hopes for a return to Belgium for herself and her youngsters, who’re three and 5.

She stays principally lower off from the world, and even her lawyer, Mohamed Ozdemir, stated he had been unable to speak together with her in current months. Cellphones are usually not allowed, so Ms. Van Eetvelde communicated with The New York Times by way of voice messages despatched by way of the telephone of one other girl in the camp whom The Times reached by way of the girl’s household and lawyer.

In January, a Belgian court docket convicted her in absentia of collaborating in the actions of a terrorist group, Mr. Ozdemir stated. The court docket sentenced her to 5 years in jail.

Mr. Van Quickenborne stated that any of the ladies desirous to return to Belgium must show that they imply no hurt to the nation. “If they have not distanced themselves from ISIS ideology, they will remain on site,” he stated.

That repatriation plan is more likely to put strain on neighboring France, which has Europe’s largest contingent of residents in the camps and in prisons in Iraq and Syria. Yet as France reels from years of terrorist assaults, the federal government has opposed calls to repatriate individuals who left to wage jihad.

Although France has taken in 35 youngsters from the camps on a case-by-case foundation, 100 ladies with French citizenship and their 200 youngsters stay principally in the Roj camp, in accordance with Jean-Charles Brisard, the director of the Paris-based Center for the Analysis of Terrorism.

France was because of repatriate not less than 160 of them in early 2019, in accordance with intelligence paperwork delivered to mild by the newspaper Libération that spring and seen by The Times this yr. But the scenario in the camps turned too risky, the French intelligence official stated, and the plan was deserted.

“We thought it was going to happen, and that the dominoes could have started to fall with other European countries,” stated Mr. Harnisch, the previous United States counterterrorism official. “But the French government pulled the plug at the 11th hour.”

The advocacy group Reprieve says that ISIS trafficked and raped most of the ladies and compelled them into marriage and home servitude.Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

Now, a rising variety of European nations are taking motion.

In Denmark, the authorities stated this month that they’d repatriate three ladies and 14 youngsters. Germany and Finland repatriated 5 ladies and 18 youngsters in December, and a spokesman for Germany’s Foreign Ministry stated final month that the nation was working “at full speed” to take in youngsters from the camps whose moms are German residents.

In Britain, Conservative lawmakers referred to as for the repatriation of some British residents, arguing that prosecuting them in the nation could be safer than leaving them in the camps.

The dad and mom of 1 French girl in the camps have introduced a case towards France in the European Court for Human Rights over the repatriation of her and her youngsters. And three French attorneys requested the International Criminal Court to contemplate whether or not the nation’s coverage makes President Emmanuel Macron complicit in conflict crimes.

A French girl who went on starvation strike in the Roj camp stated that there was no working water and that many individuals there had respiratory issues. (The Times just isn’t publishing her identify, as a result of she says she has acquired loss of life threats from ISIS supporters who oppose their return to France.) “It’s very difficult to see doctors and dentists — there are no medicines,” she stated, including that the Frenchwomen needed to return “to be tried, to be jailed.”

Jussi Tanner, a diplomat from Finland who’s in cost of his nation’s repatriations, stated the ladies and kids’s return was not a matter of “if, but of when and how.”

“Repatriating them as quickly as we can is better from a security point of view rather than pretending that the problem goes away when we look away,” he stated. “You can leave them there, but they will return anyway.”

Claire Moses, Christopher F. Schuetze and Jasmina Nielsen contributed reporting.