The US and rights activists are pressuring the EU to repatriate citizens languishing in internment camps.
The matter of the repatriation of family members of Daesh fighters detained at internment camps in Syria, came into focus once again after a senior American official urged European countries to take back their citizens.
Thousands of people, women and children among them, are living in overcrowded detention centres, ones which lack basic facilities such as heating, and where frustrated detainees have rioted on several occasions.
“It’s a pretty significant problem,” Nathan Sales, coordinator for counterterrorism at the US State Department, told a security forum on Tuesday.
“What we need to do is make sure that children and other family members in these displacement camps are not continually subjected to radicalising ideology. The only way to accomplish this is for them to be repatriated to their countries of origin,” he said.
Since Daesh was defeated in 2019, around 12,000 men accused of collaborating with the group are being held at al-Roj and al-Hom camps, located on the border with Iraq. Many of them are Iraqis and Syrians - little has been said about their fate.
But among these fighters are 2,000 so-called foreign militants, who come from all over the world including European countries such as France and the United Kingdom.
After Daesh began capturing vast swathes of territory in 2014, some 5,000 Europeans travelled to Syria and Iraq to join its distorted version of the caliphate. Among them were women and children.
How many of them are now being held at the internment camps is difficult to comprehend as different reports and sources quote varying figures. However, it's generally believed that 400 adult Europeans and around 700 children are still in Syria.
What’s the hold up?
In October, the US said it had repatriated the last of its 27 citizens from the camps. Ten adults among them were charged upon their return.
But European governments have been reluctant to accept their citizens, mainly because they fear a popular backlash.
Academics and human rights activists are particularly concerned about the children who live in miserable conditions in squalid and tightly packed camps that do not have proper schools or hospitals.
“Biggest reason why Belgium and also other countries don't want to repatriate or why they are very passive towards these children is because there’s no political agreement on what to do with the parents,” says Marijke Van Buggenhout, a doctoral researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.
More than 500 people died at the al-Hol camp last year, most of them children who suffer from malnutrition and severe illnesses.
Van Buggenhout, who specialises in immigrant issues concerning children, is among dozens of scholars who last month wrote an open letter urging the European Union to repatriate their citizens.
“By refusing to prosecute or reintegrate these individuals, European countries effectively lose their grip over them, which risks having these stranded citizens develop a deep resentment against their home state, which could lead to retaliation,” they wrote.
In most cases, EU governments have refused to take back adults. Belgium and France have repatriated orphaned children and in a few instances, forced mothers to sign off custody of their kids in favour of relatives or the state.
The UK and Denmark have stripped citizenships of those accused of working for Daesh, which is also known as the Islamic State (ISIS).
Belgium has told the mothers stuck in Syria that their children can be repatriated if they handed over their custody to the state, Van Buggenhout tells TRT World. Around 13 Belgian women and 35 kids are still in the internment camps, she adds.
“International treaties do not allow governments to separate children from their mothers. If they even do so, it has to be always in the best interest of the child and it must be decided by the judge, which is not the case here,” says Van Buggenhout.
The handful of repatriations carried out by the EU’s biggest members are nothing compared to the rehabilitation operation undertaken by Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which have brought back hundreds of their citizens.
Kosovo, which has repatriated over 100 citizens from Syria, is also cited as a good example where the government put in place a concrete system to reintegrate people from the conflict zone back into society.
Yet, European governments already shaken by a rightwing populist surge and recent terror attacks in France, would be wary of moving too quickly on bringing back families linked with Daesh.
The idea itself remains highly unpopular in Europe. Opinion polls in France and the UK have shown that the overwhelming majority opposes bringing back Daesh fighters or their family members.
Earlier this year, Norway’s coalition government collapsed after a right wing party withdrew support over a decision to fly home a woman and her two children from the al-Hol camp.
“Climate in Europe makes it difficult for the government to make this decision because they are very afraid of how public opinion will act and they are basically scared of losing the votes over the issue,” says Van Buggenhout.
But she says bringing back mothers and the kids is even more important as the camps can become a breeding ground for further radicalisation.
“Who we are scared of the most should be the first to come back.”