European powers are yet to claim their citizens, who want to return home from former Daesh-held territories in Syria, posing a significant question over whether the legal principle of the right to return will be applied.
In August 2014, when Norwegian Aisha Shezadi fled her country to join Daesh in Syria, she was 22. She lived under Daesh rule for four years until she escaped and ended up in Al Hol refugee camp in northern Syria, where many unarmed men and women were sent after Daesh-held territories were captured by other forces.
Shezadi is now 26, married three times and wanting to return to Norway. In a handwritten and signed letter, she asked Norwegian officials to take her and her two-year-old son back.
Another woman, Shamima Begum, who reportedly joined Daesh as a 15-year-old along with her friends and was captured by security cameras at the UK's Gatwick airport in 2015, has been found in the same camp for displaced people who are either related or linked to Daesh terrorists. A widow who has just given birth to a son, she is also pleading for the UK government to take her back.
Shezadi and Begum are among 1,500 foreign women and children who are currently in the camp and desperate to return to their countries of origin.
Shezadi says she is ready to be put on trial in Norway, though she has no regrets about joining the armed group. She is also willing to serve jail term, provided the state ensure her child is well taken care of.
Another runaway, Shamima says she didn’t know "what she was getting into” when she left the UK. The common conclusion most of these women have arrived at is that the so-called Islamic State "didn’t turn out the way they expected".
But becoming a Daesh returnee isn’t easy either. A year apart, both Aisha's and Shamima’s cases have sparked heated debate on what should be done with the people who have either given up arms or never fired a shot, whether they happen to be regretful or unapologetic about their choice of joining the dreaded armed group.
According to the European Human Rights Convention: “No one shall be deprived of the right to enter the territory of the state of which he is a national.” The convention doesn’t mention criminal activities as a reason for the abolition of the stated rights.
“Should people who want to come back then not also be helped to be able to effectively exercise that right to return? [That] is the question to ask,” Dr Christophe Paulussen, a Senior Researcher at the TMC Asser Instituut in The Hague and Research Fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism tells TRT World.
Paulussen says that in the Netherlands, there are two different discussions as to the scope of consular protection. One argues that all Dutch citizens are entitled to consular and diplomatic protection by the Netherlands, have the right to come back to the Netherlands and should in fact be brought back, while another argues that there is quite a bit of discretion for states in this field of law. He says the current state of the Dutch Cabinet is not to actively repatriate adult travellers and their children from Syria -- a policy that several other European states are following as well.
Norway didn’t allow Shezadi to return home, with its foreign ministry saying it didn’t have resources to bring back people linked to Daesh. The right-wing Progressive Party stands against Shezadi’s return, while liberals favour her child's rehabilitation, describing it as the country’s responsibility since the woman is 'Norwegian and innocent'.
In Germany, although the Interior Ministry acknowledges that its a fundamental right for German citizens who joined Daesh to return home, it also says bringing them back is "difficult to implement”.
France has a strict approach with regard to the issue as the French government sees them as "enemies of the nation" who should stay in Syria or Iraq.
In the UK, the widespread point of view among officials is that the runaways should face the consequences for the choices they have made, refusing to "rescue terrorists" and stripping Begum of her citizenship.
“I have to think about the safety and security of children living in our country,” British home secretary, Sajid Javid wrote in the Sunday Times, saying that he would use all his power to stop Daesh returnees.
UK Counter Terrorism Policing on the other hand clarified that anyone who returns from the conflict in Syria, Iraq or elsewhere can expect to be investigated by the police to determine if they have committed criminal offences and to ensure that they do not pose a threat.
For Salman Sayyid, a professor at the University of Leeds School of Sociology and Social Policy, the citizens’ rights should not be dependent on their affiliations.
“I do not think a country should break the pact with their citizens...all citizens should have an inalienable right to be accepted back in their countries,” he tells TRT World.
In the battles that took place in the last remaining Daesh pockets over the last month, around 4,000 people including Daesh-linked families or ex-members escaped the fighting and took refuge in the Al Hol displacement camp, where circumstances have become dire. At least 51 civilians, most of them children who fled the Daesh villages, have died from the lack of food, water and medical care.
US President Donald Trump recently asked his European allies to take back over 800 Daesh fighters that were already captured by the SDF and to put them on trial.
“The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them,” he said in a tweet that met with scepticism due to security concerns in European countries.
For Paulussen however, it’s not a matter that SDF alone should handle.
‘This is about our own citizens. It’s important that they are tried to avoid impunity for international crimes, as well as to ensure that they do not disappear from the radar,” he says, pointing out that he realises this is a difficult dilemma and that there are risks involved as well, and that bringing back people who joined a terrorist organisation may create a security threat at home once released after detention.
"But releasing them all together now or leaving them together in camps with no sufficient oversight, where people may further radicalise, is an even worse situation," he says, referring, among others, to the past example of radicalisation in the US-run Bucca camp in Iraq.
Further risks involve Daesh families’ children who could also become de facto stateless, further radicalised, experience further trauma, or feel abandoned by their home country, which could turn into a desire for revenge.
“Many of the children are extremely young and will not pose a security threat when they come back. However, leaving them in Syria and Iraq would most likely pose serious long-term security concerns, for the countries in the region and possibly also for our own countries at a later stage,” Paulussen says.
For Sayyid, leaving both families and children behind might cause a problem, but it’s also a test for the Western powers’ sincerity about fighting Daesh.
"The return of the former ISIS [Daesh] families will also highlight the failure of the neo-Baathist-takfiri project that was at the heart of ISIS," he says, referring to the group’s ideology.
“So if the Western powers are serious about fighting neo-Baathists/takfiris then they should take their citizens back.”