As United Nations Special Rapporteur, I had the opportunity two weeks ago to visit a camp in Aktau, Kazakhstan in which 231 recently repatriated returnees, made up primarily of women and children, including many orphans, are being prepared for a return to ordinary life. At the end of last week, Kazakhstan repatriated a further 67 women and 171 children, including a significant number of orphaned children. Kazakhstan is one of very few countries showing some leadership on the matter of Islamic State returnees, an issue that has caused an ongoing and fraught debate for many countries over the last two years. Unlike other countries, repatriation of women and children associated with ISIS is happening in substantial numbers.
These returns are not only a positive implementation of Kazakhstan’s international obligations under Security Council resolution 2178, it is also a welcome humanitarian response to the plight of those women, men and children who are facing inhuman conditions in overcrowded detention camps in Northeastern Syria. Those conditions, which were described to me in interviews with women returnees, are insufferable, and appear to meet the standards of inhuman and degrading conditions under international law.
While I am aware of the many challenges of returning fighters from conflict zones, including individuals who may have committed terrorist acts or other crimes under international law, the imperative to bring home women and children should be viewed as a complex humanitarian and accountability challenge, one that countries are more than capable of managing.
The return of women and children to Kazakhstan reveals that it is both practical and achievable to bring home women and children. Many countries, including many Western ones, have claimed (including to my office) that the practical “on the ground” challenges make it impossible to deliver these women and young children home. Kazakhstan’s practically focused approach reveals that’s not the case. Having discussed the practicalities of return with Kazakhstan’s government and with returnees themselves, I believe that bringing home the women and children stranded in Iraq and parts of Syria is possible for all countries facing the problem.
All levels of government in Kazakhstan are engaged in a continuous dialogue to find the optimum approach to address the challenges related to returning its foreign fighters and their families. The country has demonstrated how to optimize partnerships with other countries and international entities in tracing, identifying and delivering the practical means to extract individuals from territories under the control of non-state actors and ensure their safe return to home countries. Women returnees shared with me the details of the return process, including the practical steps taken to ascertain nationality; the specifics of moving individuals from Syrian Democratic Force camps to transit points; the engagement of the United States to assist in the air-transport of women and children; the provision of medical assessments and care before during and after transit; and preparing for their arrival and rehabilitation.
During my visit with returnees, I saw a three-week-old baby born just before transit, children who had been injured and suffering from shrapnel and other injuries from the war, small boys and girls playing football and racing around a yard in the sunshine, and children learning to read and write. The view that such children deserve a chance and are blameless for the actions of their parents permeated my conversations with officials.
It is often convenient to forget that actual lives at stake in these global conversations. Many countries appear to have forgotten their duties under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and view these children as “other” and undeserving. An afternoon spent with mothers and children rightly affirms the basic humanity, hope and spark for life that survives both war and trauma. It reaffirmed in equal measure the resilience and vulnerability of women and children alike.
The return process does not exclude holding individuals accountable for serious violations of international law. It may, in fact, be the only way we have to close the impunity gap for serious and systematic crimes committed in Syria, given the lack of trials for substantive violations of human rights and humanitarian law, including those committed by women. It also does not exclude countries’ responsibility to ensure fair trials for returnees, human rights-compliant deradicalization programs, and the avoidance of any long-term stigma for those who successfully reintegrate and return to everyday life.
Returning these children is a humanitarian and human rights imperative. The argument that it is not physically or politically possible to extract women and children from these territories does not hold water anymore. The argument that young children (many of those I met with were seven and younger) are not deserving of protection constitutes a moral failure by their home countries, particularly European ones who have ample resources. Bringing women and children home is not only good human rights practice but it also serves the long-term security interests of all countries. The time for action is now. The time for excuses is over.