Almost every week brings a new report about the plight of the approximately 13,500 detained ISIS foreign fighters and family members – including thousands of women and children — in al-Hol and other detention centers in northeast Syria. Tens of thousands more in the camps are from Syria or Iraq. The Washington Post recently described the scenes vividly: “The women’s tents are pitched on cracked earth that turns to mud when the rain comes. Latrines overflow, sewage leaks into tents, and wild dogs prowl the perimeter for food” and UNICEF reported that eight children in the camps died – including from malnutrition and dehydration — in a single week in August.
Although a small number of the 60 countries with nationals in those camps have stepped up to repatriate their citizens, many have refused to take them home to face justice and/or reintegrate them back into their communities. A “comprehensive approach to this serious problem” remains elusive, as members of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS acknowledged in a communique when they last met (virtually) in June. The intractability of the issue was further underscored last month, when the United States vetoed a draft resolution at the United Nations Security Council intended to address the issue; the U.S. cited the measure’s failure to include a specific call for repatriation.
Despite the growing worries about the potential for a COVID-19 outbreak in the camps, the Post noted that officials from many Western countries, including those on the Security Council, continue to “cite security concerns or domestic politics as obstacles” to finding a solution. Despite the unsanitary and overcrowded conditions, humanitarian assistance is increasingly being disrupted by the pandemic and aid funding is diverted to cope with COVID-19.
Yet one of the smallest (by population) members of the Global Coalition, the Republic of North Macedonia, is taking action. The North Macedonia parliament recently adopted a comprehensive, “whole of society” rehabilitation and reintegration plan as part of an effort to bring home its approximately 40 citizens (mainly women and children) who remain in the camps. The plan, which has political, financial, and technical support from the international community, also covers terrorist offenders who are due to be released from prison soon. Much like efforts of the small number of countries, including those in Central Asia, which have sought to repatriate all of their citizens, North Macedonia’s initiative could become a model for other Western countries.
Why has North Macedonia Stepped Up?
North Macedonia is addressing the issue for several reasons. First, international partners are prepared to transfer its citizens from the camps and assist in collecting battlefield evidence to facilitate the prosecution of those who may have committed a crime. Second, a number of convicted terrorists are due to complete their typically short prison sentences (i.e., between 3.5 and 6 years, with limited means to support their reentry into society, so North Macedonia needed a plan for them anyway. Third, North Macedonia has been influenced by the actions of some of its Western Balkans neighbors, including Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina, which repatriated many of their nationals from the camps. And, finally, 83 of North Macedonia’s 156 citizens who travelled to Iraq and Syria have already returned home, with the security services apparently keeping track of them, so the perceived threat is not high or at least appears under control, at least in the near term. However, this occurred without any programs in place to assess and address the risks and needs of returnees in a systematic way that could reduce the likelihood of recidivism.
The Promise of the Plan
North Macedonia is among the first countries to elaborate a “whole of society” national framework that is underpinned by a multidisciplinary approach to addressing the complex set of risks and needs returnees present.
The plan, which we had an opportunity to review during the drafting process, is commendable in a number of ways. First, it involves multiple institutions and actors affected or needed for success, considering the complex dynamics at play for the returnees and the society they are re-entering. For example, the plan outlines the roles and responsibilities of different national institutions, ranging from intelligence agencies to health authorities who can undertake functions such as determining whether there is sufficient evidence to prosecute a returnee, assessing the level of risk he or she poses, evaluating their health needs, and so on. The information gathered then determines what mix of prosecution, counseling, social support or other services are necessary.
Central to the North Macedonia plan is the creation of multidisciplinary teams, drawing on models from programs in Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the U.K. One team works at the national level to oversee the plan and coordinate the institutions and other actors involved, while others operate at the municipal level, with mobile support teams providing additional capacity as needed.
A second commendable feature of the plan is the explicit role it outlines for civil society. Because they are not part of government, civil society organizations sometimes enjoy a higher level of trust from and access to individuals and communities affected by violent extremism. This, in turn, can enable engagement with the individual and the wider community.
A third promising feature of the plan is its recognition that addressing the psychosocial needs of returnees, particularly of children, is vital. These may include children with developmental delays, or children and mothers with mental-health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression, any of which can result from spending years in a conflict zone. With this in mind, the plan outlines key roles for school psychologists operating under the Ministry of Education and Science, social workers involved in social work centers across the country, and psychiatrists and other medical workers in the Health Ministry. The plan foresees them assessing the returnees, identifying signs of radicalization, and then delivering tailored interventions and other support to address those issues.
In addition to the above, the plan has other promising features. These include the acknowledgement of the need for programs to be tailored to address the unique needs of women and children and the need for ongoing program monitoring and evaluation.
Challenges, Even With a Plan
North Macedonia’s reintegration efforts face at least three challenges.
The first relates to the capacities of the institutions and professionals needed to implement the plan. For example, as identified by the OSCE, “awareness among public employees in non-security fields on how to identify risks and vulnerabilities to [violent extremism], let alone what to do about them [across the Western Balkans], is limited.” Therefore, “specific training for these workers, including in schools, social protection services, and psychosocial care, and the development of protocols for handling such cases” will need to be addressed.
Further, given the significant trauma and adversity the returnees (particularly children) experienced in the conflict zone, psychosocial-care providers need training on how to deliver trauma-informed care and consider factors such as stigma, sense of belonging, and isolation within the community that might impact successful rehabilitation and reintegration. Many of the government institutions are understaffed, with the current employees already overworked. Thus, in addition to specialized training for existing staff, funds are needed to recruit new personnel.
A second and related challenge is ensuring cooperation between law enforcement and non-law enforcement institutions. That will require both sides recognizing the benefits of collaboration, strengthening trust between them, and training national and local government officials on how to structure and operationalize the multidisciplinary teams envisaged in the plan.
A third challenge involves ensuring the plan doesn’t just focus on the returnees themselves. Those at risk of radicalization who did not travel to Iraq or Syria are also of concern. If efforts aren’t made to steer these individuals away from violence, they could greatly undermine the reintegration process.
Further, the plan should also cover the host community, recognizing the critical role families, schools, local businesses, and community groups play in the resocialization process. Attention should be paid to reducing the stigma that often surrounds returnees and the family members and other individuals being asked to support their re-entry into the community. Thus, for example, teachers should be able to benefit from the psychosocial support activities under the plan.
More broadly, North Macedonia will need to prioritize raising awareness within the receiving community about the risks, needs, and vulnerabilities of the returnees. Stigma may need to be addressed in schools to prevent bullying that could impede educational support and in the workplace to prevent discrimination.
Related to this, the government should be mindful of not being perceived as giving better treatment, particularly in housing and job opportunities, to the returnees than to law-abiding citizens who stayed home, as this can create grievances among community members who may feel they are being unfairly disadvantaged. This risk is aggravated where communities feel that the government has not been sufficiently responsive to their material, educational, or psychosocial needs.
The North Macedonia government deserves credit for its ambitious and well-designed reintegration program. Although member countries of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and of the Security Council are divided over whether to repatriate their own citizens, they should help ensure the Inter-Agency Working Group that was set up in Skopje to oversee the program’s implementation has the resources and tools it needs to bring the model to fruition.
This will not only benefit North Macedonia and the citizens who are returning, but also will help guide the way for other countries facing the challenge of reintegrating returned foreign fighters and their family members.
(The authors lead a multidisciplinary team of international experts that advises governments and multilateral and non-governmental organizations on repatriating, rehabilitating, and reintegrating ISIS family members.)
IMAGE: Members of a displaced family sit outside a UNHCR tent in the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp in the al-Hasakeh governorate in northeastern Syria on August 25, 2020, where families of Islamic State (IS) foreign fighters are held. (Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)