In Northeast Syria, citizens with affiliation to ISIS from at least 57 countries are being held in camps, detention centers, and prisons administered by the self-declared Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). A majority of the approximately 72,000 detainees are children. The AANES has long appealed for governments worldwide to bring their citizens back, but leaders of those countries appear to be dragging their feet on the process. As I saw first-hand during a visit in May, these years-long delays leave those citizens and the AANES in an unsustainable situation, one that risks generating further danger.
It is imperative that governments take immediate action to repatriate all their citizens as one measure to protect children and other citizens – in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere – from being victims of war. Additionally, AANES must release all detainees requested by governments who guarantee to receive them. All responsible parties must apply humanitarian principles and offer due process and prospects of future security to develop a holistic solution in the best interest of each child.
ISIS Recruitment of Children from Camps: Fertile Soil for Radicalization
While ISIS has lost control of all previously held territory in Iraq and Syria, there is reason to believe the group is not yet defeated. Analyst Aaron Y. Zelin of the Washington Institute recently counted 1,294 attacks that ISIS claimed in Iraq and Syria from July 2020 through August this year.
In March of this year, the Danish Security and Intelligence Service (PET) confirmed reports that at least 30 children from the camps in Northeast Syria have been kidnapped by ISIS militants to be trained to potentially commit terrorist attacks in their home countries. In August, the U.S. Defense Department’s Inspector General, in a quarterly report prepared with counterparts at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development on the U.S. and allied operations in Syria and Iraq, cited U.S. military intelligence that they said indicates, “ISIS has given priority to smuggling boys out of these camps to training locations in the Syrian desert,” and warned that these camps have been a hotbed for ISIS recruitment and radicalization.
Already, children have died in, or been kidnapped from, the camps. For the children remaining, there is still a possibility of repatriation, but soon it may be too late to save them, as the crisis in the camps continues to escalate and become even more acute. Fires, diseases, accidents, violence, and kidnappings are some of the most pressing threats. The geopolitical situation also complicates the environment in and around the camps, which can shift dramatically from one day to another.
Political Fear of Repatriation May Be Unfounded
Clearly the issue has been politicized in the countries where these detainees are citizens. Thomas Renard, a senior research fellow at the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations in Belgium, notes that or some European leaders see repatriation as tantamount to “political suicide.”
Yet politicians who view the matter this way essentially are prioritizing strategic calculation over the law. As United Nations human rights experts have noted in official letters to 57 governments who are believed to have nationals in the camps, “States have a primary responsibility to act with due diligence and take positive steps and effective measures to protect individuals in vulnerable situations, notably women and children, located outside of their territory where they are at risk of serious human rights violations or abuses, where States’ actions or omissions can positively impact on these individuals’ human rights.” Furthermore, the Convention on the Rights of the Child cites the right to life, survival and development. Additionally, the right to family unity is a pillar of that convention, and the right to family life is outlined in the European Convention on Human Rights.
Finland has taken a unique position in the matter that has not caused political fallout, but rather has shown that governments can make difficult decisions without losing political prestige. Finland’s special envoy on this repatriation issue, Jussi Tanner, argues that Finnish authorities are obligated to bring Finnish children and their caretakers home, regardless of any potential political impact. This obligation — to let the best interest of the child guide all decisions regarding all children — applies not only to Finland but to all signatories of the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. Denmark is another example that recently has followed Finland’s policy of announcing repatriation of citizens. And again similarly to Finland, the May announcement in Denmark has not seemed to cause political setbacks or turmoil for the Danish government.
In these cases, the governments communicated to their publics by, for example, citing their own national laws in Finland or referring to their responsibility for security in Denmark. These arguments, laid out in press conferences and statements, positively impacted the way repatriation was perceived by the public and demonstrates that political fears of repatriation may thus be unfounded or exaggerated.
Procedural Confusion? Or Pointing Fingers?
In May, I traveled with a delegation from my organization, Repatriate the Children Sweden, to Northeast Syria to better understand the conditions there. High-ranking decision-makers within the AANES welcomed us and, in discussions, asserted that the Autonomous Administration was not posing any obstacles to repatriation.
Elham Ahmad, president of the Executive Committee of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) of the AANES, noted that the fight against ISIS is not only their responsibility but that of the international community. Not only do ISIS and its affiliates still pose a global threat – as we have seen most painfully and recently in the deadly attack by the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP, also known as ISIS-K) on Afghan and foreign evacuees and U.S. forces during the withdrawal from Afghanistan – it is also a fact that fighters for the group flooded to Syria and Iraq from all over the world.
The current situation in the region’s camps and other facilities is unsustainable. Ahmad told the delegation in a May interview:
The ISIS fighters came from different countries. As a consequence of this war, we are holding a huge number of women, children, and many fighters. It is a heavy burden for us to hold thousands of those people, both in the prisons and the camps. It requires a huge capacity for our security forces to keep these camps and prisons secure, and we cannot continue for a long term with this low capacity as time passes.
One of the risks, Ahmad said, is that some mothers in the camps now are raising their children with radical ideas and mindsets, and the longer the responsible countries neglect their obligations, the greater the chance of generating a new generation of ISIS. It was a point that Finnish Special Envoy Tanner also made in July. The August U.S. report from the inspectors general said evidence indicates that, “in exchange for financial support, female ISIS members in the foreigner’s annex of the [Al-Hol] camp increased their radicalization and recruitment activities, promoting ISIS ideology on social media.” Ahmad explained the many difficulties the AANES is facing:
Tens of times we have appealed to the countries to repatriate their women and children. But still, they won’t take responsibility. We have not received any answers for our appeals, and this is a huge threat. Attempts to kidnap families and children from the camps are still ongoing.
Ahmad says the AANES is seeking a solution with the countries that have citizens in the region. At the same time, she said some foreign governments who are taking steps, however slowly, are only focusing on children, while there needs to be a solution regarding all foreign citizens. With reference to the Convention of the Rights of the Child, the AANES insists on not separating children from their caretakers. Ahmad asserts that governments that want to repatriate their children and women only need to request them, and the AANES would unconditionally hand them over In July, General Mazloum Abdi, commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), called for repatriation of “women, children, and ISIS fighters,” which could be interpreted as a change of policy by the AANES to appeal for repatriation of all citizens, including men.
It is unclear, though, why repatriation efforts are delayed when repatriation plans are announced by governments and the AANES representative claims it is a simple procedure. For example, in July, when Finland repatriated a woman and her two children, Tanner said his Ministry of Foreign Affairs had originally requested the move in September 2020.
In a similar case, Denmark announced in May 2021 that it would resume repatriations, but still none have occurred since two cases of returns in 2019. A member of the Danish Parliament, Rosa Lund, says the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was doing “everything they can” to get the Danish citizens home, but she implies that negotiations had to be conducted with the AANES.
The lack of transparency in the process makes it hard to know the truth about what is causing the interminable delays. Lund’s reference to “negotiations” might suggest the AANES is playing politics with these detainees by using the process as leverage for establishing international relations and, therefore, its own legitimacy as a potential future state. However, 28 out of 57 countries have successfully repatriated, or otherwise helped bring home, a few or many of their citizens already, in coordination with the AANES.
Lack of Capacity for Local Justice Process
In 2020, after appeals for repatriation generated little response, AANES sought alternative ways to break the status quo and announced it wanted to try the foreign citizens in local courts. But the international community demonstrated little interest in supporting or cooperating with such an effort. Ahmad said she saw no likelihood of such judicial processes to take place in Northeast Syria:
The countries need to participate in these courts and adopt the sentences of these courts, but still, [the countries of citizenship of the foreigners] have not approved of establishing such courts. Without this approval, it will be difficult to go on with these trials.
Ahmad said the AANES not only would need governments to recognize these processes, but also to support the courts by sending experts, judges, and jurists to be involved in these trials as observers and to confirm the sentences. To make that happen, it wouldn’t be enough for just a few states to approve, but all the countries involved would need to collaborate to give the courts legitimacy and to ensure implementation of the courts’ decisions. So far, none of the almost 60 states that have citizens in the AANES detention have approved of such cooperation.
Stalled Repatriation Counteracts Deradicalization Efforts
While a majority of the children in the AANES detention are less than 12 years old, children who are older experienced atrocities during their upbringing in the so-called caliphate. Some boys have been abused by ISIS as child soldiers, including having been forced to take part in beheadings. Despite the low capacity from the AANES side to meet the needs of the thousands of children detained, efforts are underway to rehabilitate at least some of the most vulnerable children, those assessed to be most at risk.
For boys 11 to 17 years old, several have been taken out of the camps and been brought to an AANES-run detention and rehabilitation institution called Houri Center. A number of boys who became orphaned during the final battles in Baghouz in the spring of 2019 were also brought to this center. Approximately 100 boys from more than 35 countries are staying at the center and sleeping in dormitories. Since the center was set up in 2017, only three children (Russian and American) have been repatriated. As time passes and children in the camps are growing older, the situation for the center is unsustainable, because there are not enough resources and space to receive more children.
Staff members say they see signs that the boys are developing and being de-radicalized during their stay at Houri Center. However, when a boy turns 18 years old, he is no longer allowed to stay and is transferred to one of the prisons where the adult suspected ISIS fighters are detained. One staff member told our delegation:
We do the whole process of rehabilitation, but then everything is undone when these states do not repatriate their children. We are managing to rehabilitate these boys, but then they are sent to prisons and get radicalized again.
The staff member, whom we are not identifying for security reasons, described the frustration and disappointment of putting effort into rehabilitating the boys only to see the countries responsible for them refusing to accept them. The staff member says, “The problem is not on our side, but in the countries that are responsible for these children.”