An increasing number of Western countries are finally starting to heed the call to repatriate thousands of their citizens who have been detained in northeast Syria since the fall of ISIS’ so-called “caliphate” in early 2019. Held in the squalid al-Hol and Roj camps for alleged affiliation with ISIS, these citizens from 57 countries, most of them women and children family members, have been in the custody of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). The two camps hold an astounding total of about 60,000 people, including the majority who are from Syria and Iraq. The Kurdish administration has appealed repeatedly to the international community to repatriate the approximately 10,000 third-country nationals who are not from Iraq, but the leaders of many of those countries have lacked the political will to live up to their legal and humanitarian responsibilities. The result is what human rights advocates and lawyers have called a new “Guantanamo on the Euphrates.”

In just the past couple of months, however, several governments have followed the lead of countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Germany, and Denmark and also have begun to take responsibility for their citizens in northeast Syria. France, Australia, and the Netherlands have returned some of their citizens, and Spain is preparing to do the same. Upon return, individuals suspected of crimes will be handled by the judicial systems, while others must be reintegrated into their societies and rehabilitated. Little research is available on the best practices for accomplishing these goals, but lessons can be gleaned from practices that have already worked well — and those that haven’t, including family separation — across receiving countries.

One example that cuts both ways is the case of Sweden’s repatriations and the first year of integration of women and their children who were brought back from northeast Syria. As a social worker in the non-governmental children’s rights organization Repatriate the Children–Sweden, I have been in close and continuous contact with eight women and met with 23 children since their arrival in Sweden. I also have been in contact with about 40 extended family members of Swedes who traveled to Syria. My organization offers returning families psycho-social support and guidance, giving us unique insight into the reception process, especially from the families’ perspective. The following, based on their accounts and documents from legal rulings, is based on a forthcoming report, “Reception of Returnees: Reintegration and Rehabilitation after Repatriation from Northeast Syria — Guidance Document for Emerging Practices.” (Now published at Repatriate the Children–Sweden.)

Returnees to Sweden 

In five instances between September 2021 and May 2022, the Swedish government brought home 12 women and 23 children from the northeast Syria detention camps. These families had previously lived in ISIS-controlled territory. Swedes had traveled to Syria and Iraq between 2012 and 2016, some – though not all – to join ISIS, with varying understandings of what they were getting into. At the time, Sweden had neither specific laws in place to prevent people from making such journeys, nor laws to automatically prosecute those who came back. It was not illegal to join or to be affiliated with a designated terrorist group at the time, though of course it was illegal to commit war crimes and terrorist crimes, for example.

When the families arrived back in Sweden, they were met by multiple authorities, and children and mothers were separated from each other, as police detained the mothers for questioning on suspicion of, for example, war crimes. The mothers were detained 24 to 48 hours before they were released, though in all but one case they remained separated from their children for weeks or months (more on that below). None of these 12 women are currently charged with any crime. But the investigation can recommence if new evidence emerges, because the relevant criminal classifications have no statute of limitations.

After the first day of the families’ arrival in Sweden, the official coordinated reception process was handed to the authority of municipal-level social services agencies for individual handling in the locations where the returnees lived before leaving for Syria. As a result, the treatment of the families often varied case by case.

While the women were in Swedish detention, the children were taken into the care of the child protection unit of social services, under a law that allows the temporary removal of child custody from the parent — the Swedish Care of Young Persons (Special Provisions) Act (SFS 1990:52). In most cases, these family separations led to dramatic scenes of children screaming and crying, as they were separated from their mothers the moment they landed on Swedish ground. In child-protection-service records from the social services that one mother showed me, her son is documented to have expressed fear that she would never find him again.

The temporary removal of parental custody and state protection of a child at risk is a mechanism of the general child-protection system in Sweden and part of an established legal process, outlined by the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare. It can, though, be applied without physically separating a child from its primary caregiver. Placing parent and child together in a social institution when there are concerns that a child is at risk is a common practice intended to create the conditions for an adequate and thorough assessment of the child´s needs, and the mother´s parental ability and situation.

But in only one case were children reunited with their mother immediately after her release from police detention. In other cases, it took weeks or months — six months in one case — before children were able to rejoin their primary caregiver again. The children, ranging in age from 3 to 10, responded to the separations from their mothers  with symptoms of anxiety and depression. There are several examples documented in case records describing a range of individuals involved — temporary foster parents, medical doctors, child psychiatrists, psychotherapists, children’s legal representatives, and others — opposing the separations because of these symptoms. In one case, a child had been separated from its mother for several weeks. The child’s medical records include the evaluating doctor recommending that contact with the mother be re-established as soon as possible for the sake of the well-being of the child. In another child’s medical record signed by a specialized child psychologist and a licensed psychotherapist, the statement says the child exhibited several serious psychiatric symptoms during the months the child was separated from his mother. When the child was reunited with his mother, the evaluating professionals noted that the child’s well-being gradually improved and stabilized.

In a few instances, the social services have not yet, after one year in Sweden, let children be reunited with their mothers — even though the mothers are not suspected of any crime and fully distance themselves from ISIS and violent ideologies. It is hard to know, however, whether social services had other reasons for their decisions in these cases of extended separation.

None of the mothers questioned that their children would be assessed by the social services child protection unit, or that the Swedish Care of Young Persons (Special Provisions) Act would be applied to their cases. Actually, most of them initiated contact themselves with the social services already from the camp in Syria, explaining that they understand that their children will be subject to assessment upon arrival, and to say that they will be cooperative for the best interests of their children – but begging the social services to have the best interest of the child in mind by not separating the children from them.

A Crucial – But Rare — Example of Immediate Reunification

In one case, immediately as the mother was released from police custody, she was reunited with her two children and a grandmother who was living in Sweden, and the four of them were allowed to stay together at a social-services institution during the assessment stage that followed. (The grandmother also had been able to stay with the children while the mother was in police custody). Social services personnel made a comprehensive assessment of the mother, both through psychosocial evaluation and an examination of her ideological beliefs. She was then provided with professional support, such as a social-support contact and a mentor. Soon after, other extended family members living in Sweden were included in the planning and allowed contact with the returning family, and the mother and her children were allowed to leave the institution during weekends to be with their family.

When the authorities assessed that the children were safe and in good care with their mother, she got custody back, and the family was allowed to fully leave the institution and start living an independent life. Both the children and the mother in this family have recovered well and have been quickly reintegrated. This example, unfortunately unique among this group of families returning to Sweden, shows that it is possible to organize the immediate reception in accordance with the best interests of the child. An understanding, knowledge-based approach by social services can produce assistance based on the family´s actual needs rather than imprecise notions of what they might need.

Long-Term Reception Strategies to Prevent Radicalization 

When the children arrive in the country, everything is new for them; it becomes a crisis-like experience, as they are thrust into a new reality. There is much research on the psychosocial consequences of serious events and on the severe risks such occurrences pose for psychological recovery. A basic principle in modern crisis support and psychological first aid is to keep groups and families together and to avoid new separations. If a child is separated from a caregiver and source of safety, there is an increased risk of reinforcing the child’s trauma and spurring more anxiety and insecurity. Family separation is so potentially harmful, as indicated in research on attachment theory and trauma processing, that the child may develop post-traumatic responses. Unless remaining with the mother is a true risk to a child, reunification is a critical step for successful reintegration into society.

The child’s needs, in relation to the mother’s parenting ability and situation, must be assessed by competent authorities and subject to judicial review. Decisions made in such cases must prioritize the concept of do no harm. The interventions must reduce suffering and create a sense of coherence. The authorities should create the conditions to be able to observe the interaction between the child and the mother, to see the child’s wellbeing and development together with the mother and how the mother responds to the child’s needs.

Supporting the children means supporting their caregivers and key persons (such as extended family members) who can be protective factors in the child’s life and who will remain in the child’s life long after the interventions from professionals have ended. For children who have been exposed to severe stress, the risk of future mental-health problems can be reduced if the child’s environment includes protective factors and the important adults in the child’s everyday environment are allowed to create the conditions for recovery through good care and support.

Needs vary for individuals depending on what they have experienced and the conditions of life where they are returning. Some mothers have been subjected to violence during their time in Syria. They have all lived in a war zone, and some have seen their children or spouses die. They have lived under the psychological stress of trying to survive day by day, fearing for their lives and the lives of their children — including in the camps — and with uncertainty for their future. Support and interventions from the authorities, such as social services and health care, as well as from civil society organizations that can provide support, must aim to empower the mother and enable her recovery and reintegration. Mental health and psychosocial support are key contributing factors.

A multi-agency collaboration with relevant authorities and civil society organizations (including faith communities) that have contextual knowledge and understanding could be one answer, as U.N. Special Rapporteur for counterterrorism and human rights Fionnuala Ní Aoláin found during a 2021 visit to Uzbekistan. Governmental and non-governmental organizations working together can successfully plan and implement a holistic reception, to assess and meet the needs of the families and prevent radicalization. This would include helping the families access the support they need to improve their emotional, psychological, social, and theological resilience.

Mentorship to support individuals exiting destructive environments is an important tactic that has proven effective in Sweden in other contexts related to risks of violent extremism. Mentors may have varying educational backgrounds and direct expertise (e.g., a social worker, an imam, or a psychologist). Non-judgmental, non-stigmatizing, close social support and mentoring for returning mothers can build trust and can support the mother’s reintegration. Furthermore, after exposure to the radical ideology of ISIS, some returnees may need help from faith-based organizations that can offer theological guidance for healthy understandings of identity and belonging. This also can have an immunizing effect against discrimination, propaganda, and future radicalized recruitment.

The Best Interests of the Child 

The international Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that, “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” During their time in Syria, these children and their mothers have lived in dire conditions, both from a humanitarian perspective and in terms of safety and security. The reception of returning families should take place in an orderly manner, creating conditions for rehabilitation and reintegration where the children’s needs are taken into account and the child’s best interests remains the focus. The main goal must be to shield returning children and their families from destructive or violent environments.

Experience from the Swedish cases shows that reintegration and rehabilitation have a higher likelihood of success when the repatriated individuals and their families are included in the planning. Such involvement keeps families together, avoids new separations, and promotes favorable psychological recovery. In case it is not possible to place the mother and child together upon arrival, creating possibilities for the child to regularly have access to its mother is vital for the child´s well-being. In one of the cases, a temporary foster parent stated that after the child was allowed to meet with his mother, even only for a few hours every two weeks, the temporary foster parent saw improvements in the child’s well-being, saying he felt more happy, and stopped crying himself to sleep since he also knew he was going to meet his mother again and this made him calmer.

Today, all eight mothers that have returned to Sweden that I am in contact with have started studying or working. Their children have integrated. They are in school, have made friends and participate in social activities. They seem to have recovered well and adapted to their new lives quickly. If you would meet with them at the playground or in their schoolyard, you would never think these are the children who have been brought out of the prison camps.

Still, their mothers say the children continue to be affected by their separation when they first returned to Sweden and by their time in social-service institutions. Mothers give examples of their children panicking when the mother is out of sight or waking in the middle of the night to make sure the mother is still there. In several cases, children are having flashbacks from the stress of separation and still ask, “What happened — why did they take you, mom?”

Encouragingly, the children’s separation anxiety seems to ease as time passes. One mother says: “When we had just been reunited, I could not leave my child even for short moments, without her expressing fear that I would not return. Now she has started school and I can also leave her with my mother and it’s going well.”

This suggests the important role the mothers played in not only protecting their children from threats during their time in the war and later in the detention camps, but also in creating opportunities for their children to develop. Upon their arrival in Sweden, their possibility to live in safety and dignity with their family, to be able to begin school, to have access to nutritious food and positive social activities were vital elements for the well-being of these children. This, along with the support from extended family and other key individuals in the children’s lives, as well as professional social support and psychological rehabilitation for those in need, provides the children protection and a stable foundation for recovery and reintegration.

IMAGE: A picture shows the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp, which holds relatives of suspected Islamic State (IS) group fighters in the northeastern Hasakeh governorate, on December 6, 2021. Al-Hol is the larger of two Kurdish-run displacement camps for relatives of IS jihadists in Syria’s northeast. It holds mostly Syrians and Iraqis but also thousands from Europe and Asia believed to have family ties with IS fighters. (Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)