Thousands of Europe's ISIS children will never come home
Giulia Carbonaro

After the fall of Baghuz, the town where the leader of the Islamic State (ISIS) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi fought his final battle, ISIS's self-proclaimed caliphate quickly crumbled and was declared "totally defeated" by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in March this year.

In many respects, however, the territory remains a challenge as war-torn societies try to reconstruct themselves and recover from years of destruction and horrors.

Children playing in the section for foreign families at Al-Hol camp in Syria, March 2019 (Credit: AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Children playing in the section for foreign families at Al-Hol camp in Syria, March 2019 (Credit: AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

In Syria, thousands of women and children linked to ISIS have been left behind in detention and refugee camps left unguarded after the recent US withdrawal from the region, as the SDF warned that it didn't have the capacity to handle custody of the detainees at the same time as a Turkish incursion.

Many of those displaced in the camps are foreign fighters, the survivors among thousands of European citizens who fled their home countries to join the terrorist organisation between 2011 and 2016.

Western governments find themselves struggling to decide what to do with citizens who became ISIS fighters and their families. Security concerns make many countries hesitant to repatriate detainees.

The UK and Germany have used their powers to revoke citizenship to citizens who left the countries to fight for ISIS. But pressure on European governments has recently intensified over the fate of the thousands of children trapped in the ISIS camps through no fault of their own.

Children of the camps

According to the charity Save The Children, which operates in the territory which was formerly under the control of ISIS, an estimated 8,704 children born from nationalities that are not Syrian or Iraqi are living in camps in north-east Syria. Of these 8,704 only around 300 are known to have been repatriated to their home country since January 2019.

This number dates back to before the Turkish military operations began on 9 October. In the week since the beginning of the operations, at least 11 children have reportedly been killed, with figures for injuries estimated to be much higher than reported.

These children belong to as many as 40 different nationalities from all around the world. Among European nations, Kosovo repatriated 74, France 17, Sweden seven, Belgium six, Norway five, the Netherlands two and Denmark one.

It is estimated that around 85 percent of all children in the three camps of Al Hol, Ein Issa and Roj are under the age of 12, while around 45 percent are under the age of five, and therefore have been born in Syria during the war.

Whether children of European parents were taken to Syria or were born there, they have been growing up through war and devastation. Now they are trapped in detention camps suffering famine, sickness and deprivation. Reports have described a lack of sanitation and inadequate medical and educational facilities in the camps. In such desperate conditions, there is a high risk of becoming radicalized. 

The UK government has just begun the process of repatriating the orphaned children of British parents with links to ISIS, after many push-backs and the recent blocking of suggested rescue operations. Three children whose parents died in Syria will get safe passage to the UK.

The UK's Foreign Office has reportedly said that there will be no more repatriation in the foreseeable future. Save The Children estimates that there are at least 60 British children still in north-east Syria.

European governments are considering repatriation of the children case by case and the number of kids brought back home until now is overwhelmingly smaller than the number that still remain in Syria.

Save The Children has urged European governments to take the children away from the war zone as soon as possible.

"Governments around the world – who know that their child nationals, some just a few months old, have lived through conflict, bombardment and acute deprivation – can't be idle," said Sonia Khus, Save The Children's country director in Syria.

"Foreign children in Syria are innocent victims of the conflict and must be treated as such. Once again, like hundreds of thousands of Syrian children, babies are caught in a war they were born into. They need specialized help to recover from their experiences and return to normality, and it's their countries' responsibility to help them recover."

Different countries, different rules

Although all governments agree that the children of foreign fighters are innocent victims who deserve as much help as possible, the repatriation seems unlikely to happen on a large scale – and there are significant differences in how different countries approach repatriation.

France has repatriated some children after separating them from their mothers, who were left behind in the camps in Syria.

This month, a court in The Hague ruled that the Dutch government must actively help to repatriate 56 children living in camps in northern Syria. The decision was ill-received by the state, which filed an appeal against the ruling over concerns that it was too dangerous to go looking for these children into the camps.

The Danish government issued a legislation in late March under which children born abroad to jihadists will not have Danish nationality. Germany will take only children who have families willing to take them in.

Kosovo represents a special case in Europe, as the region is 90 percent Muslim and had a significant number of citizens leaving the Balkans to join ISIS. It has repatriated the children and wives of jihadists.