Constant Méheut and Ben Hubbard, The New York Times
Published: 2020-06-23 10:42:08 BdST
The French foreign ministry said it had decided on repatriation because of “the situation of these particularly vulnerable young children.” About 270 children of French citizens remain in Syria, according to rights groups, which argue that this leaves the children at risk of illness and radicalisation.
About 900 children from Western nations including France, Belgium, Canada and Australia are still stuck in the camps, which sprung up to hold relatives of Islamic State fighters who survived the battles with Kurdish-led fighters and a US-led military coalition aimed at destroying the caliphate.
But since the jihadis lost their final foothold in Syria in March 2019, many Western nations have resisted calls from the Kurdish-led forces that run the camps to repatriate their citizens, saying they do not want to bring home people who chose to join a terrorist organisation.
Rights groups have pressed the governments to at least bring home their citizens’ children, arguing that the minors did not choose to go to Syria or, in many cases, were born there.
But only small numbers have been repatriated, many because they were orphans or because they needed lifesaving medical care not available in Syria.
The French foreign ministry announced the arrival of the 10 children in a statement Monday, saying they were handed over to judicial authorities and were under medical supervision and being cared for by social services.
The statement gave no further information about the children, but lawyers representing their relatives said they included three orphans and seven other children from two mothers who had agreed to give up custody so their children could travel to France.
The repatriated children included two brothers and the twin sister of Taymia, a 7-year-old French girl who suffered from a double heart defect and was flown to France in April for urgent medical care after her health had deteriorated.
In a phone interview last month from the sprawling Al Hol camp where the family was stuck in Syria, Taymia’s mother said she had grown so worried about the potential for radicalisation in the camp that she had agreed to allow all of her children to leave.
“That’s why I’m ready to separate from them and let France take them back,” she said.
It was unclear why France brought the children home now after leaving them behind in April, but all three arrived safely Monday as part of the repatriation operation, said Ludovic Rivière, the family’s lawyer.
The New York Times is not publishing Taymia’s last name, nor the names of her mother and siblings, to protect the children’s privacy.
The four other nonorphaned children who arrived in France on Monday were taken from a Kurdish-run detention facility, Roj Camp, after their mother agreed to give up custody, said Jean-Charles Brisard, director of the Paris-based Center for the Analysis of Terrorism. She kept her other two children with her in the camp.
“Some women at some point feel compelled to try to separate from their children because the living conditions in the camps are too difficult,” said Marie Dosé, a French lawyer who has campaigned for the repatriation of all former French residents of the Islamic State group.
The French government’s actions have lagged behind its vows to repatriate the children of its citizens stranded in Syria.
“They are children, they didn’t choose to go to these battlefields, they didn’t choose to join the jihadists’ operations,” France’s justice minister, Nicole Belloubet, told a French radio station Monday, adding that, “when conditions permit,” France should repatriate all minors and orphans.
But so far, the government has followed a case-by-case policy that prioritises orphans and children whose mothers surrender custody. Under that policy, 18 children, including 15 orphans, had been brought home before the 10 who arrived Monday, leaving about 270 other French children marooned in dire conditions in the camps.
Countries like Russia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have each repatriated more than 100 of their citizens, many more than Western nations.
With public opinion firmly against bringing home those who left to fight with the Islamic State group, France has long sought to avoid dealing with French jihadis, even preferring to try dead fighters rather than the living.
French authorities have made it clear that it sees adult women who joined the Islamic State as “fighters” who must be tried where they committed their alleged crimes, in Syria or Iraq, suggesting that the mothers were unlikely to be repatriated with their children.
Both Rivière and Dosé, the French lawyers, said France had initially planned to repatriate more than 10 children, but that some mothers, caught off guard by the sudden operation, had decided not to let their children go.
The 10 children were handed over to a delegation from the French foreign ministry that traveled to northeastern Syria to meet with Kurdish officials. The delegation included Éric Chevallier, a former French ambassador to Syria, according to a photo of the meeting posted on Twitter by Abdulkarim Omar, a foreign affairs official with the Kurdish-led administration.
It was unclear when the photo was taken, but many European officials have cited the danger of sending diplomats into Syria as one of the barriers to repatriation.
The grandfather of four other French children who have been in a camp in Syria with their mother since early 2018 called the arrival of the 10 children “a glimmer of hope.”
But he said the repatriation process would remain limited as long as France waited for mothers to give up custody of their children.
“If we want to bring the children back, it’s not by waiting for all the women to give in one by one,” said the grandfather, who gave only his last name, Lopez, to protect the family’s privacy.
The new repatriations followed a large screening and registration operation by Kurdish authorities in the foreigners’ section of Al Hol camp, where about 10,000 women and children from countries other than Iraq and Syria are held.
The operation last month was intended to collect data about residents of the camp and identify women who are active Islamic State members and might try to escape.
In May, the Centre for the Analysis of Terrorism estimated that 13 female French jihadis — including Hayat Boumeddiene, the wife of Amedy Coulibaly, who carried out a terror attack in Paris in January 2015 — are believed to be on the run.
Kurdish authorities in northeastern Syria said the screening operation was meant to “facilitate coordination with the countries whose nationals reside in the camp and urge them to assume their responsibilities toward their citizens.”
Kurdish forces have long called for the repatriation of all foreigners, arguing that they cannot detain them indefinitely in an unstable region.
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