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Jihadist refugee camps in Syria: Between risky repatriations and breaches to human rights

Author: Clara Margotin

Editors: Ruth Lucas and Prachi Saraf

On the 24th of January 2023, the French Foreign Ministry confirmed the repatriation of 32 French children and 15 women who were held in jihadist refugee camps in northeast Syria. While the women have rapidly been brought before judicial bodies, the children have been placed in social services, which will handle their living conditions, health and education.

This return operation constitutes the third official repatriation of French citizens detained in Syrian jihadist refugee camps after months of activism from human rights organisations including the United Nations, Save The Children, and Human Rights Watch. According to the French journal Le Monde, this repatriation operation followed United Nations Committee Against Torture’s enduring discontentment and previous statement affirming “that in refusing to repatriate women and minors in Syria, France was violating the UN Convention against torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment.”

In recent years, the number of European ISIS foreign fighters seeking to leave Iraq and Syria to return to their homeland has significantly increased. While the willingness of – former – foreign ISIS recruits to come back to their home country is not a new phenomenon, it is nonetheless gradually starting to pose questions and spark debates on the roles and duties of governments in repatriation processes. European governments tend to oscillate between assessing the threat these returnees could potentially represent to national security and respecting and protecting fundamental human rights by allowing repatriation. This gives room to myriads of controversies and contestations, especially from international human rights associations.

The latter regularly point out the “life-threatening” living conditions refugees face in Kurdish-led jihadist prisons and refugee camps. While men are quasi-systematically sent to overcrowded detention centres, in which they face a poor environment and are frequently victims of torture, women and children are typically transferred to refugee camps in northeast Syria or Iraq, in which they lack water and food, as well as safety, protection, and medical assistance. These brutal living conditions led to the death of nearly 100 individuals in 2021.

Hence, Human rights organisations seek to alert governments and populations on the difficult living conditions faced by women and children refugees in camps managed by the Kurdish Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). In a judgement published in November 2022, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) deplored the “inhumane conditions” faced by jihadist refugees, and critiqued the French Government for failing “to ensure proper safeguards in its repatriation decision resulting in a procedural violation of the rights of the children to enter their own country.”

According to Human Rights Watch, in November 2022, more than 42,400 foreign nationals were still detained in Iraqi and Syrian refugee camps, such as al-Hol and Roj in northeast Syria. Despite this already high number rising each day, many European countries remain fearful of the potential threat that former jihadist returnees could represent to their national security. Thomas Renard, Director of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT), declared in April 2021 that for a certain European heads of states and leaders, “repatriating terrorists would be political suicide”. Similarly, the French Foreign Ministry declared that implementing blanket repatriation could be hazardous as former Jihadists may still represent a threat to the French territory if they were to return, hence cannot benefit from a de facto and unconditional right of return. This leads numerous European countries to only allow and facilitate children’s repatriation, as they appear less menacing for domestic security. As emphasised by l’Institut Européen de la Mediterranée (IEMed) “most European countries are currently willing to repatriate only children, because the risk they pose is lower and because the humanitarian argument for bringing them home is particularly strong.”

Due to these reasons, there does not exist any official repatriation scheme or procedure in the European Union and in most countries that have nationals detained in jihadist refugee camps. Most repatriation operations function on a case-by-case basis – which often implicates the repatriation of children without their mothers.

However, despite the lack of legislation surrounding jihadist refugees’ return, the number of return operations is increasing. Australia, France, and the Netherlands have resumed and increased the number of repatriation operations throughout 2022 and, last year, the French Foreign Ministry ensured the return of 153 French refugees. Additionally, countries such as Albania, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Russia, Sweden, Tajikistan, Ukraine, the United States, and Uzbekistan have now allowed and guaranteed the return of most of their nationals detained in jihadist refugee camps.

These repatriations should continue to increase, but would certainly be made simpler and more frequent with the implementation of official repatriation schemes, and with fewer case-by-case policies. Since the repatriation operation on the 24th of January, the French Foreign Minister has not made any statement yet concerning further repatriation operations in 2023, but the issue is regularly being brought up and discussed at the French Parliament, and should hence get more visibility as well as political and public attention in the next few months.

Despite former foreign fighters’ repatriation being a “pan-European priority”, there does not exist any clear nor common strategy for repatriation processes in Europe. This either leads to the absence of repatriation, hence to the deterioration of refugees’ living conditions in camps, or to delayed repatriations which is “a mistake”. Discussions on the role and duty of governments in the repatriation process are therefore necessary, and talks between governments should also be prioritised. As stated in a report by the European Policy Centre, “European governments must abandon their dangerous ‘bunker mentality’ and hold their citizens accountable in their home countries, with appropriate punishment and proportionate control measures for those who have committed crimes abroad and remain a national risk.”

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