29 July 2019

Europe is not getting rid of its hot potato – the repatriation of Jihadists

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

At the beginning of March 2019, the Defence and Security Monitory published a piece (A new hot potato for Europe – the repatriation of Jihadists) on the problem of repatriating European citizens who fought for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (SIIL). Since then, conditions in the camps where SIIL members and their families are being held captive have deteriorated. Therefore, the answer to the question “When and how will Europe get rid of this hot potato?” is still unknown, as Western states have been reticent in bringing their own citizens back home.

Image source: Mediafax

The situation on the ground

Most Western countries continue to avoid repatriating their citizens which have adhered to ISIL and their respective families. But the problem will not just disappear. On the contrary, conditions in the temporary detention camps in North-Eastern Syria, overcrowded, continue to worsen, and repatriation becomes an emergency.

According to the UNCHR report dated June 19, 2019, 73,043 people were being held at the Al-Hol camp in Syria, amounting to 21,039 families. The number of people in the camp is slowly decreasing, after 740 people displaced from Syria and 14 other unaccompanied children left for Tabqa, on June 9 and 13. A drop in the ocean. Of the 740 people, most were women and children, members of the ISIL fighters’ families.

According to UNCHR, the sanitary situation and living conditions at the Al-Hol camp will further deteriorate once summer arrives. The number of people affected by gastro-intestinal diseases grew, the main causes being the lack of drinkable water, but also bacteria and parasites which contaminate food products.

In these conditions, the OHCHR chief (The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights), Michelle Bachelet, recently stated, making direct references to France and other European countries reticent to repatriate their own citizens, that “the tens of thousands of ISIL members and their families must be repatriated”. The UN official added that ISIL member should be put on trial for their suspected charges or otherwise should be liberated. “The states must assume responsibility for their citizens, they should not use the irresponsible cruelty of declaring their children stateless persons, as they have suffered already enough,” Bachelet also said.

At the same time, the US also publicly requested other countries to repatriate their citizens which joined ISIL and their families, even if Washington has yet to make a clear strategy in this regard, and the number of repatriated individuals is insignificant.

The actions of states – inconclusive

Several countries, including France, Great Britain and the Netherlands insist on the fact that logistical challenges and security risks make the repatriation of their own citizens who joined ISIL practically impossible. On the other hand, Kosovo, Turkey, Russia and Central Asia states show that, where there is a will to repatriate their own citizens, there will also be a solution. The intransigence of Western European countries in this matter is also proven by the death sentenced received by nine French citizens, who were sentenced by an Iraqi tribunal on charges of torture.

Three Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – have repatriated 756 citizens until now, most of them women and children. Kirgizstan is also undergoing negotiations to repatriate its own citizens.

In the meantime, repatriations in European countries are insignificant numerically and are mostly focused on orphan children. Norway, for example, repatriated five orphans from North-Eastern Syria at the beginning of June, while leaving behind other 35 children. From March until June, France has repatriated 17 children from North Syria and one from Iraq, the vast majority of them orphans. The French Government states that it has 400 more French citizens left in North-Eastern Syria, of which approximately half are children. Sweden has repatriated seven children, while the Netherlands only two.  Germany has repatriated less than 10 individuals from Iraq. The US have “silently” repatriated two women and six children.

Europol warning – women are playing a more important role in ISIL

It is probable that the European states’ attitude on the matter also comes form the Europol report made public on June 14 which states that, in comparison with other Jihadist-terrorist movements, women are more visible in ISIL propaganda, both as authors and as a target-audience. ISIL is more attractive through the fact that “it allows women to travel through the Caliphate’s regions without the obligation of being accompanied by a man”, according to the European police agency’s report. At the same time, as the size of ISIL’s territory was reduced in Iraq and Syria, women, which in other times would have had non-combat roles, have been called on more and more frequently to get involved in the fighting. Europol’s concern lies with the possibility that repatriated women could become involved in terrorist attacks, as in 2018 15% of the total number of individuals who were put on trial and sentenced for terrorism or supporting terrorism in the EU were women.

The political decision is difficult, but no impossible

There are obvious reasons for which states and governments limit themselves to adopting difficult political decision regarding the repatriation of ISIL members and their families, especially for those where there is clear evidence that they were involved in terrorist acts. But there is also a series of judicial, ethical and moral considerations which must be put before political decisions. Moreover, there are practical reasons for states to do more. Currently, Kurdish militias are responsible with running the camps in which tens of thousands of prisoners and refugees are kept together. As conditions in the camps worsen, and Western states continue to ignore this problem, the camps’ residents, especially children, can become the cornerstone for the next generation of ISIL supporters.

Not only Western states must have a coherent approach to repatriating their own citizens, but also other states such as Tunisia, which has thousands of citizens in camps in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

Conclusions and perspectives

In the lack of coherent and efficient measures which would lead to a change in the social-economic and confessional environment that is favourable to recruitment and indoctrination, the violent actions, regardless of their nature, will continue.

Without an efficient de-radicalization and social reintegration program, the only solution is to keep the guilty imprisoned. But the radicalization process in prisons has still not been eradicated, and is even easier than in the environment outside prisons. From this point of view, we can say that the drafting of de-radicalization programs, together with actions meant to rehabilitate the repatriated individuals, are essential. Several European countries – Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Great Britain – have applied programs to prevent radicalization or for de-radicalization, but the ways in which these subjects are approached have proved to be more complicated than it was initially estimated.

Legal and political constraints, fears of terrorism, overloading security and information services, the largely spread hostility of Muslims in European states, intensified by ISIL’s barbaric actions, complicate talks on repatriating ISIL members and their families.

But, after wall, what will happen with the individuals currently in detention camps in Iraq and Syria will also have a significant impact on the proliferations of the terrorist-jihadist movement both in the Middle East, as in other regions … and the “hot potato” of repatriating terrorists originally from Europe still remains hot.  

Translated by Ionut Preda