The potetial return of foreign terrorist fighters to Europe and challenges associated with the returnees have been a pressing issue for several years. The matter was brought up by President Donald Trump back in February, when he urged European nations, including the United Kingdom, France and Germany, to take back more than 800 Daesh* terrorist group fighters captured by the United States in Syria, and put them on trial.
Europe is, however, still reluctant to take its radicalized nationals back, preferring them to face trials in the countries they wage hostilities. In early August, the matter took another turn as Trump did not rule out that the United States might dump up to 2,500 captured terrorists into the countries of Europe if those nations do accept them voluntarily.
Trump said that overall the United States had captured more than 10,000 prisoners after defeating Daesh caliphate. The Kurds have also warned that they could not keep those detained forever, urging Europe to take responsibility for its nationals.
What About Children?
According to European intelligence estimates, since 2012, some 5,300 Europeans, men and women, have joined the Daesh in Syria and Iraq. A thousand children accompanied them, with about 600 more born in the war zones. Less than 10 percent of them have already returned to Europe.
As a result, children of western Europeans who are still there with their mothers or other women or orphaned and still in detention, are estimated at 1,500.
Slowly, with great hesitations over an apparent fear of a public backlash, European governments are repatriating children and wives of jihadists, in small groups, starting with the orphans, then women and finally men. The situation is, nevertheless, far from being resolved.
In France, the opposition right-wing National Rally (RN), for instance, steadfastly refuses to let adults come back. But it is not only the RN. The Gaullist Debout la France (France Arise) party and The Republicans of former President Nicolas Sarkozy oppose the return of jihadists too, though they agree to discuss the fate of children.
"Women are just as dangerous as men, so no question of being soft on the women jihadists. Only for children, should France organize a closely supervised repatriation," Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, the president of the France Arise party and a former presidential candidate, told Sputnik.
Jihadi fighters are, meanwhile, "must not be allowed to set foot in France, the politician argued, adding that they should be kept in custody in some isolated overseas territory, far away from mainland France.
"I suggested first French Guyana, but since the Guyana authorities are not too keen on getting these monsters there, I suggested to banish them to the Kerguelen islands, in the South Pacific. Impossible to get out of there and a detention centre could very well be built. It is a measure of common sense to really isolate them," he said.
Dupont-Aignan believes that accommodation of jihadi prisoners in an overseas territory, not in mainland France, would be also more cost-effective.
"The annual cost would be about 63 million EUR [$70 million] - construction of the detention centre included and amortized over 30 years, for 450 inmates and 150 staff over an area of 5 to 6 square kms. It represents 140,000 EUR annually for each prisoner held in Kerguelen - against 72,000 euros in France. There would be the presence of a Navy frigate and an airspace surveillance radar," he pointed out.
France Says ‘Yes,’ But UK Says ‘No’
Despite the opposition, France has recently declared that it could repatriate its nationals, whereas until now, the official line was rather to leave them to be judged in Syria. Those detained in Iraq are judged in Iraq too with the support of France, despite them getting frequently death penalty after a very fast trial.
Starting from June, Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet, after hesitating a lot, has been more open to France returning its nationals from conflict zones.
"There are more children than adults. Many children have already been repatriated to France when we had the agreement of their mothers, and we have taken care of some. The largest number of remaining children are on-site, in detention camps, accompanied by their mothers, or even their fathers. From what we know statistically for children returning to France, it is mainly children under 7. We believe that 75% of these children would be under 7 years," Belloubet told the RTL radio.
Belloubet stressed that France, opposed so far to the return of French jihadists held by the Kurds in Syria, no longer ruled out their repatriation to prevent them from fading into the wild, taking advantage of the US troop withdrawal.
London, to the contrary, keeps reiterating that the families and children will not be allowed back into the United Kingdom. At least 30 UK children are, meanwhile, currently being held with their mothers in camps in northern Syria, after the defeat of the Daesh caliphate.
Earlier this year, the story of Shamima Begum, a UK-born teenager who left London in 2015 to join the Daesh abroad but voiced the intention to return, made headlines after then-UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid decided to revoke her citizenship.
Despite pressure from the left and news that Begum’s infant son died weeks after arriving at the camp of Al-Hawl, London has still remained staunch: UK officials will not be sent to retrieve these children from Syria.
A number of other European countries have repatriated stranded children, at least orphans, who have their nationalities. France lately, and earlier Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Australia have brought small numbers back, mostly orphans of the war.
Case of Belgium
Belgium is the European country that has the largest number of nationals fighting in conflict zones in percentage of the population. In Belgium too, opposition to any repatriation remains high in the wake of the 2016 Brussels bombings, which killed 32 people and maimed hundreds.
In late June, the Belgian government, however, agreed with the Kurdish authorities about repatriating six of children held in camps, including three boys aged six, eight and 14 from the same mother, originally from Brussels. She had smuggled her four children to Syria in 2014. The eldest in the meantime died in the Daesh ranks. The mother of the children and the father of the two youngest are both dead. Only the father of the 14-year-old boy is still alive.
Another 14-year-old boy and his sister, 10, are also being repatriated. They, too, were taken to Syria in 2014 by their radicalized parents. Their father was pronounced dead in 2015, while the mother died two years later. The two children have been living alone for several months in camps in northern Syria. Their grandparents have been trying to bring them back to Belgium.
The last child to be repatriated by the authorities is a girl aged 18. She was kidnapped by her father during her teenage years to be married to an Daesh fighter. The girl is severely traumatized and urgently needs psychological help.
Explaining the exceptional gesture, Alexander De Croo, deputy prime minister and minister of development cooperation, stressed that these "six children who have no parents" were "not responsible for unforgivable mistakes made by their parents."
"All children have been thoroughly analysed by both the Defence Intelligence Service and the OCAM, the Coordinating Body for Threat Analysis. Six children can be repatriated. Each child has received appropriate support when arrived in Belgium. There is no question at this stage of considering other operations of the same type. Before Belgium, other European states undertook similar operations," De Croo of the Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats party said.
Theo Francken (the nationalist New Flem-ish Alliance), a former Belgian state secretary for asylum and migration, however, is highly critical of such repatriation.
"I condemn this decision. From the information we get, I have great doubts that they are really orphans. Moreover, the problem is that this precedent will force us, because of the European Court of Human rights, of accepting their dangerous jihadi mothers in Belgium. It will also create a dangerous precedent," Francken told Sputnik.
According to Francken, Islamism is already "on the rise in Western Europe, with the creation of Islamic schools, the separation of days for women in public swimming pools in many boroughs, the Islamic veil making inroads in all schools." Sending jihadists back would only aggravate the problem, according to the politician.
"This is reinforced by the much too lax family regrouping, which enables Muslim migrants to make their family come to Belgium or other European states. All that hardens the insulation of the Muslim communities across the country from the rest of society. In this atmosphere, the repatriation of die-hard Islamists from the Syrian Caliphate is a time bomb, that we must avoid," Francken warned.
He also questioned the very ability of EU nations to handle the radicalized returnees, arguing that "we are not even capable as modern states of expelling migrants who have seen their asylum request refused," effectively letting them stay, commit crimes and "slowly disorganize our Western societies."
According to Belgian intelligence services, there were still 150 minors in Syria and Iraq before the beginning of the summer, at least one of whose parents is Belgian.
Children NGOs Lobby Governments
US agencies, the European Court of Human Rights and most political parties on the left urge governments to repatriate children of jihadists, while admitting that they could be dangerous, since the IS has been indoctrinating them from a very early age. Some of these children participated in decapitations or executions at the age of four, meaning that, once repatriated, their re-education into the Western type of society is not at all evident.
Bernard De Vos, the general delegate (ombudsman) for the Rights of the Child in French-speaking Belgium, visited Kurdish detention camps in northern Syria in June. He was a part of a humanitarian mission, along with non-governmental organization Child Focus.
De Vos, who had the opportunity to meet with the five minors and the 18-year-old girl in the camp of Al-Hawl before they left for Belgium, believes that their return is a "necessity."
"Some political parties are exploiting the fear of bringing back insecurity by repatriating these families, but no one has ever been able to prove the existence of a gene of terrorism. The children of jihadists are not jihadists themselves. They did nothing, wanted nothing, committed nothing. Their only lot is to be born in the wrong place, in the wrong family. But it is not a crime to be born. Some talk about them as ‘time bombs’ ... It is pure speculation, prejudice applied to innocent people. Nothing says that they will become guilty as their parents," De Vos told Sputnik.
According to the ombudsman, EU nations should give such children the "freedom to choose their destiny, away from family pre-determinations."
"We must welcome, educate and emancipate these children, who are by nature foreign to the follies that have lost their parents, " he pointed out.
Kurdish authorities in charge of camps in northern Syria similarly insist that children should be repatriated, warning about their radicalization in the camps, vulnerable to terrorist recruitment.
"If these children are not returned to their country, rehabilitated and reintegrated into their communities, they will all become future terrorists," a spokesman for a local Kurdish administration said.
Leaving them in "the radical camp environment means creating a new generation of terrorists that will pose a threat to us and to the entire international community," the Kurds warn.
*Daesh (also known as ISIS/ISIL/IS) is a terrorist group banned in Russia
The views and opinions expressed by the contributors do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.
The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.