Saturday

3rd Dec 2022

Opinion

Legal limbo for EU children and wives of the Caliphate

  • Syria. 'In contradiction with several international and domestic standards, most of the detainees have not been convicted nor being tried; as such, their long-term detention does not hold legal grounds' (Photo: Reuters)

As the coronavirus pandemic disfigures Europe, it is difficult to get prepared for what is to come.

The post-COVID-19 era might see the upsurge of forgotten ghosts that Europe thought it had put behind. Proliferating in the shadows, recidivist security threats have found fertile grounds in the chaos engendered by the pandemic.

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  • Women and children affiliated to the Islamic State have been often stigmatised and fingered with fear and circumspection by many (Photo: Denis Bocquet)

Since the beginning of 2019, when the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) freed the north-western territories of Syria from the last pockets of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Al-Hol, al-Roj, and Ain Issa have become the three largest refugee camps in the hands of the SDF where the IS ex-combatants and their families flowed.

Estimates report that more than 13,000 foreign women and children are held in these camps.

Many EU citizens who once have fled their home to join the ranks of the Islamic State are counted among the detainees.

They and their children, whether born in Europe or the Islamic State, are now indefinitely detained in the camps.

With the death of many foreign terrorist fighters during the conflict, the question about what to do with the 'wives and children of the caliphate' pounds in the ears of the many European countries involved.

With tuberculosis already ravaging these makeshift prisons, the lack of food, clean water, medicines, and the inability to practice social distancing have made these camps ideal hotbeds for the infection to sprawl.

Despite death being a common occurrence in these places, the past months have witnessed the panic spreading with every new fatality, amplifying the existing risk of uncontrolled riots and escapes.

With the Turkish troops' incursion in October 2019, the intensification of the military operation in northern Syria has led the SDF to lose control over the camps: only a few months ago, on March 29th, a detainees' uprising in the SDF-run Ghouiran prison in the city of Hassakeh might have resulted in the escape of some ISIL members.

A juridical impasse

As the SDF has repeatedly claimed its inadequacy to manage the camps as well as to prosecute the detainees, the international community is urged to intervene.

An imperative that recalls the responsibility of the detainees' states of nationality has been widely invoked. Yet, only a handful of them have been repatriated.

The policy line of European countries towards the matter has been fragmented and inconsistent: while countries such as France and Germany have repatriated a few orphans, the UK and Denmark have refused to provide consular assistance or even stripped their nationals of their citizenships.

Europe's reluctance to recognise its responsibilities plays on a grey area of the international law: a juridical impasse from which the European women and children detained in northern Syria's camps struggle to escape.

The lack of direct legal impositions on states against international law has allowed EU member states to stall; as they sit on their hands, the humanitarian crisis in the SDF-controlled camps aggravates.

Stateless children

In contradiction with several international and domestic standards, most of the detainees have not been convicted nor being tried; as such, their long-term detention does not hold legal grounds.

What is more, the squalid sanitary and living conditions are making sure that most of the child detainees die from malnutrition and diseases.

Many children who were born in the self-proclaimed Islamic State used to hold IS birth certificates that are no longer valid.

Despite their natural right to claim for their parents' European citizenship, these children remain stateless as European countries turn to the other side.

For these children, the risk of being abducted, recruited, or exposed to the IS propaganda is perilously close.

Life in the camps may be alienating: the frustration towards a world of deprivations and unsafety in which they have been abandoned might inflame the only narrative these children were told. The risk of their radicalisation is more real now than it has never been in the past.

Despite the absence of clear obligations on states, international treaties and human rights standards reason in favour of repatriation, suggesting the existence of positive obligations on states even in cases of extraterritorial jurisdiction.

As states of nationality, European countries should be guarantors of their citizens' rights, intervening, inter alia, in case of torture and ill-treatment. Children, particularly, are protected by several frameworks - including the Convention on the Rights of the Child - imposing on states the imperative to rehabilitate children afflicted by armed conflicts.

To repatriate children and women from northern Syria is a human rights and security imperative that cannot be eluded.

Yet, women and children affiliated to the Islamic State have been often stigmatised and fingered with fear and circumspection by many. The nature of their role within the caliphate has been long debated, questioning the gravity of their fault and what defines active and passive involvement.

A Manichean view would tend to picture them as either irredeemable villains or blameless victims.

One or the other, it is arguably counterproductive to reduce these women and children to a cliché.

To better face the challenges of their reintegration in the society, it is perhaps better to accept them for who they are: complex human beings.

Author bio

Sofia Cherici is a researcher in international development at Sciences Po, Paris.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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