At the height of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)’s power between 2013 and 2015, about 30,000 fighters from at least 85 countries had joined the jihadist group from across the world. After the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) cornered the extremist group within a one square kilometer radius in February in the village of Baghouz, many militants, along with their wives and children, fled the village, surrendering in droves. Hundreds of other ISIS militants were killed during fierce and desperate battles to hold on to their last enclave in Syria.
Following weeks of heavy fighting in Baghouz, the Kurdish SDF, which controls the northeastern region of the country, declared the elimination of the self-proclaimed “caliphate” in Syria on March 23. While the Kurdish group relentlessly bombarded the extremist group’s last strip of territory, it detained the displaced militants, their families, and thousands of civilians in SDF-controlled prisons and refugee camps in northeastern Syria, including al-Hawl camp near the Iraqi border.
As the number of displaced persons seeking shelter in al-Hawl refugee camp continues to rise, sanitation and the health situation are steadily deteriorating. The camp is now home to more than 75,000 displaced people, and the humanitarian situation there is getting worse by the day.
The “Extremely Dire” Conditions in Al-Hawl Camp
Al-Hawl camp’s accommodation capacity is 20,000 people, but the camp has experienced a huge influx of displaced people since the beginning of a four-year-long SDF crackdown on ISIS.
Al-Hawl camp’s accommodation capacity is 20,000 people, but the camp has experienced a huge influx of displaced people since the beginning of a four-year-long SDF crackdown on ISIS. In addition to civilians, the camp is overcrowded with more than 9,000 foreign women and children, who are under tight surveillance in a fenced area within the camp due to their direct links to ISIS.
Living conditions in the camp have become extremely difficult. In a span of eight weeks, the “bitterly cold winter weather” has killed more than two dozen children and newborn babies, as reported by the World Health Organization. Humanitarian organizations providing onsite relief in Syria have highlighted the suffering of the camp’s displaced people. The London-based organization the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that since the beginning of 2019, over 240 children have died in al-Hawl camp due to an acute shortage of food and lack of adequate medical care.
On March 12, Babor Baloch, spokesman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed grave concern over the humanitarian situation in the SDF-controlled refugee camp, describing it as “desperate.” Moreover, the UNICEF regional director for the Middle East, Geert Cappelaere, stated in mid-March that 3,000 children, many under the age of six, from 43 countries were born into ISIS families and are currently “living in extremely dire conditions” in Syrian camps.
Additionally, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said on March 21 that “there now have been at least 138 deaths on the way to al-Hawl camp or soon after arriving at the camp since early December .” Despite this reality, many governments have refused to take back so-called ISIS wives and children, let alone ISIS fighters.
Uncertain Futures for Thousands of ISIS Children
Foreign ISIS fighters and their families who want to return to their countries of origin have presented many nations across the world with an alarming conundrum.
Some Western countries are unwilling to repatriate their detained citizens for fear that they might continue to propagate ISIS ideology in their prisons or carry out terrorist attacks after they have served their prison sentences. Curiously, however, these countries are also reluctant to permit the innocent babies and children of ISIS members to return to their countries of origin.
In mid-April, Panos Moumtzis, the United Nations (UN) regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis, called on governments to find a solution for the 2,500 foreign children who are being held among a total of 75,000 people at al-Hawl camp after escaping Baghouz. The UN official stated that “children should be treated first and foremost as victims,” adding that any decision must be taken in accordance with the best interest of the children regardless of their age, sex, and familial affiliation.
The U.S.-backed Kurdish SDF called for an international tribunal to prosecute hundreds of ISIS foreign militants in February, especially as countries continue to refuse to take back their detained citizens.
Even before ISIS’s fall in Syria, President Trump called for his European allies—mainly Britain, France, and Germany—to repatriate hundreds of captured ISIS fighters and put them on trial.
Even before ISIS’s fall in Syria, President Trump called for his European allies—mainly Britain, France, and Germany—to repatriate hundreds of captured ISIS fighters and put them on trial. Trump’s call for European countries to take back hundreds of their ISIS citizens is strikingly inconsistent with his position on repatriating U.S.-citizen ISIS members. Just three days after advocating the return of European former ISIS fighters, he refused to allow 24-year-old, U.S.-born Hoda Muthana and her 19-month-old son to return to the U.S., despite her willingness to face the consequences of her actions in the U.S. justice system. Trump’s stance on this particular case has raised a heated constitutional debate over the rights of U.S. citizens.
Ambivalence Toward ISIS Children
In response to Trump, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas commented in February that it would be “extremely difficult” to bring back European ISIS nationals from Syria. There are many obstacles that stand in the way of putting ex-fighters on trial, such as the absence of diplomatic ties with Syria and difficulty in gathering enough evidence to convict them. However, Berlin said on April 5, just two months after its initial statement, that it had repatriated several children whose parents are still jailed in Iraq.
France repatriated five orphaned children born to French parents who had joined ISIS.
Similarly, in March, France repatriated five orphaned children born to French parents who had joined ISIS. The French government plans to repatriate 130 children among an estimated 500 others in Syria and Iraq on a case by case basis. According to a statement by the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, France’s ISIS fighters must be judged on the territory where they committed crimes for justice and security reasons.
Following France and Germany’s recent repatriation of several minors from Syria and Iraq, some British lawyers are trying to bring home at least three children born to British ISIS extremists. The UK is reluctant to take back the wives and children of British fighters for fear that these terrorists and their families might mobilize jihadist networks after they return home.
To date, the fate of thousands of ISIS children remains uncertain. Governments across the world must be determined to end the suffering of these innocent children. Ultimately, they are victims of extremism who have been born in a war-ravaged country, where they undoubtedly have witnessed and experienced physical violence and emotional trauma; they should not have to pay the price for their parent’s crimes.
Denying ISIS nationals and their children the right to return home is not only morally unacceptable, but it is also a violation of international law. If Western countries profess to uphold and defend democracy and human rights throughout the World, then they must start with repatriating their citizens, beginning with their children.