‘Children of ISIS’ head back to Tunisia, reviving controversy

Human Rights Watch said there are about 200 Tunisian children born to ISIS members and who are in custody in camps abroad.
Sunday 02/02/2020
A long way to go. A woman sits with children at al-Hol camp for displaced ISIS families in Hasakah governorate in north-eastern Syria, last October. 	 (AFP)
A long way to go. A woman sits with children at al-Hol camp for displaced ISIS families in Hasakah governorate in north-eastern Syria, last October. (AFP)

TUNIS - Six children fathered by Tunisian Islamic State fighters killed in 2016 in the Libyan city of Sirte recently arrived in Tunisia. Dozens more fatherless Tunisian children and their mothers were expected to arrive soon in their deceased parent’s home country.

The complicated repatriation requires that Tunisia provide an appropriate system for the care and rehabilitation of children of killed Tunisian Islamic State (ISIS) fighters, as well as establish close coordination between the judicial, security and intelligence agencies involved.

Tunisian authorities also need to collaborate closely with Libyan officials and other concerned countries.

There are more than 50 children of Tunisian ISIS fighters who died in campaigns against the extremist organisation in Libya; 36 of those children are accompanied by their mothers. The children are 3-12 years of age.

“Fifty-four children with their mothers are still stranded in Libya and arrangements are being made for their deportation soon,” said Taoufik Kacem, the Tunisian consul in the Libyan city of Misrata. The other Tunisian children and their mothers are expected to be extradited soon after Tunisian forensic and legal specialists submit reports.

“These children had lost both of their parents and will be cared for by their grandparents or someone close of kin (in Tunisia),” said Mohamed Ikbal Ben Rejeb, president of the Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad. He added that they “need to be monitored for a long period of time and should be helped and reintegrated into schools.”

Tunisian authorities do not have official figures indicating the number of ISIS orphans of Tunisian origin but NGO Human Rights Watch has estimated the number of Tunisian children born to ISIS members who are in custody in camps abroad at about 200.

The biggest challenge faced by Tunisian officials is that Libya is divided between two major warring camps. Political and human rights sources stressed the “weakness” of the judicial system in Libya as well as the turbulent security situation there.

In some cases, the Tunisian authorities had been hesitant to take a decision regarding repatriation of minors because of the difficulty in establishing the identities of the children and their parents.

Ben Rejeb said: “The Tunisian state does not have a strategy in place for how to provide and care for these troubled children aged between 4 and 6.”

This situation has led to another controversy with the publication by the website of the Presidency of the Republic of photos of Tunisian President Kais Saied receiving the six orphans deported from Libya January 23.

A statement issued by the Tunisian Presidency stated that Saied stressed the need for expediting measures necessary “to provide psychological counselling and health care for these children before handing them over to their families.”

Saied also pointed to the need to give the issue the right attention “to facilitate the return of the remaining children stranded in Libya.”

The statement said the return of the children was discussed by Saied and the head of the Libyan Government of National Accord Fayez al-Sarraj during a meeting December 10 in Tunisia. It was agreed then to secure the return of the children to their families in Tunisia.

Social activists in Tunisia criticised Saied, arguing that he should have devoted attention instead to orphans of Tunisian security and military forces killed during terrorist attacks.

Experts said Tunisia lacks specialised official bodies and agencies to oversee integration of the children of killed ISIS fighters into society. Ben Rejeb said: “There is no government programme pertaining to the care for these children.”

Others had more praise for Tunisian authorities’ efforts to help children who have lost parents to conflict.

“Legitimate security concerns do not justify the abandonment by governments of children and other citizens held in miserable camps and prisons abroad,” said Lita Tyler, a crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch.

She stressed the need to provide rehabilitation and reintegration services for these citizens. “These children must be treated primarily as victims,” she said.

Human Rights Watch had considered the Tunisian government’s efforts to repatriate children of ISIS fighters as “slow” and accused authorities of “inaction” in helping Tunisian children and their mothers held in Arab prisons, including in Syria and Iraq.

The organisation called on Tunisia to “ensure a speedy and safe return of children detained abroad just because they are the sons and daughters of alleged or confirmed members of ISIS, unless they fear that they will be subjected to ill-treatment upon returning home.”