Europe grapples with ISIS returnees and their families

Germany, which saw some 1,000 of its citizens join ISIS, says it is committed to returning them but cites logistical roadblocks to doing so.
Saturday 24/08/2019
Belgian women Tatiana Wielandt (L) and Bouchra Abouallal, who joined ISIS in Syria, speak to reporters in Ain Issa, Syria, last March. (Reuters)
Legal and ethical conundrum. Belgian women Tatiana Wielandt (L) and Bouchra Abouallal, who joined ISIS in Syria, speak to reporters in Ain Issa, Syria, last March. (Reuters)

TUNIS - With the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate off the map, European countries are struggling to deal with hundreds of foreign fighter recruits and their families who are seeking to return to their home countries.

Since 2011, some 13,000 European nationals have joined the Islamic State (ISIS), posing unique legal and security challenges for their home countries. Today, with many held in overcrowded Kurdish-controlled prisons, European governments must decide how to proceed: Should they strip the terror suspects of their nationality, repatriate and prosecute them at home or leave them at the mercy of their captors?

Even more thorny is the status of their children and other family members who were taken to ISIS territory against their will. While governments bear some responsibility for ensuring their safe return, this often requires the expenditure of significant resources and comes at a high political cost.

So far, various governments have taken different approaches. In Central Asia, countries such as Kosovo, Turkey, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have been the most proactive in returning fighters and their families home. More often viewing extremism as a socio-psychological phenomenon that can be remedied with proper government oversight, these countries returned hundreds of ISIS fighters and their families and sought to reintegrate them into society.

Russia has led the way on the issue, said Tanya Lokshina, Human Rights Watch associate director for Europe and Central Asia.

“Russia’s human rights record is deeply problematic but it has done a lot — more than Western democracies — on the issue of returns,” Lokshina told the Moscow Times in February. “Globally, Russia had the most active programme to return detainees from Iraq and Syria, notably children.”

In Western Europe, the story has been different. Fearful of exposing populations to potential terror risks, countries such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom have been reluctant — and sometimes downright unwilling — to take back ISIS suspects and their families.

Increasingly, they are coming under pressure to change course, including by US President Donald Trump, who said the United States is unwilling to pay for the indefinite detention of ISIS fighters.

“If Europe doesn’t take them, then I have no choice but to release them into the countries from which they came, which [are] Germany and France and other places,” Trump threatened on Twitter.

Belgium says it plans to repatriate all children under the age of 10 and adjudicate those over 10 on a case-by-case basis but has resisted calls to return adult ISIS members.

Germany, which saw some 1,000 of its citizens join ISIS, says it is committed to returning them but cites logistical roadblocks to doing so.

“Germany has a responsibility for its citizens, even if they have committed serious crimes,” Armin Schuster, a domestic policy expert with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, told German publication Der Spiegel.

Initially, the German Foreign Ministry sought to repatriate only children of ISIS fighters but a court ruled in June that a female ISIS member must be returned with her children, setting a controversial precedent in a country where religious and ethnic tensions are already high.

On August 17, the Rojava Information Centre, of the Autonomous Administration of North and East of Syria, wrote on Twitter that “a number of German orphans born to ISIS members” would soon “be handed over to the German Foreign Ministry at the Semalka Border Crossing.”

“It’s the first repatriation of over 100 ISIS-linked German children, plus scores of men & women, held in North-East Syria.”

The United Kingdom, meanwhile, opted for a different approach, revoking the citizenships of high-profile ISIS members it does not want to return home.

Jack Letts, a 24-year-old British-born Muslim convert detained in a Kurdish prison, was the latest to be targeted with this policy. Dubbed “Jihadi Jack” in the media, he was stripped of his British citizenship after it was ruled that he would be eligible for citizenship in Canada, where his father is from.

A similar case made headlines in February when 19-year-old ISIS member Shamima Begum, who is of Bangladeshi heritage, was stripped of her British nationality, effectively leaving her stateless.

The UK government maintains that it has the power to revoke an individual’s citizenship if it is “conducive to the public good” and does not leave them stateless, or if they are eligible for citizenship of another country.

Human rights activists, however, generally argue that European states should repatriate their citizens and, when possible, put them through the legal system at home.

“All countries, including Western European ones, with citizens held in Iraq and north-eastern Syria need to address two basic issues,” wrote Letta Tayler of Human Rights Watch. “The right of everyone to return to their home country, without their home state throwing up direct or indirect barriers; and the duty to ensure justice for the worst crimes committed in Syria and Iraq through fair trials for those most responsible.”

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