When Belgium said in March that it would repatriate some women who had joined the Islamic State, along with their children, Jessie Van Eetvelde welcomed the decision with relief — even though she knows it will likely mean time in prison. She and her two children have been living for at least two years in detention camps in Syria. Her dream, she says, is to have her children, whose father fought for the Islamic State, attend school in Belgium. For that, she is ready to pay the price of having joined the militant group in 2014, if Belgium will take her back.
“Maybe they realised that those who want to go back are sorry and want a second chance,” Van Eetvelde, 43, said recently in a WhatsApp voice message. Many European countries have balked at allowing the return of people linked to ISIS, yet some, like Belgium and Finland, are now heeding the advice of security experts and rights groups who say that repatriations are the safest option. “Europe has long criticised the U.S. for Guantánamo Bay, but now you have a Guantánamo in the desert,” said Chris Harnisch, a former State Department counter-terrorism official who organised the repatriation of American citizens in 2019 and 2020.
Two years after the Islamic State lost its last territorial foothold in Syria, more than 200 women from 11 European countries and their 650 children are living in two Syrian camps, Al Hol and Roj, according to figures compiled by Thomas Renard, a researcher at the Egmont Institute, a Brussels-based think tank.
Although the Europeans represent a small fraction of the 60,000 people being held in the camps, who are mostly Iraqis and Syrians, European governments are facing increasing pressure to bring the adults back to face trial amid an argument that the countries’ inaction violates their commitment to human rights.
Security experts, rights groups and lawyers of those who went to ISIS territories acknowledge that European governments face legitimate security concerns, along with political dynamics in countries fearful of terrorist attacks. But a growing number of government and intelligence officials say that leaving European citizens in Syria comes with greater risks, including that they could join terrorist groups that target Europe.
Countries like the United States, Kazakhstan and Turkey have repatriated many of their own citizens to prosecute them and, in some cases, reintegrate them into society.
The Kurdish leadership in the region that oversees the camps has not prosecuted the women, whose roles under ISIS’s rule often remain unclear. And because the administration is not internationally recognised, any prosecutions would still not get them out of their legal limbo.
Most European countries say that they have no legal obligation to help their citizens in the camps and that adults who joined ISIS should be prosecuted in Iraq and Syria.
Yet Belgium’s justice minister, Vincent Van Quickenborne, said his government would organise the repatriations of 13 women and their 27 children within months after the country’s intelligence services reported that ISIS was gaining power in the camps. He said the authorities had received “clear advice” that bringing the women and children to Belgium was the safest option. An internal European Union document this year described the Hol camp as a “mini-caliphate.” “A returnee will always present a risk, some of them low, some of them very high,” Renard said, adding that returnees could potentially radicalise inmates in prison or attempt attacks. “Yet the consequences of non-repatriation are increasingly outweighing those risks.”
The writers are reporters with NYT©2021
The New York Times