What Should be Done About ISIS Kids?

Published February 18th, 2021 - 07:19 GMT
A Kurdish fighter looks on as Syrian women and children, suspected of being related to Islamic State (ISIS) group fighters, gather at the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp, on October 28. (AFP)
A Kurdish fighter looks on as Syrian women and children, suspected of being related to Islamic State (ISIS) group fighters, gather at the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp, on October 28. (AFP)

The attempt by Daesh to create the so-called Islamic state in Syria and Iraq attracted volunteers from many nations. The children of these volunteers, many of whom were born in Syria, now pose a unique dilemma for those nations.

It is estimated that about 70,000 women and children are detained in the refugee camps in Northern Syria. Of that number, at least 12,000 are foreign nationals. Two-thirds of the children held there are under the age of 12, with the majority under five years old, according to a report by the UNHCR. More than 500 people died in the camps in 2019 and researchers found that 371 of them were children.

These youngsters are, first and foremost, a vulnerable group in need of urgent assistance in a volatile and war-torn region. The urgency of resolving the question of how to manage their cases cannot be overstated, given the instability in the region and the ongoing threat posed by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). If not dealt with, the challenge these children present runs a serious risk of developing from an easily solved welfare issue into a possible security and counterterrorism issue.

It is in the short and long-term interests of all nations to take action over the children left behind in areas once held by the now-vanquished Daesh. Moreover, it is ethically and legally a certain and necessary course of action. Under international law, children are the responsibility of their home countries, and the authorities there need to address their future welfare and rehabilitation prospects.

To begin with, diplomatic and financial resources need to be invested in the development of infrastructure to provide for the needs of the remaining populations in the camps (including health services, housing, clothing and food) until a long-term solution has been decided. Such small investments should be seen as the first step toward avoiding the expenditure of greater resources — on measures such as possible military action, expensive repatriations and incarceration — in the future.

Secondly, the creation of a UN body to investigate the actions of Daesh supporters would benefit their children. It would serve to share information about suspects, and work closely with child-protection services in their countries of origin to determine the best outcome for the youngsters.

Thirdly, the children of Daesh supporters must receive secular education, as per international law, to ensure they have a viable future. Religious education must be provided by Muslim-led welfare groups to reinforce a positive religious identity — to counter propaganda — and a sense that detainees do not need to renounce their religion to move forward with their lives (as Daesh propaganda would have them believe).
Finally, juvenile rehabilitation facilities that are already operating in northeastern Syria need resources and expertise from donor states and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). These facilities offer a way to immediately reduce the risks to European children while efforts to find longer-term solutions, such as repatriation, continue.

Several NGOs are already carrying out safeguarding and rehabilitation efforts in neighboring countries, including Iraq and Turkey. International support would vastly increase the capacities of such facilities.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017).

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