This week, Euronews brings you a series of exclusive reports on “Europe’s Children of ISIS”: the victims — and heirs — of one of the most brutal terrorist organizations the world has ever seen. We will ask “What the future holds for these kids? And what this quandary says about Europe?”
While Western countries continue to grapple over what to do with the wives and children of their nationals suspected of having joined the ranks of the so-called Islamic State (IS), thousands of them now live in squalid conditions in detention camps.
Overflowing latrines, sewages trickling into tents, acute malnutrition and diarrhoea are just some of the issues the nearly 75,000 people held in the al-Hol detention camp in northeastern Syria face every day, according to humanitarian groups.
Some 11,000 women and children from over 50 countries are detained in what is known as the Annex, but foreign governments are wary of allowing them to return.
According to the Kurdish authorities who administer the camp, many continue to live by the rules of the caliphate and remain dangerous.
“Not a long time ago, a foreigner asked our soldiers to take her to the market to buy something for her children. We sent a guard with her, and when he turned his back, she stabbed him with a knife,” Mohamed Bashir, al-Hol Camp manager, told Euronews’ Anelise Borges.
In July, a video posted on social media purportedly showed a black IS flag being hoisted in camp. Human Rights Watch (HRW) also flagged that women who continue to adhere to IS’s extremist ideology have threatened and set fires to tents of women and children they consider infidels.
READ MORE: Lull in terror attacks may not last ‘until the end of 2019’: UN report
Some, however, are looking for a way out.
“M”, a French national who asked to remain anonymous, is one of them.
“I know I chose to come. I could have left before, I didn’t, I was afraid. I didn’t want to go to prison, I didn’t want to lose my child, I didn’t want to lose my husband. And then we don’t know what to do,” she told Euronews.
“Once we enter the Islamic state we are not free to do as we please. Everyone suspects everyone. So someone that joins and later says he wants to go. It doesn’t work like that,” she added.
So far, Western countries have repatriated very few of their nationals from camps in Syria and Iraq.
According to HRW, Norway repatriated five orphans in June; France flew back 18 children in March and June; the Netherlands brought back two children; Belgian flew back six children in June; Germany fewer than 10; Australia returned eight children; Italy took back the one suspected IS fighter; and the US, who has admonished its allies for not taking back more of their nationals, has brought back 16 adults and children since July 2018.
Additionally, France has allowed 11 of its citizens to be tried and sentenced to death in rushed Iraqi trials, while the UK and Denmark have stripped some of their nationals of their citizenship.
The issue lies with the fact that international law dictates that only people responsible for crimes can be punished following a fair trial to determine individual guilt.
But it is difficult for Western countries to prove that suspected fighters took part in combat. As for women, they were not allowed on the frontline by IS but may have helped in the background. Proving this is even more difficult.
The fear for Western governments is that they may not be able to detain them after repatriation and that they will join or establish sleeper cells capable of unleashing home-grown deadly terror attacks.
READ MORE: Six Belgian orphans of Islamic State fighters taken in by Belgium
United Nations experts warned last month that although the IS’s geographical caliphate had been successfully dismantled, its leadership was adapting and evolving in view of an eventual resurgence. They estimated that a lull in international terrorist attacks carried out by Islamist groups could end before the end of the year.
But failing to act to improve the living conditions of these children may be just as dangerous.
HRW, which visited the al-Hol camp in June, “found overflowing latrines, sewage trickling into tattered tents, and residents drinking wash water from tanks containing worms.”
“Young children with skin rashes, emaciated limbs, and swollen bellies sifted through mounds of stinking garbage under a scorching sun or lay limp on tent floors, their bodies dusted with dirt and flies. Children are dying from acute diarrhoea and flu-like infections, aid groups and camp managers said,” it added.
For Robin Wright, a fellow at the US Institute for Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Centre, “these kids reared in the beliefs and practices of the Islamic State, carry its stigma.”
“But, with no alternatives and no future, the ideas that fostered the militant organisation fester among its children. The next generation may be the most enduring legacy of the Islamic State,” he warned in a Foreign Policy paper.