Women and Children First: Repatriating the Westerners Affiliated with ISIS

Authored by: International Crisis Group

Categories: Humanitarian Emergencies, Violent Conflict
Sub-Categories: Disarmament Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR), Migration, Violent Extremism
Country: Syria
Region: Middle East and North Africa
Year: 2019
Citation: “Women and Children First: Repatriating the Westerners Affiliated with ISIS.” International Crisis Group, November 18, 2019.

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Executive Summary

Tens of thousands of detained foreign men, women and children associated with ISIS in Syria’s northeast pose a formidable challenge for both their governments of origin and the region in which they are housed. Paralyzed by domestic politics and insecure about their capacity to prosecute and police returnees, Western governments have failed to repatriate roughly 1,450 individuals within this population who are their nationals, while the humanitarian and security situation in the camps where women and children are held has gone from bad to worse. Detaining and repatriating Westerners associated with ISIS carries risks and challenges that vary for men and women, but the ongoing and unresolved presence of both in the region is a stark problem, and the unattended fate of their children an egregious humanitarian oversight. States should move out all of their nationals, starting with women and children.

So what to do? Ideally, all non-Syrian governments that have nationals in detention in Syria would repatriate them, relieving this war-scarred region of a burden it is ill-equipped to handle, ending a humanitarian crisis that taints all associated with it, and mitigating a range of security risks from adults escaping to children radicalizing amid the hopelessness of the camps. But within this group, some governments are better equipped than others to take the lead. Western governments – with their greater resources and fewer numbers of detainees – are arguably chief among them. Less apparent is what might make these governments revise the cold calculations by which they have already stranded hundreds of their nationals in Syria’s northeast.

The most viable approach may be to divide the population, and put women and children at the front of the repatriation queue. While officials may feel there is no politically palatable way to bring home men – most of whom were fighters, and some of whom will be difficult to imprison because of prosecutorial and evidentiary challenges – children appropriately benefit from a presumption of innocence, and women are a diverse group. Their roles varied, with a significant number uninvolved operationally. Although there may be some militant and operationally experienced women whom Western governments decide they will not take, the goal should be to keep that number to an absolute minimum. Up to this point, most Western governments have done the very least they could get away with in terms of repatriations; they should instead be stretching to do the most.

As for those who cannot be brought home, the situation in Syria remains too dynamic, and other possible dispositions in the region (including in Iraq) too fraught from both a security and a human rights perspective to make a definitive recommendation. Western governments will need to work with all interested parties to explore the possibility of developing legitimate justice mechanisms, obtain credible treatment assurances and build facilities where detainees can be securely and humanely held. If not, repatriation may be the only option. Regardless of the obstacles they face, the countries whose nationals came to fight for ISIS cannot responsibly wash their hands of them. Nor can they meet the challenges that they pose by continuing to look away.