Opinion: France must repatriate ′Islamic State′ sympathizers stranded in Syria | Opinion | DW | 06.03.2021

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Opinion: France must repatriate 'Islamic State' sympathizers stranded in Syria

Paris does not want them — the wives of 'Islamic State' fighters and their children languishing in Syrian jails. But refusing to allow them to return to France will ultimately backfire, says DW's Luisa von Richthofen.

Syrien IS-Gefängnis im al-Roj-Camp

Children in Roj camp in northern Syria where thousands of 'IS' fighters and their relatives are detained

French authorities are loathed to repatriate French women who left the country to join the so-called 'Islamic State' (IS) and are now stuck in Syrian jails. Since the defeat of 'IS' in 2014, 120 French women and over 300 children have remained in the country.

DW's Luisa von Richthofen

DW's Luisa von Richthofen

Ten days ago, a dozen of these French nationals went on hunger strike to protest against the conditions at Syria's overcrowded al-Hol and Roj prison camps. They're desperate to leave the dirty, muddy and cold jails, where murder and intimidation are rife.

Paris, however, won't take them back.

Public opinion against repatriation

It's obvious, why. France, which suffered numerous bloddy 'IS' terror attacks, has grown wary and scared. A 2019 study shows that 89% of French respondents fear a return of former 'IS' sympathizers from abroad, with 67% saying "'IS' offspring" should remain in Syria — an overwhelming majority, especially by French standards. And it's unlikely these sentiments will have changed much.

President Emmanuel Macron knows repatriating French 'IS' sympathizers will only weaken his political standing at home. He is reluctant to act, especially with the presidential election only a year away. French authorities say they are vetting each any every individual before bringing them back. A mere 35 children, many of them orphans, were repatriated in the past two years. At this rate, French citizens will face many more years in increasingly squalid and inhumane Syrian jails.

Leaving its citizens to languish abroad would not only run counter to French human rights principles, but also its own interests.

The right to a fair trial

The women who left France for Syria — most of whom are French citizens — have the right a fair trial. Many French people fear returnees would escape justice — but that's very unlikely. French law has become much tougher regarding terrorism-related acts over the past decade. The mere fact that a person traveled to Syria to join 'IS' now carries a long prison sentence. And, French 'IS' sympathizers know this.

Paratroopers patrol under the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France

Since January 2015, 260 people have died in Islamist attacks in France

Naturally, some 'IS' supporters remain unrepentant. Standing up for the human rights of individuals who may have participated in or supported Shiite Muslim massacres, the enslavement of Yazidis, the crucifixion of Christians, the murder of homosexuals or the attack on the Bataclan will raise eyebrows. But yet, these individuals are a product of our society. They must be repatriated and brought to justice, according to the rule of law. Every citizen is entitled to a fair trial. Judgments by European courts in the past week with regard to Syria have shown they are capable of doing just that.

'IS' lives on

France should repatriate its citizens from northern Syrian jails before 'IS' fighters liberate the camps. The terror organization has been making a comeback in the region. Insiders report that inmates have been smuggled out of one Kurdish camp for between €14,000 and €18,000. Fourteen French 'IS' prisoners — among them, the wife of Amedy Coulibaly, who participated in the January 2015 Paris attacks — have already vanished without a trace. Al-Hol's Kurdish prison guards have also warned that an uprising among the 60,000 inmates could prove impossible to control.

Watch video 02:39

France: A father fights for his daughter

As Paris continues postponing the repatriation of 'IS' sympathizers, there is a growing risk the women may flee Syria, go underground, form new groups and then possibly organize and return to France to commit acts of terrorism. It is therefore in the French national interest to jail 'IS' sympathizers on French soil.

Innocent children

That brings us to the 300 French children locked up the Syrian camps. Two thirds of them are younger than six years of age. They are neither "'IS' offspring" nor "mini terrorists," but are merely innocent minors. Most of them are too young to have even experienced 'IS' rule. They have grown up knowing only a grimy and cold camp. The older children, too, must not be punished for their parents' decisions. These minors are victims of war, and many are deeply traumatized. Leaving them to languish in inhumane conditions risks creating a breeding ground for tomorrow's jihadists.

A Kurdish official shows passports belonging to captured foreign 'IS' fighters

A Kurdish official shows passports belonging to captured foreign 'IS' fighters

France has a responsibility to these children. It must allow these children to live dignified lives. France, after all, considers itself the "birthplace of human rights."

For now, 'IS' is the only beneficiary of France's foot-dragging.

Watch video 42:36

Leonora - How a Father lost his Daughter to Islamic State

This article was translated from German by Benjamin Restle.

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