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Repatriate the Children of the Jihad

Photograph Source: Y. Boechat (VOA) – Public Domain

“Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? … And if it is really true that they must share responsibility for all their fathers’ crimes, such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension. Some jester will say, perhaps, that the child would have grown up and have sinned, but you see he didn’t grow up, he was torn to pieces by the dogs, at eight years old. … [The higher harmony] is not worth the tears of that one tortured child … And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.”

— Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

According to the NGO Save the Children, close to two hundred children born to French mothers or parents, most of them less than five years old, are confined to detainment camps with their mothers in northeastern Syria. Marie Dosé, a lawyer who filed a complaint before the UN Committee on Children’s Rights against France on behalf of these families in February, states that she has identified 149 French children in the camps.

The French authorities have facilitated the return of seventeen orphans and abandoned children but have yet to communicate the number of children and mothers in the camps who are French citizens. The children detained with their mothers are every bit as innocent as the orphans. How can this distinction be justified, either legally or in terms of the principles of protection of children?

For more than two years, these children have been subject to deplorable physical and mental health conditions, hapless victims of the unspeakable cruelty and brutality surrounding them. The infant mortality rate in these camps is the highest in the world: 144 per 1,000 children under the age of five. This means that one out of seven children will not live to see their fifth birthday. Dozens are orphans while many still have their mothers with them, and all of them have families residing in France who are anxious to take them in, school them, and help them reintegrate into a community of which they are rightful citizens.

An article in the June 29 issue of the French newspaper Le Monde described the gut-wrenching odyssey through Syria of the grandparents of the four Lopez children, who are held with their mother in the Roj camp in Al-Muabbada. The oldest child is nine and the father, Léonard Lopez, is awaiting execution by hanging in a Baghdad prison, where he was tried after being transferred from Syria under circumstances that led Agnés Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, who is French, to officially challenge the French authorities.

France has signed and ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child adopted by the UN General Assembly thirty years ago this November 20. Every year, French citizens generously donate some fifty million euros to support the French National Committee to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Nevertheless, the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights and the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights found themselves forced to urge France to repatriate the children with their mothers from the Syrian camps “in the best interests of the child”.

The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs hoped that the French men and women detained in Syrian camps could be tried in local courts, whether Syrian, run by the Turkish occupation authorities, or Iraqi, after illegal transfer to that country. France’s chief diplomat for foreign affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, was in Baghdad on October 17 to discuss the possible transfer to Iraq of foreign ISIS fighters held by the Kurds in Syria, no doubt anxious to take advantage of the ceasefire negotiated by the U.S. administration and President Erdogan. Iraq, whose courts offer no guarantee of fairness, has refused to try women and children. The Iraqi authorities did agree to try combatants who are French nationals, but only in return for payment, a sum that Paris has been careful not to reveal: a special synallagmatic contract, against any rule of law.

The Kurds, who have done most of the fighting on the ground against ISIS in Syria, are now suffering the offensive by the Turkish army and their Syrian auxiliaries. Hundreds of mothers and children escaped the Aïn Issa camp on October 11 as a result of Turkish bombing. Now forced to wander in search of food and shelter, these children have certainly gained nothing in terms of security or safety. The threat to the detainment camps from this offensive partly explains Le Drian’s request to Baghdad and his recent visit to Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. But how will the indictment of children and their mothers in Iraqi special courts help them resolve their legal issues, and, most importantly, help minimize the risk of their future or renewed radicalization after they are released from the Iraqi jails?

In an article in the October 24 issue of The New York Times, the journalists Neil Collier and Ben Laffin described the living conditions in the Al Hol camp, where children under twelve make up two thirds of some nine thousand foreign (non-Syrian) detainees. France has not had diplomatic relations with the Assad regime since 2012: its embassy in Damascus and consulates in Aleppo and Latakia were shuttered in November 2011. The children born there of French mothers are in a legal limbo: we saw this in June when dozens of French mothers, transferred from the Al Hol camp to the city of Raqqa (trusteeship administration), were unable to register their children at the vital records office, making it impossible to enroll them in the healthcare system or in school, or to find a way to reduce the terrible risks of abuse, exploitation, and trafficking to which they are exposed.

It is urgent, while the camps are still under Kurdish control, to initiate emergency repatriation of these traumatized children and their distressed mothers under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and to implement, under the authority of a judge-commissioner, a receiving facility where they will be safe and able to receive medical and psychological care in liaison with their family members residing in France. The mothers thus repatriated, guided, and resocialized will have a chance to reintegrate into society and atone for their tragic misadventures and failings. There is no alternative in terms of humanitarian principles or security concerns.

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Patrick Howlett-Martin is a career diplomat living in Paris.

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