Reports claim that more than 41,000 citizens from 80 countries traveled to join Daesh in Iraq and Syria during the nearly five-year rule of the terrorist organization, of which 13% were women and 12% minors. As the Daesh territories in Syria and Iraq contract, the question of what will happen to these women and children becomes more relevant than ever.
Theses international citizens face one of two possible fates: The first of which is to be taken back to their home country to be repatriated, while the second, and perhaps the bleaker one, is to be left in camps and detention centers in northern Syria and Iraq, waiting to be tried in Iraqi courts. The U.N. has criticized the "summary justice," where individuals are tried and sentenced in some 10-minute proceedings, with most being handed a death sentence.
This situation clearly demonstrates the struggle over deciding what to do with those who left for Syria and Iraq. In his article in the New Statesman magazine, Shiraz Maher, from the Department of War Studies at King's College London, wrote in February: "For all kinds of legal reasons, much of what is called 'battlefield evidence' in this case would not be admissible in court, either falling short on grounds of evidence or because of the manner in which it was obtained." Setting up trials for these adults would be a legal and logistical maze that countries would have to navigate very carefully.
One camp, in particular, the al-Hol camp in northern Syria's Hasakah province, has more than 70,000 members, ranging from civilians to family members of Daesh militants, who are placed in an extra-security division within the camp.
While the camp has historical significance for having been used in the 1991 Gulf War, it rose to prominence after the Deir el-Zour campaign, seeing to the displacement of 65,000 civilians, while an estimated 250 children lost their lives trying to reach the camp. The camp is currently administered by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group led by the PKK-affiliated People's Protection Units (YPG), who have expressed that they cannot continue to take responsibility for the residents of the camp and have been applying pressure on countries to repatriate their citizens and prosecute them in their own countries.
Gina Vale, of the International Center of the Study of Radicalization (ICSR), told Daily Sabah of the conditions of the refugee camps in Syria. She said the population in many YPG-run camps in Syria far exceeds their maximum capacity, resulting in scarcity of critical resources such as medical facilities, shelters, food and clean water, and many infant and child deaths have been reported due to overcrowding, malnutrition and poor sanitation.
"Education and psychosocial support are vital to facilitate the recovery and rehabilitation of young children, but many of the camp schools are over-subscribed and unable to handle the vast numbers of students with diverse needs," she said.
Vale also explained, "The role of the family unit, particularly their mother, [has] been critical to the continued indoctrination of young IS-affiliated minors [in camps]," referring to a different acronym of Daesh.
How are states responding?
Many states such as Belgium, France and Turkey have chosen to approach the dilemma in a way that favors the innocent children forced into Daesh. In May alone, 188 children were repatriated by the Turkish government, with several women also coming back home. France, on the other hand, only accepts children whose mothers are willing to be separated from their children, while they await their future in the camps in Syria and Iraq. Belgium took it a step further and has appealed to a ruling ordering the repatriation of Daesh convicts of two women and six children in 2018. The Belgian minister in charge of migration policy, Maggie De Block, said in an interview that, "[While] the children have not chosen to be born in such circumstances, the mothers' that's a different story. I think we have to assess the risks and not just willingly accept them."
While Western European countries have approached the matter of women and children from a pragmatic and realist perspective, prioritizing children, the same cannot be said about Central Asian countries, welcoming all those that return voluntarily.
To explain the disproportionate state policies, Ömer Özkizilcik from the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) told Daily Sabah: "Each [Daesh militant has a] story which is shaped by th
eir home countries. Similarly, the return of Daesh members to their home states is shaped by the policies of their homeland. When Daesh sympathizers left their homes for Syria, many states were relieved that extremists left them and went to die in Syria."
Countries such as Tajikistan have been following a much more lenient policy, allowing their citizens to return. Tajik Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda went as far as assuring people that the 111 citizens to voluntarily return from Syria and Iraq would be considered pardoned and considered "free." Additionally, women and children that followed their husbands and fathers to Syria and Iraq and did not actively fight would face no criminal proceedings. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have been following suit, with Kyrgyzstan working on establishing a similar framework.
However, this might be less than optimal. A report published by the ICSR shows that of the 72 returnees in Tajikistan's Sughd region, 34 citizens have returned to join Daesh in Syria and Iraq. Many would also warn against the growing risk of homebred terrorism stemming from the fact that the returnees came back "unpunished," or even the risk of lenient measures further encouraging other citizens to make the journey to Syria.
Fate of 'noncitizens'
It is these concerns that push others such as the U.K. to follow a much stricter approach on women wanting to return to the U.K. The case of Shamima Begum, a British citizen of Bengali origin set the benchmark for returnee policy in the U.K. Begum had announced in February that she wished to return to the U.K. after having run away to Syria from London at the age of 15. She expressed that she wanted to return, not because she regretted joining Daesh, but because she was concerned about the well-being of her unborn child. Her citizenship was revoked by Sajid Javid, then-home secretary of the U.K. While Begum's child eventually did not survive, Begum was left in Syria as an expatriate.
What happens to those like Begum in a country where there is no unilaterally recognized government and no working legal system is an important question.
Özkizilcik said the issue of stateless Daesh members is a huge risk for the entire world and the region as they are "an excellent pool of recruitment for terrorists."
"When Daesh re-emerges, these stateless people in their desperation will be the first to join the extremists. Additionally, other terrorist organizations such as the PKK/YPG or Shiite militias can also exploit the situation and conduct terrorist attacks via these stateless people," he said.
Özkizilcik continued by likening camps like al-Hol to Guantanamo Bay – a known center for radicalization among inmates.
The choices governments make in answering questions such as what happens to children born in Syria to parents with different nationalities or those born to expatriated parents will likely change the course of the region.