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A woman wearing a burgundy hijab walks hand in hand down a dirt road with a young boy wearing a grey hodie.
Samira, originally from Belgium, walks with her son in Camp Roj in northern Syria. Her French husband is imprisoned for links to the Islamic State. She has tried to return to Belgium, where she says she wants to reintegrate into society, but their repatriation has sparked controversy. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Canada needs a plan to bring home the children of jihadists

The children live in overcrowded refugee camps, in unsanitary conditions, without education and sometimes without basic health care. And although they were born to Canadian parents, the children’s repatriation is neither popular nor considered a priority because they were born to jihadists.

The Canadian government recently announced the repatriation of Amira, a five-year-old Canadian orphan. Her parents, who had joined the Islamic State, were killed in 2019 in an airstrike on Baghouz, Syria.

This “exfiltration” came after a bitter fight led by her Toronto family, which filed a lawsuit against the Canadian government to obtain Amira’s repatriation. The federal government has been reluctant to welcome these nationals, as they are considered to be Canadian Extremist Travellers (CETs).

How should Canada deal with these children and Canadian minors returning from areas considered to be hotbeds and training grounds for terrorism?

The Canadian government has been repeatedly criticized for its lack of action and questioned about facilitating the return of children from extremist parents.

I am interested in the supervision of escapes from violence as part of my doctoral research. By studying the trajectories of individuals who have joined terrorist organizations, I have come to think about how states should supervise the return of these citizens. What are the main issues raised by these delicate and controversial situations?

Five children playing in a large mud puddle
Children playing in a mud puddle in the section for foreign families in Camp Al-Hol, Syria. Despite their mothers’ calls for a return to their countries of origin, governments are reluctant to allow their repatriation. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Mass or case-by-case repatriation

Unlike France or the United States, Canada has very few CETs in the Syrian-Iraqi zone: eight men, 13 women and 25 children. However, public opinion is divided between international obligations regarding children’s rights on the one hand and security imperatives on the other.

The Canadian government has always justified its reservations about repatriation because of the lack of diplomatic representation in these sensitive areas and the complexity of rescue operations, which require significant logistical planning. In addition, there is a lack of international consensus on the approach to be taken by states to deal with these returns.

This is difficult to justify in light of the principles of equality and non-discrimination: states have legal and international obligations towards their nationals. This selective empathy also hinders policy development and the implementation of strategies that would be appropriate to manage these repatriations.

On Aug. 31, the United Nations Security Council once again failed to adopt a resolution on the fate of foreign jihadi fighters — this reflects the crystallization of the two opposing trends on the international scene.

The U.S. and Russia support the systematic repatriation of all nationals who have joined the Islamic State.

Several European countries are campaigning for the prosecution of CETs to occur “as close as possible” to the place where their crimes were committed, and for repatriation to be considered on a case-by-case basis. This position is also shared by the Canadian government, which so far only repatriates “exceptional cases.”

This reluctance is due in part to the many obstacles facing the judiciary in trying CETs in Canada for crimes committed in Iraq or Syria. Indeed, it should be recalled that individuals who have joined the Islamic State are presumed to have participated in serious abuses and may pose a grave threat upon their return. However, the security issue deserves to be questioned here with regard to the children of CETs.

Children sleeping on the ground
Children sleep as dozens of women and children linked to Islamic State fighters wait to board buses and trucks, leaving the overcrowded Al-Hol camp in Syria. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Between moral panic and the reality of the threat

The return of CETs and their children has remained highly controversial due to security reasons and the risk of indoctrination. Research has highlighted the Islamic State’s methods of training Caliphate soldiers through the use of textbooks as propaganda tools.

There is an increased tendency in the media to systematically present these children as a new generation of “minor terrorists,” “time bombs” or “folk devils.” This can be linked to moral panic, a theory developed by sociologist Stanley Cohen, which points to the definition of a group of people as a danger to society. This in turn guides the implementation of stricter policies and social controls.

The very stereotypical portrayal of the children of jihadists makes them scapegoats for a situation which they have not chosen. The average age of CET children is six years old, which puts into perspective the risks that they are supposed to represent for society and shows the need of integrating them quickly into a normal life. The fear of welcoming these children because they have had presumed close ties with the Islamic State should certainly not hide the fact that they are held in detention camps in Syria where they live in degrading conditions.

A recent study showed the impact of the traumatic experiences of children returning from territories formerly controlled by the Islamic State. In the same vein, initiatives aimed at humanizing these children and shaping public opinion regarding their fate clearly illustrate the distress of families and the complexity of these issues.

Women in black niqabs and hijabs waiting together in a crowd
Women line up for aid supplies at Al-Hol camp in Syria. The camp has surpassed its full capacity, with more than 70,000 residents from the former Islamic State-controlled areas in Syria. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Synergy in interventions

Until international practices and regulations are harmonized through diplomatic co-operation, the Canadian government must address the issue of children who are at risk of statelessness because they were born in Islamic State-controlled territories.

Possible difficulties in the placement of siblings should also be considered, while special support should be provided for the reunification of these children with their families. It is also necessary to ensure synergy in the interventions. A multi-sectoral approach must be co-ordinated, particularly between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, child and youth protection services and mental health services.

Finally, at the risk of burying one’s head in the sand, we must reflect on what penalties adult CETs should face when they are repatriated. It would indeed be questionable for a country that respects human rights to organize only the return of orphans or to take children away from their parents on the grounds that they are CETs.

Canada must also develop a relevant strategy for the mothers who accompany these children and who have sometimes lost their husbands in these areas. They need to figure out how to facilitate their reintegration or their standing under the law.

These reflections are necessary, given that the Kurdish authorities have just announced the release of thousands of prisoners and families of jihadists from Al-Hol, Syria’s largest refugee camp. They are, for the most part, western citizens whose repatriation is still the subject of debate.

This article was originally published in French

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