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Europe’s Dilemma: Take ISIS Families or Leave Them in Syria?

When Belgium said in March it would send some women who joined Islamic State (IS) back to the country with their children, Jesse van Etvelde welcomed the decision with relief. Although she knew that time would have been in prison.

She and her two children have lived in concentration camps in Syria for at least two years. She said her dream was to have children her father had fought for Islamic State. go to school in Belgium for that She is ready to pay the price of joining the armed group in 2014 if Belgium will bring her back.

“Maybe they realize that those who want to go back are sad and need a second chance,” 43-year-old Ms Van Eetvelde said recently in a WhatsApp voice message.

Many European countries do not allow people linked to ISIS to return, but some countries, such as Belgium and Finland, are now not allowed to return. It is listening to the advice of security experts and rights groups who say repatriation is the safest option.

“Europe criticizes the United States. It’s been a long time for Guantanamo Bay. But now you have Guantanamo in the desert,” said Chris Harnich, a former State Department counterterrorism officer. which arranges repatriation of American citizens in 2019 and 2020, said

Two years after ISIS lost its last territorial stronghold in Syria More than 200 women from 11 European countries and their 650 children live in two Syrian refugee camps, Al Hole and Roj, according to figures compiled by Thomas Renard, a researcher from the group. IS Egmont Institute, a research institute of Brussels

Although Europeans represent a small percentage of the 60,000 people imprisoned in the camps. Most of them are Iraqis and Syrians. European governments are facing increasing pressure to bring adults back to trial. Among the arguments that the neglect of countries violate their commitment human rights.

Security experts, rights groups and lawyers for those traveling to ISIS territories acknowledge that European governments face legal security concerns. This is coupled with political changes in countries that fear terrorist attacks. But a growing number of government officials and intelligence agencies say leaving European citizens in Syria is more risky. including that they may join terror groups targeting Europe.

Countries such as the United States, Kazakhstan and Turkey have repatriated their citizens to prosecute them and, in some cases, reunite them.

Kurdish leaders in the region overseeing the camps not prosecuting women The role under ISIS is often unclear. and because the administration is not internationally accepted any litigation Still can’t get them out of legal limbo.

Most European countries say they have no legal obligation to assist their citizens in the camps. And adults who join ISIS should be prosecuted in Iraq and Syria.

Belgian Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne said his government would arrange the repatriation of 13 women and 27 children within months after the country’s intelligence agency reported that ISIS had gained power in the camps. He said the authorities had been “Explicit advice” that bringing women and children to Belgium is the safest option.

This year’s EU internal documents described Camp Hol as a “small caliphate”.

“Returners are always at risk, some are low, some are very high,” Renard said, adding that those returning could exacerbate prisoners or attempt attacks. “But the consequences of non-repatriation outweigh those risks more and more.”

The rights group said that children didn’t do anything wrong and is suffering from sickness Malnutrition and sexual harassment NGO Save the Children said hundreds of people had died. And dozens of coronavirus cases have been reported in the camps.

There are also concerns about teenage boys traveling to ISIS territories as younger children with mothers born in Europe and at higher risk of aggravation. They were left behind due to different countries. Accepting only small children

Letta Taylor, senior researcher on terrorism at Human Rights Watch, said European governments are “Building a child’s level,” she said, “the most desirable thing is orphans. The least desirable are teenagers.”

Support group Reprieve said many women in the camps were trafficked, raped and forced into marriage and slavery in the home.

However, in many European countries Repatriation is still not a problem. A French intelligence official, who asked to remain anonymous to discuss the matter, said security analysts said part of the quandary was that women deported could face little or no jail time.

Britain has revoked British citizenship from nearly 20 women who joined ISIS, in some cases taking them to court to prevent them from returning. France has repeatedly rejected calls for deportation. Although some women protested the month of fasting. The Netherlands and Sweden say they may adopt children, but no mothers.

Ms. Van Eetvelde, a former cashier born near Antwerp in northern Belgium. Traveled to ISIS territory with her husband in 2014, now in Camp Roj. She hopes to return to Belgium for herself and her children aged 3 and 5.

She remains largely cut off from the world. And even her lawyer Mohamed Ozdemir said he had been unable to communicate with her in recent months. Cell phones are not allowed, so Van Eetvelde communicated with The New York Times via voicemail sent over the phone of another woman in the camp, to whom The Times contacted the woman’s family and lawyers.

in january A Belgian court has ruled against her participation in the activities of a terrorist organization. Mr Ozdemir said The court sentenced her to five years in prison.

Van Quickenborn said any woman who wanted to return to Belgium They must prove that they are not meant to harm the country. “If they do not distance themselves from the ideology of IS They will remain in place,” he said.

The repatriation plans are likely to put pressure on neighboring France. which has the largest group of citizens in Europe in camps and in prisons in Iraq and Syria. Yet as France spins from years of terrorist attacks, The government has opposed calls for repatriation of jihadists.

Although France accepts 35 children from the camp on a case-by-case basis, 100 women with French citizenship and most of their 200 children remain in the Roj camp, according to Jean-Charles Brisard, director of the center in Paris. for the analysis of terrorism

France is due to deport at least 160 of them in early 2019, according to intelligence documents published by the Libération newspaper last spring and The Times saw this year. But the situation in the camp was too volatile. French intelligence officials said and the plan was cancelled.

“We think this is going to happen. And the dominoes could start to fall along with other European countries,” said Harnish, a former US counterterrorism official, “but the French government pulled the plug at the 11th hour.”

More and more European countries are now working on it.

In Denmark, officials said this month that They will repatriate three women and 14 children, and Germany and Finland sent five women and 18 children back in December. And a German foreign ministry spokesman said last month that country in progress “Fully” to accept children from camps with German citizen mothers.

in the UK Conservative lawmakers have called for the repatriation of some British citizens. It argued that prosecuting them in the country would be safer than leaving them in the camps.

Parents of a French woman in various camps has filed a lawsuit against France in the European Court of Human Rights over the deportation of her and her children. her return to the country And three French lawyers have asked the International Criminal Court to consider whether the country’s policy has made President Emmanuel. Has Macron been involved in war crimes?

Starving French woman protests in Roj camp, says no water supply and many have respiratory problems (The Times didn’t publish her name. (She said she received death threats from ISIS supporters opposing their return to France.) “It’s very difficult to find doctors and dentists — there’s no medicine,” she said, adding: French women want to return “tried, jailed”

Jussi Tanner, a Finnish diplomat responsible for his repatriation, said the return of women and children is not a matter of “if, but when and how”.

“Repatriating them as soon as we can is better from a security standpoint than pretending the problem is gone when we look away,” he said. “Leave them there. But they will come back anyway.”

Claire Moses, Christopher F. Schuetze and Jasmina Nielsen contributed to the report.

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