Europe is repatriating increasing numbers of its Islamic State-linked women and children, who have languished for years in Syrian camps. The latest influx arrived in France this week, in a move welcomed by rights groups as positive but not enough.
The 51 women and children who landed in Paris Tuesday amount to the French government’s biggest intake of citizens linked to the Islamic State terror group to date. Their arrival underscores a sea change in France’s longstanding policy of case-by-case repatriations.
“This is a welcome and long overdue step, but it's clearly not enough,” said Letta Tayler, a counterterrorism specialist for Human Rights Watch.
Like other rights groups, HRW has long advocated for countries to bring their citizens home from Iraq and Syria.
“These children and mothers are living in horrific conditions,” Tayler said. “They lack sufficient food, clean water, medical care, education.”
The shift to repatriations is also happening elsewhere in Europe. Last month, Belgium flew home 22 women and children. Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands have organized similar returns in recent months.
Among the latest repatriated to France is Emilie Konig, a Muslim convert from Brittany, who became a notorious Islamic State recruiter. Her lawyer said she wants to cooperate with French authorities.
“Women will go directly to jail, either because they are to undergo trial or because they are suspected to have taken part in terrorist acts,” said Farhad Khosrokhavar, a sociologist and jihadist expert.
Khosrokhavar said that’s the near-term fate of most women returnees here and likely elsewhere in Europe. The children will be sent to live with relatives or put in homes.
“The problem is what will be done afterwards? Because some will come out of jail,” Khosrokhavar said.
Khosrokhavar said another major problem is children, who have been traumatized and will require psychiatric or psychological treatment.
Some of them do not speak French,” Khosrokhavar said. “They have to be resocialized. But who is going to resocialize them?”
A few years ago, France counted as Western Europe’s biggest exporter of jihadists to the Middle East. Today, there’s little popular appetite to see them return home — especially men, who carried out much of the brutality, including terrorism. Many died in battle, but some are at large or detained in Syrian camps.
“The number of men is at least a few hundred, at least if not more,” Khosrokhavar said. “So, the major problem will be with men. Their sheer number. And of course, the violence.”
But repatriation advocates say bringing jihadi fighters and affiliates home is not just the right move, but also the smart one. HRW’s Tayler agrees.
“There is a growing consensus, including in the security sector, that the risk is greater in leaving these detainees in northeast Syria, rather than bringing them home,” she said.
With thousands of people from dozens of nations still detained far from home, Tayler said, it’s a problem that won’t be resolved anytime soon.