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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Ethical Arguments for the Separation of ISIS-Affiliated Male Youth from Their Mothers into Rehabilitation Programs

The question of whether children of ISIS mothers should be separated from their mothers is complex and depends on a variety of factors.

The welfare of children and adolescents housed in al Roj and al Hol camps located in Northeast Syria has also been the subject of considerable debate among Western policy makers, with the UNHCR, as well as the U.S., having called for the safe and voluntary return of these individuals to their countries of origin or third countries, as well as for the provision of protection and assistance to those who remain in the camps.[1] While many repatriations have occurred, most countries have made them voluntary, allowing ISIS mothers to decide for their children if they wish to remain in the camps. Meanwhile ISIS children are being indoctrinated, endangered and the older boys are being separated from their mothers anyway due to security concerns in the camp. What is the best way forward and how does one sort through the ethical dilemmas of separating ISIS-affiliated youth from their parents in these camps?

Al Hol and al Roj camps in Northeast Syria were constructed to provide temporary shelter and assistance to displaced individuals, including refugees and other persons of concern to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). However, in recent years, with the fall of the ISIS Caliphate, al Hol and al Roj have been primarily used to hold individuals who are believed to have been or currently are affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), including foreign fighters and their families. Although the international community still refers to these centers as camps, they are essentially functioning as prisons, as the individuals in them are not free to leave and are considered criminals affiliated with a terrorist group with much debate about how and where to bring them to justice.

Currently the best estimates are that there are over 10,000 children in the camps. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that as of May 2021, 31,500 individuals, including around 9,500 children, live in al Hol camp. Of these children, around 1,800 were under the age of 5. In al Roj camp, there were an estimated 3,600 individuals, including around 1,000 children, with around 400 of these children being under the age of 5.[2] It is difficult to provide an exact number of children and their ages who are currently housed in al Hol and al Roj camps as the populations change over time with repatriations, ongoing conflicts in the area, additional detainees being brought to the camps, boys moved out of the camp upon entering puberty, escapes, as well as deaths and births in the camp.[3]

The conditions in al Hol and al Roj have been the subject of significant concern, with reports of overcrowding, inadequate access to basic services, and poor living conditions including abuse by ISIS women of those who have denounced ISIS, murders, the spread of diseases including typhoid and COVID, lack of sanitary water, etc. Likewise, there is significant evidence of criminality and ISIS activity in the camps. Male leaders of the group have been smuggled into al Hol; ISIS female hisbah (morality police) are active in both camps; threats, beatings, and murders are commonplace; and ISIS women attempt to recruit and indoctrinate youth into the ISIS ideology.[4] Male and female adolescents have been smuggled out of the camps into ISIS hands to become fighters and breeders for the group.[5]

Many countries have refused to repatriate children whose ISIS-affiliated parents are still living as they do not want to separate children from their mothers, nor risk that by repatriating the children alone, their parents who willfully joined a terrorist group may also be able to return due to family reunification rights.[6]

There are many arguments for keeping small children with their ISIS-affiliated mothers. For instance, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has a mandate to protect and assist refugees and other displaced persons, holds the importance of family unity and the best interests of the child as a key principle guiding their efforts. According to the UNHCR, family unity is essential for the physical, mental, and social well-being of refugees, and efforts should be made to preserve and reunify families whenever possible. This includes ensuring that children are able to stay with their parents or primary caregivers, as this is generally considered to be in their best interests.

The UNHCR guidelines on the protection of separated and unaccompanied children outline the steps that should be taken to ensure the best interests of these children and emphasize the importance of taking a child-centered approach, and of working to reunify children with their families as soon as possible.[7] In addition to these guidelines, the UNHCR has also issued a number of statements and policy papers on the importance of family unity and the best interests of the child. For example, in its policy paper on “Children on the Move,” the UNHCR notes that “the best interests of the child must be a primary consideration in all actions concerning children” and that “the separation of children from their families can have serious, long-lasting negative impacts on their well-being.”[8]

However, there are also significant concerns for the AANES and SDF administering these camps as these children age into adolescence and puberty. Many of the women in these camps do not want to live alongside boys who have moved into puberty and conservative Islamic practices preclude such. Camp administrators are also concerned about the risk that teenaged boys may pose to detainees and guards alike, particularly if they believe in the militant jihadist ideology promoted by ISIS or were weapons-trained by ISIS. As a result, boys who enter puberty are moved into an adolescent prison and rehabilitation centers. This piece discusses the ethical implications of moving boys from their mothers and the possible best practices in this regard.

The question of whether children of ISIS mothers should be separated from their mothers is complex and depends on a variety of factors, including the specific circumstances of each case and the best interests of each particular child. As noted above, the UNHCR emphasizes that efforts should be made to preserve and reunify families whenever possible. However, there are certainly situations in which it is deemed necessary to separate a child from their mother for their own protection. For example, if a mother is suspected of having committed serious crimes or is a threat to the child’s safety, separation may be necessary. In such cases, the UNHCR recommends authorities should take steps to ensure that the child is placed in a safe and appropriate environment, and that their rights and well-being are protected. It is important to note that the decision to separate a child from their mother should not be taken lightly and should only be done in accordance with the principles of the best interests of the child and the need to protect their rights and well-being.[9]

In consideration of the children and adolescents detained in Camps al Hol and al Roj, it is important to acknowledge that in most Western countries there are laws that allow for the removal of children from their homes in cases where there is a risk of abuse or neglect or where their parents are suspected of involvement in terrorism or other criminal activities. These laws are designed to protect the safety and well-being of children, and to ensure that they are not subjected to harm or suffering as a result of their parents’ activities.

In the United States, for example, the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) sets out the legal framework for the protection of children from abuse and neglect.[10] CAPTA requires states to have laws in place that allow for the removal of children from their homes if they are at risk of abuse or neglect. In addition, the Act provides funding to states to support child protection services, including the investigation of reports of child abuse and the provision of services to families at risk of abuse or neglect.

In the European Union, the protection of children from abuse and neglect is governed by the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, which guarantees the right to respect for privacy and family life and the right to the protection of personal data. The EU has also adopted a number of directives and regulations that address the protection of children from abuse and neglect, including the EU Directive on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse and the EU Directive on the rights of the child.[11]

It is important to note that while these laws allow for the removal of children from their homes in cases where their parents are suspected of involvement in terrorism, abuse and neglect, or other criminal activities, such measures should only be taken as a last resort, after all other appropriate alternatives have been exhausted. The decision to remove a child from their home should be made with the best interests of the child as the primary consideration and should be done in a manner that minimizes any negative impacts on the child’s well-being.

It is also important to consider Western statutes and policies on the imprisonment of minors. It is generally recognized by Western states that the detention of children with their parents can have negative impacts on the physical, mental, and social well-being of the children. As a result, many Western laws place limits on the ability of authorities to detain children with their parents, particularly in the criminal justice system.

In the United States, for example, the 1997 settlement in the case of Flores v. Reno established standards for the detention, release, and treatment of minors in the custody of the U.S. government. The Flores settlement requires that children be detained in the “least restrictive setting” possible, and that they be released from detention as quickly as possible to a parent, relative, or other appropriate adult. It also prohibits the detention of children with adults who are not their parents or legal guardians, except in exceptional circumstances.[12]

Similarly, in the European Union, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union guarantees the right to respect for family life and prohibits the detention of children under the age of 10 unless it is necessary and in the best interests of the child. The EU’s Returns Directive also requires member states to take the best interests of the child into account when deciding whether to detain a child, and to ensure that detention is used as a measure of last resort.

It is important to note that while these laws generally prohibit the detention of children under the age of 10, there may be circumstances in which it is deemed necessary or in the best interests of the child to detain them. In such cases, the authorities are required to take steps to minimize the negative impacts of detention on the child and to ensure that their rights and well-being are protected. [13]

Currently the SDF and AANES government have decided that it is in the best interest of all detainees to remove boys aging into puberty from the camps. This is for the safety of females who could be subject to their predation as well as for these male youth who may be subject to sexual molestation by adult females, further ISIS indoctrination, weapons training, and smuggling from the camps into terrorist groups.

Many of these male youth who were separated from their mothers were at first housed in prisons but are now being put into rehabilitation centers where they will receive educational and psychosocial services to help them be ready to reintegrate into society. Many of those who have already been strongly indoctrinated into ISIS ideology will also be given the opportunity to work with professionals to move away from ISIS ideology and find more proactive identities and means of expressing themselves. All of this rehabilitative care should make them more attractive for their home countries to repatriate.

While the costs of moving pubescent males from the camps involves familial separation, the rehabilitative aspects make it worthwhile, as providing this type of care and protection is in their best interest. A mitigating factor regarding the separation aspect is that the most progressive programs are also working toward offering family therapy between these male youth and their mothers in hopes of also deradicalizing and rehabilitating their mothers—making the repatriation of them together a more promising venture. If these prove successful it will certainly be shown that separation was an ethical and protective move made on behalf of the best interest of the children and such considerations may also be made for other ISIS children who increasingly are being surrounded by those women who decided not accept offers to repatriate and who are heavily invested in ISIS, endangering all others around them.

 

References:

[1] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). (2021). Syria: Al-Hol and Al-Roj Camps – Operational Update (as of 31 May 2021). Retrieved from https://www.unhcr.org/syria-al-hol-and-al-roj-camps-operational-update-as-of-31-may-2021.html

[2] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). (2021). Syria: Al-Hol Camp. Retrieved from https://www.unhcr.org/syria-al-hol-camp.html

[3] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). (2021). Syria: Al-Hol and Al-Roj Camps – Operational Update (as of 31 May 2021). Retrieved from https://www.unhcr.org/syria-al-hol-and-al-roj-camps-operational-update-as-of-31-may-2021.html

[4] Speckhard, Anne & Ellenberg, Molly (2021). The security risk of ISIS women smuggling out of Camp Hol. Homeland Security Today. Retrieved from https://www.hstoday.us/subject-matter-areas/counterterrorism/the-security-risk-posed-by-isis-women-smuggling-their-way-out-of-camp-hol/

[5] Thakker, Mona & Speckhard, Anne (2022). “Ransom for Freeing Captives”: ISIS-Linked Transnational Networks Formalize their Priority of Freeing ISIS Loyalists from Syrian Prison Camps.  ICSVE Research Reports. Retrieved from https://www.icsve.org/ransom-for-freeing-captives-isis-linked-transnational-networks-formalize-their-priority-of-freeing-isis-loyalists-from-syrian-prison-camps/

[6] Speckhard, Anne & Ellenberg, Molly (2020). Can we repatriate the ISIS children? Homeland Security Today. Retrieved from https://www.hstoday.us/subject-matter-areas/counterterrorism/perspective-can-we-repatriate-the-isis-children/

[7] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). (n.d.). Guidelines on the Protection of Separated and Unaccompanied Children. Retrieved from https://www.unhcr.org/protection/children/3b73b0d34/guidelines-protection-separated-unaccompanied-children.html

[8] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). (n.d.). Children on the Move. Retrieved from https://www.unhcr.org/children-on-the-move/

[9] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). (n.d.). Children on the Move. Retrieved from https://www.unhcr.org/children-on-the-move/

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). (n.d.). Guidelines on the Protection of Separated and Unaccompanied Children. Retrieved from https://www.unhcr.org/protection/children/3b73b0d34/guidelines-protection-separated-unaccompanied-children.html

[10] Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 5101 et seq. (2018)

Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. (2000). Retrieved from https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:12012P/TXT&from=EN

[11] Directive 2011/92/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 13 December 2011 on combating the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children and child pornography, and replacing Council Framework Decision 2004/68/JHA. (2011). Retrieved from https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:32011L0092&from=EN

Directive 2016/800 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 May 2016 on the protection of children’s rights in relation to criminal proceedings. (2016). Retrieved from https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:32016L0800&from=EN

[12] Flores v. Reno, 137 F.3d 1262 (9th Cir. 1997)

Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. (2000). Retrieved from https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:12012P/TXT&from=EN

[13] Directive 2008/115/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 2008 on common standards and procedures in Member States for returning illegally staying third-country nationals. (2008). Retrieved from https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:32008L0115&from=EN

author avatar
Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past three years, she has interviewed ISIS (n=239) defectors, returnees and prisoners as well as al Shabaab cadres (n=16) and their family members (n=25) as well as ideologues (n=2), studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 175 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 125 Facebook campaigns globally. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting with governments on issues of repatriation and rehabilitation. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhardWebsite: and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard. Molly Ellenberg is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE]. Molly is a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Maryland. She holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego.
Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg
Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past three years, she has interviewed ISIS (n=239) defectors, returnees and prisoners as well as al Shabaab cadres (n=16) and their family members (n=25) as well as ideologues (n=2), studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 175 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 125 Facebook campaigns globally. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting with governments on issues of repatriation and rehabilitation. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhardWebsite: and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard. Molly Ellenberg is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE]. Molly is a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Maryland. She holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego.

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