Senior officials from governments fighting ISIS are meeting this week, and they would do well to consider how better to repatriate children of ISIS fighters. Disagreements over whether or not countries should be doing more to try to repatriate their citizens, particularly the children, remain. Yet rather than focusing on those seemingly intractable differences, members of the global coalition to defeat ISIS could usefully draw attention to the need to ensure that countries that do repatriate have the expertise and other capacities to do so effectively. Many currently do not.
The numbers speak for themselves. According to the most recent U.N. figures, 66,101 people are being held in the deteriorating conditions in the al-Hol camp in northeast Syria, 96% of whom are women and children, with 66% of the children under 18 years old. Only some 350 children were repatriated between January and October of 2019, with almost three-quarters of them returning to Kazakhstan or Kosovo.
Meanwhile, too few governments have demonstrated a willingness to repatriate. Politicians often point to possible short-term security risks associated with the individuals or “dangers of sending emissaries to the region” to confirm citizenship, while minimizing the long-term risks of allowing their citizens, particularly children, to languish in detention camps.