In October, a 16-year-old boy was fatally shot in Russia after he wounded a police officer while trying to set fire to several police cars. It wasn't his family's first run into the law. In 2001, his stepfather was sentenced to 14 years in prison for terrorism after attempting to explode a gas pipe, likely as part of an Islamist organization. The incident added urgency to the question of what to do with the tens of thousands of children of Islamic nationals who are still in camps and prisons in Iraq and Syria. However, almost everyone dealing with return issues is preoccupied with using the children – who are already victims of violence and instability – to advance their own goals.
In October, several Western governments, including Sweden and Germany, sent delegations to camps in Syria to speak to detained nationals about repatriation of their children. None of the women they spoke to agreed. On their social media accounts and on Telegram channels, many of them said that they made their decisions for the good of their children – the children needed to be close to their mothers. But privately, they added their concern that returning the children would mean their government would forget about the mothers themselves and leave them behind in the camps
And they are not wrong. In interviews, several Western government officials found that their main goal is the return of children – they believe it is safe and public opinion supports such initiatives – and they are much less concerned about what would happen to the women afterwards.
Even if one of the women the delegations spoke to had consented to the return of their children, it is still not certain that this would have happened. The official policy of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which oversee many of the Islamic State's internment camps, is that only orphans and medical cases (sick children with their mothers) can be sent home. Mothers admit trying to pass their children off as orphans, but at least some have been caught. In an interview, a woman said the women were notified that their children would be sent to orphanages in Syria instead if they tried again. For the Syrian Democratic Forces, control over many foreigners, and especially children in camps, would potentially occupy a stronger position in negotiations with the women's home governments.
Even real orphans are not easy to bring back. Women have used orphans to blackmail grandparents at home. They said that if the grandparents paid a ransom, their grandchild could be repatriated. One case mentioned by several women in the camp involved a 56-year-old subsidiary of the Chechen Islamic State called Kadidja, who was detained in the al-Hol camp. For several months she hid four Russian orphans so that they would not be sent home. In public she said she did not want the children to grow up in a non-Muslim country with grandparents whom she considered non-Muslim. At the same time, however, she reportedly told the relatives of each orphan that she would return the children if they paid to be smuggled into Turkey. She let the children go after Islamic state fighters asked them to do so and supporters of the group abroad threatened to stop sending her the money they had given to care for them. According to other family members and camp officials, the case was ambiguous
Even in rare cases where a child is returned with an Islamic State affiliate, the child can still be used. In one case in Central Asia, a mother who had been repatriated with her child falsely claimed that the child's father was a man from a wealthy family who had died in Syria. The country's secret service knew she was lying. The man fought in another area nine months before the child was born. For almost a year, an official said in an interview, they have been debating whether to tell the truth to the child's alleged grandfather.
What to do with the children of Islamic state fighters is a crucial question not only from a humanitarian, but also from a security point of view. In countries with a long history of rioting, cases of children joining their fathers in battle are not uncommon. And while the majority of countries are still trying to keep children with their radicalized parents, some countries are doing the opposite in hopes of staving off the legacy of radical beliefs through children. For example, in Tajikistan, which recently experienced a bloody civil war, children who have returned from Iraq and Syria and who belong to the Islamic State are being placed in orphanages.
At the same time, these are children and the world should not give them up for away. They are already at risk of becoming the new face of Islamic State or some other group, and the more the world leaves them, the more likely they are to feel they have no other choice. It is for this reason that repatriation, with particular emphasis on deradicalization and reintegration, is crucial.