A woman walks with a child in Roj camp, which holds foreign wives and children of Islamic State (ISIS) members, in northeast Syria, September 2018.

© 2018 Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

(Tunis) –Tunisia’s action on January 23, 2020, to bring home from Libya six orphaned children of suspected Islamic State (also known as ISIS) members is a step toward protecting the rights of these children, Human Rights Watch said today. Tunisian authorities should now do their utmost to promptly bring home more than 36 other children of ISIS suspects who remain stranded in Libya, as well as 160 others believed to be held in camps and prisons in Syria and Iraq.

“Tunisia should move swiftly to follow this positive step with further action to bring home its children trapped in squalid camps and prisons in war-torn countries,” said Amna Guellali, Tunisia director at Human Rights Watch. “Children should not be punished for the purported crimes of their parents.”

The repatriation of the six orphans follows other repatriations in 2017 and 2018, when the Tunisian government brought home three other children of ISIS suspects from Libya. The fathers and mothers of the orphans were reportedly killed in 2016 airstrikes on Sirte, which at the time was an ISIS stronghold and the group’s self-declared capital in Libya. Since then, the remaining orphans had been held in a facility in Misrata, in northwest Libya, that the Misrata branch of the Libyan Red Crescent supervises.

On January 24, 2020, the official Facebook page of the Tunisian presidency released a video of President Kais Saied receiving children who, it said, were the six orphans transferred after being under the care of the Misrata Red Crescent. The Misrata Red Crescent had posted on its Facebook page a day earlier that a delegation representing the Tunisian government had arrived to take the orphans home.

Moncef Abidi, an activist with the Tunisia-based Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad, told Human Rights Watch that the children remaining in Libya were held in prisons with their mothers, who did not want to be separated from their children.

All Tunisians should be allowed to return to Tunisia, given their right to enter their country of nationality, Human Rights Watch said. Tunisian children of ISIS suspects who are held in Libya, Syria, or Iraq should be repatriated to Tunisia without delay. Children should not be separated from their mothers or other relatives unless there is compelling evidence that such separation is in the best interest of the child.

Women who are held with their children, as well as men held as ISIS suspects, can be investigated and, if appropriate, prosecuted in line with international fair trial standards upon returning home. Children will have more access to their mothers serving prison sentences in their home countries than if their mothers are held abroad.

Children suspected of ISIS-related crimes should only be prosecuted as an exceptional measure of last resort. Children should only be detained as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time. The authorities should also respect the children’s rights to acquire a nationality, to family unity, and to education.

In the video posted on the Tunisian presidency’s Facebook page, President Saied stresses the importance of taking necessary measures to ensure that these Tunisian children receive proper medical and psychological care. Saied also calls for the return of all Tunisian children held in Libya, which he apparently had discussed with Fayaz al-Serraj, head of Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) during his visit to Tunisia on December 10, 2019.

In the video, Saied promises to take care of the children and to guarantee their rights. Taoufik Kasmi, Tunisia’s consul general in Tripoli and head of the Tunisian delegation visiting Misrata on January 23, told the President in the video that “there are still another 36 children and 20 living mothers detained between Misrata and Mitiga.”

About 200 children and 100 women claiming Tunisian nationality have been held abroad without charge for up to three years as ISIS family members, most of them in Libya and Syria, and some in Iraq, Tunisia’s Ministry of Women and Children told Human Rights Watch in December 2018. Many of the children were age 6 or younger.

Most of the children of ISIS suspects have been living in squalid tent camps in northeast Syria with shortages of food, clothing, and medicine, or in overcrowded prison cells in Libya. An April 2018 report on Libya by the UN High Commission for Human Rights described Mitiga prison in Tripoli and al-Jawiyyah prison in Misrata as “facilities notorious for endemic torture and other human rights violations or abuses,” including against women and children. However, that report did not specifically mention conditions for family members of ISIS suspects.  

Authorities in northeast Syria and Libya have asked home countries to take back the women and children. A Kurdish-led coalition controlling the camps and prison in Syria has made no moves to prosecute non-Syrian ISIS suspects or family members.

Competing Libyan authorities in Tripoli, Misrata, and eastern Libya hold an unknown number of adult ISIS suspects, most of them foreigners, whom the authorities plan to prosecute. Libya has an abhorrent record of trials that do not guarantee defendants’ right to fair trials. Iraq has prosecuted foreign adults and children as young as 9 for links to ISIS – often in procedures that fail fair trial standards – but has also asked home countries to take the children back.

Although inconsistent in their approach, at least 18 countries ranging from the United States to Kosovo and Australia have brought home children, and in some cases women or men from the camps and prisons for ISIS suspects and family members in Iraq, Libya, and northeast Syria, showing that it is possible. Three Central Asian states - KazakhstanUzbekistan, and Tajikistan - have repatriated more than 750 nationals. 

The authorities detaining ISIS suspects and family members in Libya, Syria, and Iraq should ensure that detention is imposed only according to the law, on individually based accusations or charges, and respecting all basic rights of detainees guaranteed by international law. These include the rights to prompt judicial review of detention, and to adequate food, health, and shelter.

Since April 2019, the GNA has been battling fighters affiliated with the eastern-based armed group known as Libyan National Army (LNA) under the command of General Khalifa Hiftar, who is trying to seize control of the capital. Civilians in western Libya, including people held in detention centers, risk harm from the intense and indiscriminate nature of this fighting, which has resulted in the injury or death of hundreds of civilians and destruction of infrastructure.

Earlier efforts to repatriate all Tunisian children from Libya yielded no results. In April 2017, an official Tunisian delegation visited representatives of the GNA in Tripoli. The delegation brought DNA kits to help determine the children’s identities but didn’t use them because the Libyan and Tunisian authorities failed to agree on terms for the transfer, three Tunisian government officials told Human Rights Watch.

The Tripoli-based GNA wanted the Tunisians to bring home the women, the children, and at least 80 corpses in a morgue that they said were dead Tunisian ISIS fighters. The Tunisians said they were, at most, willing to bring back the children as a first step, fearing that the mothers were a greater security risk, the government officials said.