This week, Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Keith Rowley reportedly made a commitment that scores of Trinidadians detained in unconscionable conditions in northeast Syria and Iraq have waited four years to hear: the government will bring them home. The prime minister is making the right choice morally, legally, and strategically.
To be sure, bringing back these detained Trinidadians is a sensitive issue. They are, after all, Islamic State (ISIS) suspects and their family members. But as our research found, at least 56 of these 90 or more detained Trinis are children who never chose to live under ISIS. Abandoned in locked camps and detention centers rife with disease and death, in conditions that may amount to torture, they are being collectively punished for their parents’ decisions.
We have also found that many children from other countries who were repatriated from the camps in northeast Syria are faring remarkably well. Most are in school, making friends, and engaging in typical childhood activities. There is every reason to assume that Trini children can do the same.
In northeast Syria, where nearly all the Trinidadians are held, not one Trini has been charged with any crime, or even had access to a judicial authority to challenge their detention. That’s unlawful. In Iraq, four Trinidadian women detained in a squalid prison with their seven children have been convicted of terrorism-related charges, but in courts with a record of flawed prosecutions and using confessions extracted through torture. This raises serious concerns about whether their trials were fair.
Commendably, Prime Minister Rowley’s repatriation commitment, at least as relayed through a new, high-level team that the government appointed to coordinate with detainees’ families, appeared to include the detained men. With the notable exception of the United States, most of the 39 countries that have repatriated some or many of their nationals from northeast Syria have brought home only children and women. Only about 13 Trinidadian men are believed to be detained in northeast Syria. Of those, only seven traveled to the region as adults, while the rest were taken there as children by their relatives, family members told us. That’s a manageable number.
Once home, Trinidadians who traveled to Syria or Iraq as adults can be prosecuted if warranted. Anyone considered a serious threat can be monitored if appropriate, provided the measures meet international legal standards.
The prime minister’s appointment of a three-person team as the direct contact for detainees’ families is another positive development. Several family members we met in Port of Spain in February expressed frustration over trying to communicate with the Nightingale Committee, a multi-agency task force assembled in 2018 to craft a repatriations plan.
The government should move swiftly to translate its promise into action. One key step will be committing to a prompt repatriations timeline. Another key step will be for the government to communicate directly with the public on this important issue, rather than leaving it to the liaison team to share significant updates as it did on March 27. A third is establishing rehabilitation and reintegration services for returning Trinidadians who have suffered severe trauma under ISIS, during their detention since early 2019 by US-backed, anti-ISIS forces, or both.
Family members of the detainees told us that they stand ready to help. “We are willing to assist the government in any way possible to bring an end to the suffering of our relatives,” said Raheema Khan, whose sister and six nieces and nephews are held in northeast Syria.
United Nations authorities as well as many military officials and other security experts share our assessment that repatriations are the only durable solution. The longer these detainees languish in northeast Syria, they warn, the greater the likelihood that ISIS will try to recruit the children and break detainees out of the camps and prisons there.
Governments have an obligation to protect citizens abroad if they can take reasonable steps to end their risks of death, torture, or flagrant due process violations. But aid workers and local authorities tell us that at least 42,000 foreigners from 60 countries remain unlawfully detained in northeast Syria, including the Trinidadians.
Prime Minister Rowley often reminds the world that Trinidad and Tobago is “small but not insignificant.” By bringing home all its detained nationals for rehabilitation, reintegration, and prosecutions of adults as appropriate, prioritizing the returns of the most vulnerable including children, Trinidad and Tobago could be a global leader on resolving this mass detention crisis.
Letta Tayler and Jo Becker are co-authors of the February 2023 Human Rights Watch report, “Trinidad and Tobago: Bring Home Nationals from Northeast Syria.” Tayler is an associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch and Becker is the organization’s children’s rights advocacy director. Twitter: @lettatayler @jobeckerhrw.