Skip to main content

We write in advance of the 74th session of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (“the Committee”) and its review of France. This submission is an update to our 2020 pre-session submission[1] and focuses on violations by the French government relating to the repatriation and reintegration of French children from northeast Syria and the situation of migrant children.

Repatriation and Reintegration of Children (articles 2, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 15)

  1. As of July 28, 2023, an estimated 100 French children and as many as 69 French women were still arbitrarily detained in camps and detention facilities for suspected Islamic State (ISIS) members and their families in northeast Syria.[2] The vast majority are held in Roj, one of the locked camps primarily holding such family members. Other French boys, and young men who were detained as boys, are held in so-called “rehabilitation centers” and the Alaya military prison.
  2. France repatriated only 35 children between early 2019 and early 2021 and only on a case-by-case basis, and initially refused to repatriate women. The government repatriated women for the first time in July 2022, bringing back 16 women and 35 children. In October 2022, it repatriated an additional 16 women and 42 children,[3] and in January 2023, a further 15 women and 32 children.[4] In July 2023, it repatriated 10 women and 25 children.[5] In total, it has repatriated 169 children and 57 women to date. In addition, some women and children have returned to France after being expelled by Turkey, under an agreement between France and Turkey.
  3. As part of a seven-country study conducted in 2022, Human Rights Watch interviewed several family members caring for returned children in France, as well as a lawyer representing French family members and a psychiatrist who had assessed a dozen returned children, ages 3 to 15.[6] These interviews were supplemented by an online survey of family members. We found that many of the returned children were receiving psychosocial support, and generally were reintegrating well and doing well in school.[7] However, we also identified policy choices by French authorities that made reintegration in France more difficult and, in some cases, caused additional harm.

Separation of children from their mothers

  1. Women repatriated to France from northeast Syria are usually indicted and placed in pre-trial detention immediately on their arrival in France for suspected ISIS-related offenses. Children are immediately separated from their mothers, often on short notice. The psychiatrist said that for the children he interviewed, “It was the worst experience—more than the bombings and dead people and all of the horrors of the war. They were not prepared, their mother could not speak to them, there was no meeting to explain.”[8]

Inadequate Contact with Detained Parents

  1. Long delays, sometimes of several months, can occur before detained mothers can have contact with their children.
  2. French mothers who are detained or imprisoned for ISIS-related crimes often have limited contact with their children and may be incarcerated several hundred kilometers from their children’s place of residence, making regular in-person visits extremely difficult. For example, one mother was incarcerated in a prison in Réau while her son, then only 3 years old, lived in Saint-Brieuc, hours away.[9]

Delayed or limited contact with extended family

  1. In France, extended family members are often not allowed to care for returned children whose parents may be deceased or detained until the completion of lengthy assessments or investigations by authorities. In one case, a girl who arrived in France at age 5 spent three years in a foster family before her grandparents were allowed to take her home to care for her. Human Rights Watch also interviewed a French grandmother who waited nearly a year to be able to assume the care of her three grandchildren.
  2. When investigations of extended family members are prolonged, many children develop bonds with foster families, and the eventual transition to family care can further traumatize the child.

Delays in documentation

  1. Some families experience lengthy delays obtaining identity papers for returned children; in some cases, they had still not received their documents three or four years after returning to France.

Potentially Invasive Monitoring

  1. In April 2023, the French government issued a decree announcing that it would create a database to monitor all children repatriated from northeast Syria, saying the aim was to “guarantee their protection and prevent their participation in a process of delinquency or radicalization.” The decree said those who can be granted access to the list include state representatives, prosecutors, radicalization specialists, deans, academic heads, and officials in the healthcare sector. Family members and human rights defenders have appealed the decree, which raises concerns of potential stigmatization, discriminatory treatment, and invasion of privacy.[10]

Conditions for French Children Still Detained in Northeast Syria

  1. Conditions in the camps and prisons in northeast Syria are dire.[11] Health care, clean water, shelter, education, and recreation for children are grossly inadequate.[12] Women interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they hide their children in their tents to protect them from sexual or other gender-based violence, abusive camp guards, and ISIS recruiters and fighters.[13]
  2. Detainees, including many loyal to ISIS, have carried out attacks against other detainees, camp authorities, and aid workers.[14] The United Nations reported that 90 people were murdered in al-Hol in 2021, and 42 from January to mid-November 2022.[15]

Transfers of Mothers and their Children to Other Detention Centers

  1. Women including French nationals whom regional authorities allege are ISIS morality police inside the camps, or who are otherwise considered threats or try to escape, have been periodically transferred from the camps to a prison in al-Hasakah city. Many mothers told Human Rights Watch that they were transferred to the prison in al-Hasakah for weeks, or months, or to makeshift holding cells for days or weeks, for protesting camp conditions, and that in some cases the authorities made no arrangements during these periods for the care of their children who were left behind in the camps. In other cases, scores of these women’s children, ages 18 months to 13 years, including some from France, have spent nights with them in prison and eight hours a day in a heavily guarded day care center inside the prison compound called Helat. When Human Rights Watch visited the day care center in May 2022, children from several countries, including France, played in a courtyard, but the Helat manager said they feared for their future and were struggling to adapt to nights in prison and days in day care. Several of the 10 children from various nationalities whom we spoke with there told Human Rights Watch that they would rather live in the locked camps than spend nights in prison.[16]

Boys Detained Apart from Their Families

  1. When they reach adolescence, scores or possibly hundreds of boys, including some French nationals, are forcibly removed from al-Hol and Roj camps by Asayish intelligence and the Syrian Democratic Forces, a regional force backed by a United States-led coalition against ISIS that includes France. The boys are then placed in separate detention centers in the region.[17] A 2022 Doctors Without Borders report called the practice “routine and systematic.”[18] The United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism said “hundreds” of boys were removed from their mothers “in what can only be qualified as a summary separation based on an unproven security risk.”[19] In many cases, guards took the children without informing their mothers, and camp authorities did not respond for weeks or months to mothers’ pleas to know where their sons were being held, which would make their removals enforced disappearances.
  2. During the night of January 31, 2023, local security forces took as many as 20 boys, including at least two French boys, from their families’ tents in Roj camp. Some were as young as 12.[20] According to a French lawyer representing family members, the region’s Kurdish-led authorities told the boys’ mothers they had taken the boys because of pressure from France “to teach them a lesson for their refusal to be repatriated.”[21]
  3. A few hundred foreign boys are held in so-called rehabilitation centers such as the Houry Center, a locked, heavily guarded building with dormitories and a courtyard,[22] and Orkesh, a locked center that opened in late 2022. During a Human Rights Watch visit to Houry in May 2022, boys from about two dozen countries, including France, milled around the center’s courtyard or sat with vacant stares on cots in dormitories. An aid organization provides basic limited instruction in subjects such as English, Arabic, math, and music but the center lacks sufficient resources to do more.[23]
  4. In a statement on her six-day visit to Northeast Syria in July 2023, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism stated that children “seem to be transferred from one place of detention to another.”[24] She said that while efforts are being made to make the physical environment and resources in such facilities meet relevant international standards, the situation is particularly concerning for foreign boys left behind in the facilities—having been removed from the camps—while their mothers and siblings have been repatriated from the camps.[25]
  5. Dozens of other foreign boys and young men are held in a separate “rehabilitation center” at Alaya, a men’s military prison. When Human Rights Watch visited Alaya in May 2022, 30 foreign boys and young men were held there, confined for 23 hours a day to one crowded, locked cell, with one shower and one toilet, and with minimal activities. According to the prison manager, the boys came from more than a dozen countries, including France. Detained boys said they lacked adequate medical care and fresh food. A 19-year-old from France said his parents brought him to Syria in 2014, and that he was injured in a 2018 airstrike. He said, “Psychologically, I’m tired to death. I just want my mother. … I also need a doctor. I can’t move my left hand. My hand is dead.” During her visit to northeast Syria in July 2023, the Special Rapporteur on countering terrorism was given access to two cells with more than 12 children, some as young as 12. She said that the situation at Alaya “can only be qualified as one of the most severe forms of arbitrary mass detention of male children she has encountered.”[26]
  6. In February 2022, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child found that France’s failure to repatriate children from northeast Syria violated their right to life and exposed them to inhuman treatment.[27]
  7. In September 2022, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that France had violated the rights of five French women and children arbitrarily detained in camps in the region by failing to adequately and fairly examine their requests for repatriation.[28]
  8.  In January 2023, the UN Committee Against Torture found that in refusing to repatriate women and children from northeast Syria, France was violating the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.[29]
  9. Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the French government:
  • What steps is the French government taking to ensure that it has repatriated all French nationals who want to come home?
  • What steps is the government taking to ensure that the best interests of the child are being met for any French children who remain held in northeast Syria because their mothers decide not to come home and do not want their children repatriated without them? How does the government propose to evaluate the best interests of these children?
  • What is the timetable for these evaluations and any remaining repatriations?
  • In the meantime, what steps is the government taking to help ensure that the French children remaining in northeast Syria are receiving adequate healthcare, education, food and water, shelter, recreation, and other essential needs?
  • What steps is the government taking to ensure swift and regular contact between returned children and their detained mothers? Will authorities consider noncustodial options to maintain family unity?
  • What steps is the government taking to ensure that extended family members can provide care to returned children with deceased or detained parents without undue delays?
  • What steps is the government taking to ensure that any monitoring of children repatriated from northeast Syria and any sharing of information from such monitoring fully comports with France’s international legal obligations to uphold children’s rights to privacy and to be free from discrimination?

Human Rights Watch encourages the Committee to call on the French government to:

  • Ensure the voluntary repatriation, as a matter of urgent priority, of all remaining French nationals arbitrarily detained in northeast Syria, giving priority to children and their mothers, persons requiring urgent medical assistance, and other particularly vulnerable detainees.
  • For French children whose mothers decide not to be repatriated from the camps and prisons holding them and their children in northeast Syria, and who do not want to let their children leave without them, conduct or support, as a matter of urgency, independent, expert evaluations subject to judicial review and in accordance with applicable law and procedures to determine the best interests of the child.
  • Press the Kurdish-led authorities to reform the policy on separating French and other foreign boys from their mothers as they approach adolescence, providing for independent, expert reviews of each past case of separation and recommendations for future separations, and centering all such decisions on the best interest of the child.
  • Provide returnees with appropriate rehabilitation and reintegration services. Conduct regular and individualized assessments to tailor assistance to each returnee’s particular circumstances.
  • Ensure that returnees obtain appropriate documentation, including birth certificates and identity cards.
  • Identify long-term placements for children as soon as possible to avoid unnecessary transitions and upheaval, prioritizing family-based placements whenever possible.
  • Facilitate contact between the child and extended family members as soon as possible after the child’s return. Involve extended family members in decisions regarding the care and placement of the child.
  • Provide foster families with necessary support, including from social workers and other professionals with appropriate training and experience regarding war-affected children.
  • In cases where mothers are alleged to have committed ISIS-related crimes, consider noncustodial measures in lieu of detention or imprisonment whenever possible, such as probation, suspended sentences, restrictions on movement, or law enforcement monitoring.
  • If detention or imprisonment of a parent is deemed necessary, ensure regular and frequent telephone and video calls with the child/children, and frequent in-person visits of an adequate duration in a child-friendly environment. Ensure that the parent is detained in a facility as close to the child as feasible.
  • Ensure that any monitoring of children repatriated from northeast Syria and any sharing of information from such monitoring fully comports with France’s international legal obligations to uphold the children’s rights to privacy and to be free from discrimination.

Situation of Migrant Children (articles 10, 11, 12, and 13)

  1. Unaccompanied migrant children continue to face daunting practical barriers to access protection and care, affecting their enjoyment of their rights to housing, health, education, water, and an adequate standard of living.
  2. In Calais and elsewhere in northern France, French officials have regularly subjected children as well as adults to degrading treatment and failed to afford unaccompanied children appropriate care and protection. Despite regular calls from civil society organizations, authorities have not taken meaningful action to curb these abusive practices.[30]
  3. Police have routinely required migrants to move temporarily out of informal settlements while police confiscated—and often destroyed—tents, tarps, and sleeping bags the people had not managed to take with them. Police have also carried out mass evictions that remove everybody from particular encampments without providing adequate alternative accommodation. Moreover, authorities have not effectively identified nor taken specific steps to protect unaccompanied children.
  4. Local authorities and the Ministry of the Interior have periodically refused to install accessible water points, showers, and latrines near encampments in northern France, in some cases appealing or ignoring court orders to do so.[31]
  5. These tactics leave children and adults constantly on alert and focused on their day-to-day survival. Many of the children and adults Human Rights Watch interviewed for a 2021 report were haggard, sleep-deprived, and, as the French Defender of Rights observed in 2020, “in a state of physical and mental exhaustion.”[32]
  6. Across France, authorities require most, if not all, unaccompanied migrant children to undergo age assessments before the child protection system (Aide sociale à l’enfance, ASE) will assume responsibility for their care and protection. The routine use of age assessments does not comply with international standards.[33]
  7. Many children who are incorrectly deemed to be adults eventually receive formal recognition of their minority after juvenile court judges review their cases. But such reviews take months—sometimes nearly two years. In the meantime, they may face serious barriers in access to education and health services, even though education is in principle open to all in France[34] and some forms of health services should be available regardless of a person’s migration status,[35] and are dependent on the overstretched emergency accommodation system for adults or on the generosity of private citizens.
  8. In April 2023, French police and gendarmes commenced a large-scale operation in Mayotte, in the Indian Ocean, to demolish informal settlements and expel large numbers of undocumented migrants, nearly all from Comoros.[36] The minister of the interior, Gérald Darmanin, has repeatedly described the ongoing operation as an effort to combat crime, improve public health, and tackle irregular migration,[37] remarks that reinforce prejudicial associations of migration with disease and delinquency. This initiative has not meaningfully addressed the dire needs of the 80 percent of Mayotte’s population living in poverty.
  9. Human Rights Watch encourages the Committee to call on the government to: 
  • End the practice of seizing tents, tarps, sleeping bags, and blankets from encampments in the departments of Pas-de-Calais, Nord, and elsewhere in France.
  • End the destruction of informal settlements in Mayotte, and redirect efforts toward fulfilling the economic and social rights, including access to adequate food, housing, and water, for those living in the department. 
  • Ensure that evictions are not carried out if they would deprive people of shelter, make them destitute, or expose them to other serious human rights violations.
  • Provide accessible drinking water, showers, and toilets for people in migrant encampments.
  • Increase efforts to identify unaccompanied migrant children and offer them emergency accommodation. 
  • Apply the presumption of minority, as required by French law. Age assessments should be used only when authorities have serious doubts about an individual’s claim to be under the age of 18. Age assessments should seek to establish approximate age through interviews and review of documents, as recommended by international standards. These procedures should afford the benefit of the doubt so that if there is a possibility that an individual is a child, that individual is treated as a child. 
  • Ensure that all unaccompanied migrant children in France have access to education and health services, in line with French law and international standards. 

[1] Human Rights Watch, “Submission to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on France – 66th pre-sessional, 2020,” January 21, 2020,

[2] Human Rights Watch exchange with Collectif des Familles Unies, a family group for relatives of French nationals detained in northeast Syria, July 28, 2023.

[3] “Rapatriées de camps djihadistes en Syrie, dix femmes mises en examen et écrouées en France,” Le Monde/AFP, October 24, 2022, (accessed October 31, 2022).

[4] “France Repatriates 15 women and 32 children from Syria jihadist camps,” France 24, January 24, 2023, (accessed March 21, 2023).

[5] Republic of France, Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, “Repatriation of children and mothers from north-east Syria (4 July 2023),” July 4, 2023, (accessed August 23, 2023).

[6] These children fled Syria with their mothers in 2018 and were deported to France from Turkey in 2018 and 2019.

[7] Human Rights Watch, “My Son is Just another Kid”: Experiences of Children Repatriated from Camps for ISIS Suspects and Their Families in Northeast Syria (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2022),

[8] Human Rights Watch interview with psychiatrist (name and details withheld by Human Rights Watch), June 10, 2022.

[9] Letter from French attorney to the French Defender of Rights, December 2022; copy provided to Human Rights Watch by the author.

[10] Sara González, “France sets up controversial registry to monitor children of jihadists repatriated from Syria and Iraq,” El País, April 28, 2023, (accessed July 31, 2023); Human Rights Watch communication with a representative of Collectif des Familles Unies, July 28, 2023.

[11] “Syria: Repatriations Lag for Foreigners with Alleged ISIS Ties,” Human Rights Watch news release, December 15, 2022,

[12] Ibid. See also Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, “Technical Visit to the Northeast of the Syrian Arab Republic: End of Mission Statement,” July 21, 2023,
documents/issues/terrorism/sr/statements/EoM-Visit-to-Syria-20230721.pdf (accessed August 3, 2023).

[13] “Syria: Repatriations Lag for Foreigners with Alleged ISIS Ties,” Human Rights Watch news release, December 15, 2022, See also Courtney Kube and Carol E. Lee, “ISIS infiltrated a refugee camp to recruit fighters. Inside the Biden admin’s plan to stop it,” NBC, October 6, 2022, (accessed February 15, 2023).

[14] Rojava Information Center, High Value Arrest and High Profile Assassinations Kick Off New Year, February 7, 2021, (accessed September 8, 2022); Jane Arraf, “Violence Erupts at Syrian Camp for ISIS Families, Leaving a Child Dead,” New York Times, February 9, 2022, (accessed September 8, 2022).

[15] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Joint Statement on the Killing of a Humanitarian Aid Worker, Al Hol Camp,” statement by UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria, Mr. Imran Riza, and Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, Mr. Muhannad Hadi, January 12, 2022, (accessed September 8, 2022); “Syria: UN Human Rights Chief condemns brutal killing of two girls, alarmed by sharp rise in violence at Al-Hol camp,” Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) press release, November 18, 2022, (accessed July 25, 2023).

[16] “Syria: Repatriations Lag for Foreigners with Alleged ISIS Ties,” Human Rights Watch news release, December 15, 2022,

[17] Ibid. See also Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, “Technical Visit to the Northeast of the Syrian Arab Republic: End of Mission Statement,” July 2023,
documents/issues/terrorism/sr/statements/EoM-Visit-to-Syria-20230721.pdf, paras. 9-10; and UN Human Rights Council, “Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic,” A/HRC/51/45, September 14, 2022, (accessed January 17, 2023).

[18] Médecins Sans Frontières, Between two fires: Danger and desperation in Syria’s Al-Hol camp, November 2022, (accessed July 25, 2023).

[19] The United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism said the separation practice “constitutes at a minimum, in the Special Rapporteur’s view a disappearance under international law, in direct contravention of articles 9, 19, and 37 of the CRC, articles 7 and 9 of the ICCPR, and articles 1, 2 and 16 of the CAT. Such systematic acts may further engage core international crimes under a universal jurisdiction framework.”, para. 9.

[20] “UN Experts Alarmed by Reports of Boys Taken from Camp Roj by De Facto Authorities,” OHCHR press release, February 16, 2023,,authorities%20in%20North%2Deast%20Syria (accessed July 25, 2023).

[21] Communication from French attorney to Human Rights Watch, February 8, 2023.

[22] Human Rights Watch visits to Houry center, northeast Syria, June 24, 2019 and May 15, 2022. See also "Syria: Repatriations Lag for Foreigners with Alleged ISIS Ties,” Human Rights Watch news release, December 15, 2022.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, “Technical Visit to the Northeast of the Syrian Arab Republic: End of Mission Statement,” July 21, 2023,, para. 15.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., para. 14.

[27] “France violated rights of French children detained in Syria by failing to repatriate them, UN committee finds,” OHCHR press release, February 24, 2022, (accessed April 6, 2023).

[28] “Requests for repatriation of applicants’ daughters and grandchildren held in camps in Syria rejected without any formal decision or judicial review ensuring lack of arbitrariness: violation of Article 3 § 2 of Protocol No. 4 to the Convention,” European Court of Human Rights press release, September 14, 2022, (accessed April 6, 2023).

[29] « Français dans les camps syriens : Paris enfreint la Convention contre la torture, estime l’ONU », Le Monde/AFP, January 21, 2023, (accessed April 6, 2023); High Council for Human Rights of Iran, “France accused of violating the Convention against Torture,” January 23, 2023, (accessed July 31, 2023).

[30] Human Rights Watch, Enforced Misery: The Degrading Treatment of Migrant Children and Adults in Northern France (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2021),; Human Rights Watch interview with Utopia 56, Paris, March 27, 2023.

[31] Most recently, for instance, the Calvados prefecture and the mayor of Ouistreham, a commune on the English Channel about 20 km northeast of Caen, appealed a June 2023 administrative court order to install such facilities. A Conseil d’État judge upheld the court order the following month. CE Juge des Référés, Ordonnance du 3 juillet 2023, Nos. 475136, 475262 (on file with Human Rights Watch). See also Frédérique Jourdaa, “La commune de Ouistreham devra bien assurer aux migrants un accès à l’eau, tranche le Conseil d’État,” Ouest-France, July 5, 2023, (accessed August 23, 2023).

[32] Défenseure des droits, “Visite de la défenseure des droits mardi 22 et mercredi 23 septembre à Calais,” September 24, 2020, pp. 1-2, (accessed August 23, 2023).

[33] See, for example, S.E.M.A. v. France, Communication No. 130/2020, Committee on the Rights of the Child, U.N. Doc. CRC/C/92/D/130/2020 (March 6, 2023).

[34] Code de l’éducation, art. L.111-1; Ministère de l’Éducation nationale, Circulaire n° 2012-141, section 1.2 (October 2, 2012).

[35] See Direction des affaires juridiques et Direction des patients, des usagers et des associations, Hôpitaux de Paris, Accueil et accompagnement des mineurs non accompagnés : points de repères juridiques et recommandations (Paris: Hôpitaux de Paris, 2018).

[36] See, for example, Michael Garcia Bochenek (Human Rights Watch), “French Police Forcibly Oust Undocumented Migrants from Mayotte,” April 27, 2023,; Jérôme Talpin, “À Mayotte, Darmanin annonce la prolongation de l’opération « Wuambushu »,” Le Monde, June 26, 2023, (accessed August 23, 2023); Meerie Jesuthasan, “‘Insulted, Humiliated, Hunted’: Plight of Migrants as Slums Razed in French Territory of Mayotte,” Guardian, May 31, 2023, (accessed August 23, 2023).

[37] See, for example, Julia Pascual, “Mayotte dans l’expectative, en attendant l’opération de « décasage » d’envergure « Wuambushu »,” Le Monde, April 25, 2023, (accessed August 23, 2023).

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country