A girl stands in the annex of al-Hol, a camp in northeast Syria detaining thousands of foreign women and children from countries including Canada as family members of Islamic State (ISIS) suspects. © 2019 Sam Tarling

The French government this week announced it had returned 10 children from camps for families of Islamic State (ISIS) suspects in Northeast Syria. The children were reportedly handed over to officials from the French foreign ministry who traveled to northeast Syria. French authorities have now brought back 28 French children from the region since March 2019, including recently a 7-year-old girl suffering from a severe heart defect. They should bring home the rest.

The removal of these 10 children—designated as “orphans or humanitarian cases”—from the squalid and dangerous camps in Northeast Syria is a positive step. But the mothers of two of these children are still in the camps and one child was reportedly separated from his/her siblings. And more than 250 French children whose parents presumably left France to join ISIS are still stranded in Roj and al-Hol camps, run by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the military arm of Kurdish-led authorities in the region.

Conditions in the camps in this war-torn region are appallingly overcrowded and unsanitary, leading to deaths in some cases. In these conditions, the threat of Covid-19 spreading rapidly is even greater. Only six confirmed cases were reported in Northeast Syria by mid-June, but the almost complete lack of testing in the region raises fears that the number of cases may be much higher. The region is profoundly under-prepared to deal with a major outbreak, notably due to restrictions on humanitarian assistance.     

Foreign women and their children in al-Hol and Roj camps have been detained without being charged or even brought before a judge, in violation of international law. Children are deprived of their fundamental rights to life, protection, care, education and, for those born in Syria, to a nationality.

Despite the desperate pleas of families in France, as well as repeated calls by France’s independent rights institutions and United Nations bodies, including the UN human rights commissioner and UN special rapporteur on countering terrorism, France persists in its "case-by-case" policy and piecemeal repatriations of children from the camps. Condemning these children and their mothers to arbitrary, indefinite detention in inhumane and dangerous conditions serves neither justice nor security.

By leaving these children and their mothers in danger, when it could bring them back to France, the French government is abandoning its citizens and turning its back on humanity.