An 8-year-old boy in France loves Lego, dinosaurs, and wants to be an archaeologist when he grows up. A 5-year-old boy in Sweden enjoys hip hop music and choreographing dances for his siblings. A 5-year-old girl in another European country adores Disney movies, and can’t stop talking about “Bruno,” the character from the film Encanto. An 8-year-old boy in Kazakhstan loves math and learns poems by heart.
These children are all doing well in school and enjoy playing with friends. What they also have in common is that until recently, they were forced to live in detention camps for suspected members of the extremist armed group Islamic State (ISIS) and their relatives in northeast Syria.
About 38,000 foreign nationals—more than 60 percent of them children—are being held in al-Hol and Roj, two locked, sprawling camps primarily holding the wives, other adult female relatives, and children of male ISIS suspects in northeast Syria. Most were detained in February and March 2019, when regional fighters backed by a United States-led military coalition toppled the last remnant of ISIS’s self-declared “caliphate” in northeast Syria. Approximately 28,000 of the foreigners are from neighboring Iraq, while more than 10,000 others are from about 60 other countries. Several hundred foreign boys are also held in locked “rehabilitation centers,” or in military prisons for about 10,000 men suspected of ISIS links.
Of the children in the camps, nearly 80 percent are under the age of 12, and 30 percent are age 5 or younger. Many have spent the majority, if not all, of their lives in the camps.
The regional authorities, called the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, have repeatedly stated that they lack the resources to keep detaining the foreigners and have appealed to countries to bring their nationals home. Top United Nations officials have also repeatedly called on governments to repatriate their nationals from the camps.
Since 2019, approximately three dozen countries have repatriated or otherwise helped bring home some or many of their detained nationals from northeast Syria, including more than 1,500 children. Some countries, including Denmark, Finland, Germany, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Russia, Sweden, Tajikistan, Ukraine, the United States, and Uzbekistan, have now repatriated many or most of their nationals. A few, such as Australia, France, and the Netherlands, resumed or stepped up repatriations in 2022. Others, however, including Canada, Morocco, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United Kingdom, at time of writing had brought home only a token few.
Those who remain in the camps, including the thousands of children, are indefinitely held in conditions that are life-threatening and so deeply degrading that they may amount to torture. Detainees lack adequate food, water, and shelter, and hundreds, including children, have died from preventable diseases, accidents, and camp violence. ISIS targets children in the camps for recruitment and radicalization. Not one of these detainees has had access to a court to contest the legality or necessity of their detention, making their detention arbitrary and unlawful.
This report examines the experiences of more than 100 children, ages 2 to 17, who were brought back—or, in some cases, brought for the first time—to their country of nationality between 2019 and 2022. The majority were repatriated or returned from northeast Syria, and a small number were returned from Iraq. Through interviews and online surveys with their parents, other family members, social workers, teachers, foster parents, lawyers, psychologists, and legal guardians, the report explores their reintegration—or for those born abroad, their integration—into their home country, including their activities, interests, and schooling. It finds that the majority are perceived to be doing well in school and making friends. It finds that successful repatriation is entirely possible.
Human Rights Watch research found that the returned children enjoy a wide range of activities, including football, skating, cycling, dancing, crafts, and music. They enjoy jumping on trampolines, and going to zoos, the circus, and museums. Many of the children are very social, enjoy playing with other children, and have made many friends. They visit their friends’ homes and enjoy sleepovers.
When asked how the child is adjusting overall to their new country of residence, 89 percent of survey respondents—comprised of family members, teachers, and social workers—reported that the child was doing “very well” or “quite well.” Only four percent said the child was having difficulties.
The experiences of children examined in this report show that, notwithstanding the ordeals they survived both under ISIS and subsequently in captivity in the northeast Syrian camps, many are reintegrating successfully in their new communities. A grandfather of several children who were repatriated to Sweden in 2019 said: “It is possible, fully possible, for reintegration and recovery of children. My grandchildren are evidence of this. They have recovered in the most incredible way. This is an example that it is possible.… All children should have the opportunity to get a new chance in life.”
Most of the children who are the subject of this report are attending school, with many excelling in their studies. Seventy-three percent of survey respondents said the child was performing “very well” or “quite well” in school. Several respondents and interviewees said that despite the lack of educational opportunities in the camps in northeast Syria, returned children caught up to their classmates very quickly. A German grandfather of three children who returned from Iraq in 2019, said that initially, the children struggled a bit in school, but that now, all three are doing very well, and that his 7-year-old granddaughter gets top grades in her class.
Eighty-two percent of survey respondents described the child’s emotional and psychological well-being as “very good” or “quite good.” Only six percent said the child was “having difficulties.” Several family members reported that psychologists who assessed children in their care found no evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder or other significant psychological issues. A French psychiatrist who assessed a dozen returned children, ages 3 to 15, said that nearly all the children were doing well. Case managers working with more than 50 repatriated children in Germany similarly said that the majority of the children are doing well and that cases of children experiencing trauma-related difficulty are rare.
Despite horrific conditions at al-Hol and Roj and in Iraq, many mothers did what they could to protect their children from danger and the harsh environment. On repeated visits to the two camps in northeast Syria between 2017 and May 2022, Human Rights Watch researchers observed mothers homeschooling their children, reading to them, and taking them to camp health clinics. A Swedish mother repatriated in 2021 with several children said: “People expect that children from the camps will be completely mentally destroyed. That’s not the case. Parents do what they can to protect their children in the camps.”
Many of the returned children have experienced significant adversity. Due to their parents’ decision to join ISIS, the children were brought to or born in a conflict zone, where they may have witnessed violence or suffered injuries or other trauma. The fathers of most of the children were killed in battles to rout ISIS from northeast Syria or are imprisoned in the region. Some children have lost their mother as well or are separated from her. Many younger children are too young to remember life under ISIS, but suffered horrific conditions in the detention camps, often with adverse health impacts. Most had no formal education.
Not surprisingly, some children experience difficulties upon their return. A mother in Uzbekistan said her 13-year-old son was traumatized by the death of his father during battles to reclaim territory from ISIS. She reported that he “is very nervous and fights all the time,” wets the bed, and has trouble sleeping. Other family members reported that children exhibited behavioral issues at school. Older children may experience learning deficits from the lack of education in the camps, and struggle to catch up to their peers.
Mental health professionals emphasize that returned children are not unlike other children who have faced adversity, such as refugee or trafficked children, and need similar psychosocial support for their reintegration. Many countries, for example, have long-established programs for integrating refugee children into their communities and helping them navigate the challenges they may face. Canada has resettled over 20,000 child refugees from Syria and countries in the European Union granted refugee status to nearly 60,000 children in 2021 alone. The situations of refugee children and children returned from the camps are not entirely analogous; to avoid stigma, for example, children returned from the camps in northeast Syria may need special measures to protect their identity. However, many countries can utilize existing programs and expertise to assist the reintegration of children from the camps, particularly considering their relatively small numbers.
Our interviews and surveys found that while many children are reintegrating successfully into their new communities, policy choices by some governments have made reintegration more difficult, and in some cases, even caused additional harm. In some countries—including Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden—authorities have immediately separated children from their mothers upon their return, either because the mother is subject to investigation or is being charged with ISIS-related offenses. Such separation can cause children significant emotional and psychological distress, according to both family members and mental health professionals. Some interviewees said that the most traumatic experience in the lives of their children was not the hardships of the camps, but separation from their mothers upon arrival in their new home country.
A Swedish mother who was separated from her children for three months after their repatriation in 2021 said:
In the camps, their mom is the only person the children trust. Suddenly taking the mom out of their life can be traumatizing.… During the three months of separation, my children were sad and confused about what was happening, and why they were separated from me. I felt the separation traumatized them even more.… Some of my children developed behavioral problems they didn’t have before. My 3-year-old son did not speak for weeks. His foster family thought he was mute.
Some respondents reported that children lacked adequate access to a detained or imprisoned parent, that visits were too short, or in an inappropriate environment for children. A French lawyer working with multiple families said that children whose mothers are detained “need more time with their mothers. One or two hours once or twice a month is not enough.”
Many returned children have extended family members, such as grandparents, who are eager to be involved in their care or support. Ensuring contact with these family members as soon as possible after the child’s return—particularly if the child’s parents are deceased or detained—can help provide the child with stability and support successful reintegration. In Germany, for example, grandparents or other extended family members are allowed to provide care for returning children immediately. In other countries, however, extended family members are not allowed to care for the children, or even allowed contact, pending lengthy assessments or investigations. A lawyer in France represented the grandparents of a girl who arrived in France at the age of five, but spent three years in foster care before her grandparents were allowed to care for her. In such cases, children may develop strong bonds with foster families, which results in more trauma when the child is eventually transitioned to family care.
Interviewees and survey respondents identified other areas where governments could better support children’s reintegration, including timely provision of birth certificates, identity cards and other documentation; ensuring multidisciplinary teams of professionals with specialized training and experience working with children exposed to armed conflict; and providing children with opportunities for learning assistance to address gaps in their education.
All interviewees rejected the view that the children are security threats, and many emphasized the importance of urgently bringing home the children remaining in the camps and prisons. One mother said: “The more you wait, the more you damage these children.”
Security and counterterrorism experts also emphasize the importance of repatriating women and children from the camps as soon as possible. The acting US coordinator for counterterrorism and special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Timothy Alan Betts, said in July 2022: “Leaving fighters and family members in northeast Syria is not a viable option; we risk these individuals migrating from conflict to conflict in a way that creates new strife and instability elsewhere, threatens our collective security, and presents serious threats to innocent civilians.” Similarly, the UN’s counterterrorism chief, Vladimir Voronkov, has said that inaction on repatriation threatened to “bring about the very outcomes we intend to prevent,” including “the radicalization and recruitment of a new generation of terrorists, and the strengthening of terrorist groups in the region and around the world.” In a briefing to the UN Security Council in August 2022, he reiterated the UN Secretary-General’s repeated appeals to member states to repatriate their nationals, noting that, “Those individuals, many of whom are children who did not choose to be there ... are at a very real risk of radicalization and recruitment.”
Under international law, all individuals have the right to life; to enter one’s country; to be free from torture and other ill-treatment, including in detention; to fair trials and freedom from arbitrary deprivation of liberty; and to a nationality. Governments have obligations to take all reasonable measures to protect the rights of their nationals, including abroad when they face life-threatening risks or torture. In all actions concerning children, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration. The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, has repeatedly stated that the urgent return and repatriation of suspected foreign fighters and their families from conflict zones is “the only international law-compliant response” to their arbitrary, indefinite detention.
All governments with nationals detained in northeast Syria should urgently ensure their nationals can return home, giving priority to children and their mothers, and to particularly vulnerable detainees, unless those brought back face risks to life or torture in their countries of nationality. Governments should provide individualized, multidisciplinary rehabilitation and reintegration support for these children and their mothers, prioritizing family unity whenever possible. The best interests of the child should guide all decisions regarding returned children. Governments should avoid separating children from their mothers unless absolutely necessary and in the best interest of the child. When possible, they should consider noncustodial alternatives to the detention or imprisonment of mothers, including placement in observation housing during investigations, or employing measures such as probation, suspended sentences, restrictions on movement, or monitoring by law enforcement authorities, for mothers who may be found to have committed criminal offenses.
To All Governments with Nationals Detained in Northeast Syria and Iraq
- Ensure the repatriation, as a matter of urgent priority, of all nationals arbitrarily detained in northeast Syria or following flawed trials in Iraq, giving priority to children and their mothers, persons requiring urgent medical assistance, and other particularly vulnerable detainees.
- Ensure all mothers or other adult guardians together with their children can return home immediately, absent compelling evidence that separation is in the best interest of the child, in line with international legal obligations with respect to family unity.
- Provide returnees with rehabilitation and reintegration services, including medical and psychosocial support. Conduct individualized assessments to tailor assistance to each returnee’s particular circumstances, considering gender, age, educational needs, family situation, and cultural background.
- Regularly reassess each child’s progress and provide additional support and services over a longer term, as appropriate.
- Ensure that returnees obtain appropriate documentation, including birth certificates and identity cards, and receive necessary support to enroll in health programs and access other social services.
- Enroll school-age children in school or preschool as soon as possible, and provide accelerated learning opportunities, including additional classes or tutoring, to enable children to address learning deficits and catch up to their peers.
- Ensure that mothers and children are not separated once in their country of origin unless absolutely necessary, for example, by providing supervised living arrangements when assessments or investigations are required. Such arrangements could, for example, provide social workers with unrestricted access to the home for observation.
- Identify long-term placements for children ahead of time or as soon as possible following repatriation to avoid unnecessary transitions and upheaval.
- Prioritize family-based placements whenever possible; initiate and conduct assessments of extended family members ideally ahead of time or as quickly as possible following repatriation to ensure timely custody determinations.
- Facilitate contact between the child and extended family members as soon as possible after the child’s return, including through supervised visits, if appropriate. 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.
- If separation of a child from their mother is unavoidable, ensure that the mother is informed of what will happen to her and the child and that she has an opportunity to prepare the child in advance.
- In cases where mothers are alleged to have committed ISIS-related crimes, consider, when possible, noncustodial measures in lieu of detention or imprisonment should security considerations permit, to prevent the separation of children from their mothers unless such separation is in the child’s best interest. Such measures could include probation, suspended sentences, restrictions on movement, or law enforcement monitoring.
- If the 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.
- Treat children affiliated with ISIS first and foremost as victims, recognizing that any recruitment or use of children below the age of 18 by non-state armed groups is a violation of international law. Prosecute and detain children only as an exceptional measure of last resort, in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, its Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict, and international youth justice standards.
- In cases where a parent is deceased, ensure that returned families are eligible and receive available death benefits, even in the absence of a formal death certificate.
- Pending returns, immediately ensure detained nationals have access to consular services without discrimination, and take all reasonable steps to protect their rights to life, to freedom from torture and other abuse, and to due process.
To United Nations Entities
Including the Secretary-General, the Security Council, the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT), the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict:
- Continue to press all relevant governments to immediately repatriate their citizens, giving urgent priority to children and their mothers, to provide rehabilitation and reintegration assistance; and to prosecute adults as appropriate and ensure fair trials;
- Support third-country resettlement for detainees facing risks to life, of torture or other inhuman treatment, or unfair trials, if returned home;
- Seek immediate increases in humanitarian access and aid to northeast Syrian camps and prisons with the goal of ending dire and often life-threatening conditions;
- Assist northeast Syrian authorities in transferring boys detained in adult prisons to non-militarized settings pending their repatriation or resettlement in third countries, ensuring maximum access to family members unless such access is against their best interest;
- Support prosecutions as appropriate and in line with international due process standards for adults accused of serious ISIS-related crimes, in their countries of nationalities or abroad.
To Donors and Members of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS
- Expand support to home countries to bring home their nationals, giving urgent priority to children and their mothers, persons requiring urgent medical assistance, and other particularly vulnerable individuals.
- Increase humanitarian aid, medical aid, and access to the camps and prisons in northeast Syria.
- Urge the northeast Syrian authorities to keep children with their mothers and refrain from transferring boys to adult prisons or detention facilities, recognizing the increased risk of radicalization.
- Take urgent steps to assist northeast Syrian authorities in transferring boys detained in adult prisons to non-militarized settings pending their repatriation or resettlement in third countries, ensuring maximum access to family members unless such access is against their best interest.
- Take urgent steps to ensure all detainees have access to courts to contest the legality and necessity of their detention, and work with the local detaining authorities to speedily and safely release those who are being arbitrarily detained.
Human Rights Watch conducted the research for this report between February and September 2022. We based our findings on interviews with family members of children returned from detention camps for ISIS suspects and relatives in northeast Syria, and online surveys with family members, foster parents, teachers, and social workers. Human Rights Watch also interviewed two lawyers, a legal guardian, two social workers, two case managers, and two mental health professionals working with returned or repatriated children.
The surveys and interviews represent a purposive sample, with family members, foster parents, teachers, social workers, and others identified through referral by lawyers, local advocates, and organizations working with repatriated women and children, rather than at random. The findings therefore may not be representative of all returned children.
Interviews and online surveys with caregivers, teachers, and social workers provided information on approximately 100 foreign children who were detained as family members of ISIS suspects in northeast Syria or Iraq who are now living in seven countries: France (6), Germany (6), Kazakhstan (39), the Netherlands (4), Sweden (26), the United Kingdom (1), and Uzbekistan (22). Online surveys were completed by 81 individuals, including 66 family members of returned children, 7 social workers, 6 teachers, and 2 foster parents. Interviews were also conducted with seven family members in Sweden, France, and Germany caring for a total of 24 children.
The individual children covered by the interviews and surveys were between the ages of 2 and 17 and had arrived in their current country of residence between 2019 and 2022. Interviews with a lawyer and psychiatrist in France also reflect the experiences of children and mothers who fled Syria in 2018 and were deported to France from Turkey in 2018 and 2019.
The online survey included questions regarding the child’s biological family, their current living situation, schooling, activities, language proficiency, contact with other family members, perceived emotional and psychological well-being, and adjustment to their country of nationality. The survey also requested information regarding services that had been provided to the child as well as additional services that might be desired. Each survey requested information on one child; some respondents caring for or interacting with more than one child completed multiple surveys. Not all questions were applicable to every respondent and responses were not mandatory, therefore the number of responses for any individual question ranged from 70 to 81.
Human Rights Watch provided the surveys in English, French, German, Kazakh, Russian, Swedish, and Uzbek. Respondents were informed of the purpose of the survey and responded anonymously and voluntarily. In some cases, the survey was administered by a local advocate through a telephone call with the respondent.
Human Rights Watch researchers conducted interviews by telephone or online video in English, or in French, German, or Swedish, with interpretation into English. We explained to all interviewees the nature and purpose of our research, that the interviews were voluntary and confidential, and that they would receive no personal service or benefit from speaking to us. We obtained verbal consent from each interviewee.
Most family members requested that Human Rights Watch withhold identifying information such as their names and locations to protect their privacy and the privacy of the children in their care. In some cases, the interviewee’s country of residence is withheld because the number of children repatriated to the country is so small that the person could be easily identified.
Human Rights Watch also reviewed relevant secondary source material, including media reports, government statements, and reports from the United Nations and non-governmental organizations.
Human Rights Watch wrote to the governments of France, Germany, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Uzbekistan requesting information regarding these governments’ policies and approaches to the repatriation of women and children. As of October 15, 2022, the governments of Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden had responded. Information they provided is reflected in this report.
Most of the children discussed in this report were formally repatriated by their country of nationality, with cooperation from the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and, in some cases, by or with assistance from third parties. Some, however, were taken from camps in northeast Syria by a parent or guardian, usually through human smugglers who brought them to their country of nationality or to a third country. For simplicity, the term “returned” children may refer to children who were either formally repatriated by their country of nationality or who were brought home by other means. The term also applies to children who were born in Syria and are now living in their country of nationality for the first time.
In line with international standards, the term “child” refers to a person under the age of eighteen.
The Detention of ISIS Suspects and Family Members in Northeast Syria
In 2019, following the capture of the Islamic State’s (ISIS’s) last stronghold in Baghouz, in northeast Syria, United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces rounded up thousands of men, women, and children who had been living under ISIS and transferred them to makeshift prisons and detention camps. The detainees included suspected male ISIS fighters and their family members from more than 60 countries.
As of September 2022, the Syrian Democratic Forces were still holding approximately 56,000 individuals, nearly all of them women and children, in al-Hol and Roj, two heavily guarded, open-air camps encircled by barbed wire. More than 18,000 are from Syria, approximately 28,000 from neighboring Iraq, and more than 10,000 others are women and children from dozens of other countries. None of the foreigners in the camps and prisons have been charged with any crime. Nor have any ever appeared before a judge to review the legality and necessity of their detention. Therefore, their detention is clearly unlawful.
Over 60 percent of those detained in the camps are children. Nearly 80 percent of these are under the age of 12, and about 30 percent are under age 5. Many have spent the majority, if not all, of their lives in the camps.
On multiple visits to the camps between 2017 and 2022, Human Rights Watch observed overflowing latrines, and tents flooded with rain or sewage. Drinking water is often contaminated or in short supply, and illnesses including viral infections are rampant. Medical care is grossly inadequate. The Kurdish Red Crescent reported that in al-Hol, the larger of two camps, at least 517 people, 371 of them children, died in 2019, many from preventable diseases. In August 2022, the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria reported that humanitarian conditions in the camps had “plummeted” and may amount to cruel or inhuman treatment.
The camps have become increasingly dangerous and violent, as detainees loyal to ISIS have carried out attacks against other detainees, camp authorities, and aid workers. The UN reported a significant escalation in violence in the camps in 2021, including reports of 90 murders, at least two of which were of humanitarian workers. Twenty-six people, 20 of them women, were murdered in al-Hol during the first eight months of 2022. According to the UN’s Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria, children in the camps are under constant risk of being injured, killed, or trafficked.
When boys living with their mothers and siblings in the camps reach adolescence, they may be transferred to so-called “rehabilitation centers,” or overcrowded, often makeshift prisons for male ISIS suspects. Scores of boys between 10 and 12 have been separated from their mothers, and some have been placed in military detention centers for adult men.
The Syrian Democratic Forces are holding about 10,000 men in prisons, including up to 1,000 detainees from twenty countries who are boys or who were apprehended before they turned 18. Most of the boys are ages 14 to 17, though some may be as young as 12. Families can visit imprisoned Syrian boys, but imprisoned foreign boys are rarely allowed in-person or phone contact with their mothers and siblings in the camps, mothers and detained boys told Human Rights Watch. In the prisons, food is scarce and overcrowding initially was so severe that many of the detainees slept shoulder to shoulder. Tuberculosis and other diseases are rampant, well-informed sources told Human Rights Watch.
Repatriations of Women and Children to Date
The Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, which governs the region, has stated that it lacks the resources to properly care for the detainees and has appealed to countries to bring their nationals home. Top UN officials including Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and former High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet have repeatedly called on UN member states to expedite repatriating their nationals for rehabilitation, reintegration, and if warranted, prosecution. In early 2021, 20 UN independent human rights experts expressed serious concerns at the deteriorating security and humanitarian situation at the al-Hol and Roj camps in northeast Syria and urged 57 States whose nationals were held there to repatriate them without delay.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, has repeatedly stated that the urgent return and repatriation of foreign fighters and their families from conflict zones is “the only international law-compliant response” to the situation of women, men, and children detained in camps or prisons in northeast Syria. She has said: “The evidence that third country nationals—children and women—are being abandoned by their governments in the face of incontrovertible evidence showing avoidable harm is overwhelming. The legal responsibility of those States is undeniable.”
In September 2021, the United Nations launched the Global Framework for United Nations Support on Syria / Iraq Third Country National Returnees (Global Framework), pledging financial and technical support to assist countries in repatriation efforts, addressing both the humanitarian and protection needs of returnees, as well as security and accountability.
Approximately three dozen countries have repatriated at least some of their nationals from the camps in northeast Syria. Iraq, which has the largest number of nationals in the camps, has repatriated approximately 3,100 individuals, including many children, from al-Hol. Human Rights Watch is concerned, however, that the women and children are confined at Jeddah, a camp where their movement is restricted, and identification is confiscated. In addition, Iraq has repatriated approximately 250 Iraqi children from detention centers in northeast Syria, but as of October 2022, was holding the children in detention facilities near Baghdad.
According to Rights and Security International, a UK-based human rights organization that tracks repatriations, other countries repatriated a total of 1,440 children from northeast Syria between early 2019 and July 5, 2022. Some countries, including Denmark, Finland, Germany, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Russia, Sweden, Tajikistan, Ukraine, the United States, and Uzbekistan, have now repatriated many or most of their nationals. France has significantly accelerated the repatriation of its women and children nationals, repatriating 16 women and 35 children in July 2022, and an additional 16 women and 42 children during two separate repatriation operations in October 2022.
By contrast, other countries have repatriated or accepted the return of very few. The United Kingdom, for example, has repatriated only 1 woman and 10 children, with an estimated 30-60 children and 15 women remaining in the camps. Similarly, Canada has accepted the returns of only four children and three women, including two women and two children repatriated on October 25, 2022, with an estimated 23 children and 19 women remaining in the camps. Trinidad and Tobago, thought to have the largest number of people per capita who traveled to ISIS-held territories, has accepted the returns of only two nationals, both children; more than 70 children from Trinidad and Tobago are believed to remain in al-Hol. Morocco is believed to have 250 to 300 children remaining in the camps.
In October 2022, Australia brought back 4 women and 13 children, its first repatriations since 2019, when it brought back 8 children. At least 50 Australians, including an estimated 30 or more children and 16 women, remain in camps and prisons in northeast Syria. As of November 2022, the Netherlands had repatriated 18 women and 44 children, including 12 women and 28 children brought back on October 31, 2022 as the result of a court order. Approximately 30 children with Dutch ties remain in the camps and detention facilities in northeast Syria.
In addition to Iraq, the most significant numbers of repatriations to date have been by Russia and Central Asian countries, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Collectively, they have repatriated approximately 1,000 children—nearly twice as many as all Western nations combined.
Some countries have repatriated a small number of children but refused to accept their mothers. For example, until October 2022 when it repatriated one woman and her child, the UK had refused to repatriate any women and stated that it will consider repatriation of orphaned or unaccompanied children on a case-by-case basis. The nongovernmental organization Reprieve reviewed letters sent by the UK government to seven women, refusing their requests for repatriation. In each case, the letter stated: “The Government assesses that [X] is a threat to national security having travelled of her own volition to join a proscribed terrorist organization.” The organization was aware of at least four women who had been informed by the UK that it would consider repatriating their children without them. Maya Foa, the Reprieve director, said that the letters “suggest a blanket policy of offering to separate mothers from their children—something the government has previously said is wrong.” The UK has also stripped citizenship of many nationals including Shamima Begum, who fled the UK at age 15 to join ISIS in Syria.
Canada adopted a policy in January 2021 stating that “due to the training and operational experience [CETs, or Canadian Extremist Travellers] … have acquired while abroad … they could pose a serious threat to national security and public safety if they were to return to Canada.” It said it would “consider” providing assistance to unaccompanied children; children separated from their parent(s) who are now de facto unaccompanied; and detainees whose situation has “changed significantly since the adoption of the policy framework.” As of November 2022, only three Canadian women and four children had been returned to Canada; one of the women was returned in November 2021 following a lawsuit that compelled the government to issue her emergency travel documents.
Several countries’ approach has evolved over time. France, for example, repatriated 35 children between early 2019 and early 2021 on a case-by-case basis, but initially refused to repatriate women. In February 2021, 10 French women in the camps went on a hunger strike to publicize their demand to stand trial at home. In December 2021, a 28-year-old French woman died in the Roj detention camp, despite repeated requests to French authorities by her attorney for her return to France for medical treatment for severe diabetes. In February 2022, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child found that France’s failure to repatriate the children violated their right to life and exposed them to inhuman treatment. In July 2022, France repatriated women for the first time, bringing back 16 women and 35 additional children. In October 2022, it repatriated an additional 16 women and 42 children during two separate repatriation operations. Approximately 150 French children and 60 women may remain in the camps. In a September 2022 ruling, the European Court of Human Rights instructed France to reconsider all requests for repatriation, giving those affected a fair hearing. French authorities are required, when considering requests for repatriation, to take into consideration the threats to their nationals’ health and lives, and in the case of children, their best interests.
Similarly, Germany initially refused to repatriate several women with their children, citing security concerns, but several German courts ruled that repatriating children without their mothers would violate German laws protecting family unity. In one case, the Berlin Administrative Court found that repatriating three young children (ages two to seven) without their mother would cause them “severe, unreasonable and unavoidable disadvantages.” Germany has subsequently repatriated 26 women and 76 children, and states that this number represents nearly all of the women and children in the camps who are willing to return to Germany. The German government states that it pursues a general repatriation policy of repatriating all German children and their German mothers from al-Hol and Roj who agree to return to Germany, and that it is looking into options for the repatriation of those who still remain in the camps.
Criminal Prosecution for ISIS Crimes
Numerous international treaties obligate states to ensure justice for victims of egregious international human rights crimes such as those committed by ISIS, which has carried out war crimes, crimes against humanity, and apparent genocide. In binding resolutions, the United Nations Security Council has called on member states to ensure that any person who “participates in the financing, planning, preparation or perpetration of terrorist acts or in supporting terrorist acts is brought to justice.” Northeast Syrian authorities have repeatedly urged countries with nationals held in northeast Syria as ISIS suspects to help them create a system to prosecute the foreigners, saying they lack the ability to do so on their own, but no countries have come forward. As no plans are underway for prosecutions in northeast Syria, the only way to potentially hold to account foreign nationals implicated in serious ISIS crimes is for their governments to bring them home for investigation and, if warranted, prosecution.
Justice efforts, however, must also consider that many women and children in the camps may be victims of human trafficking and that detaining and imprisoning mothers may run contrary to the best interests of the child, a fundamental principle of international law.
Some countries have prosecuted and imprisoned repatriated women for alleged association with ISIS or ISIS-related offenses, while others have declined to pursue criminal charges or have issued pardons for any offenses.
Of more than 90 German women who have returned or been repatriated to Germany, at least 26 have been convicted by German courts as of August 2022. Twenty-five were convicted for “membership in or support of a foreign terrorist organization,” usually in conjunction with at least one other offense, e.g., war crimes or crimes against humanity. Courts have imposed an average prison sentence of three years and 10 months. A significant number of returned women are investigated, but never charged or prosecuted.
The Dutch government initiated criminal proceedings in absentia against several women in the camps, but Dutch courts ruled that if the women were not returned to the Netherlands, the criminal proceedings would be closed. Twelve women were repatriated with 28 children on October 31, 2022, specifically so that the women could stand trial. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, all women repatriated from northeast Syria face prosecution on arrival in the Netherlands and are usually charged with joining a terrorist organization. Upon arrival in the Netherlands, the repatriated women are arrested and transferred to a terrorism detention facility, while their children are assigned to child protection authorities and subsequently placed with extended family, foster families, or an institution.
Of the 18 women returned to Sweden, two have been convicted for ISIS-related activity. As of September 2022, one additional woman was detained pending trial, while several other investigations were ongoing. Others returned to Sweden have been investigated, but not charged. All but one of the 32 women repatriated to France were placed in pre-trial detention. By late 2022, 27 were reportedly indicted for criminal terrorist association. One woman was also indicted for “crimes against humanity” and “genocide.”
In Central Asian countries, authorities have for the most part not detained repatriated women or pursued criminal investigations or prosecution. Uzbekistan, for example, has not detained or prosecuted any women. In some cases, returnees who violated laws confessed and were granted presidential pardons and suspended sentences. In other cases, law enforcement authorities have placed restrictions on the freedom of movement of repatriated individuals and may monitor them. While Kazakhstan has prioritized keeping repatriated women and their children together, at least 19 of 187 women returnees have been convicted of terrorism-related offenses in closed trials.
International standards state that children associated with armed groups or forces are generally to be considered victims of violations of international law, not perpetrators, and that priority should be placed on their rehabilitation and reintegration into society. In July 2022, France indicted an 18-year-old teenager upon his return to France for “criminal terrorist association,” and placed him under judicial control. Credible sources also indicate that Iraq may plan to prosecute children repatriated from detention centers in northeast Syria. The United Nations and Human Rights Watch have found that trials of ISIS suspects in Iraq violate fair trial standards, and convictions are often based on confessions obtained through torture.
Approaches to Reintegration
The countries reviewed by Human Rights Watch have generally taken a multidisciplinary approach to the care and reintegration of returned children, involving social workers, psychologists, and school professionals, and in some cases theologians, to individually assess the children’s needs, provide appropriate support, and ensure they are enrolled in school as soon as possible. Judges may be involved in determining who will take responsibility to care for the children, and in some cases, legal guardians are appointed to represent the children, particularly if they are orphaned. Typically, reintegration is coordinated by social welfare or child welfare authorities, either at a national or local level. In Germany, for example, several states have appointed “return coordinators” to ensure that appropriate agencies, including youth welfare and school personnel, are involved in supporting the reintegration of returnees. Governments may provide a range of supports, including housing, food and clothing, supplemental education, financial assistance, and employment assistance for mothers.
Arrangements for children’s care can vary considerably. Children may be placed in group homes, institutions, with foster families, with extended family members, or with a biological parent. In many cases, temporary accommodations are arranged (for example, with a foster family), while longer-term legal determinations are made regarding who will care for the child. In the Netherlands, children may be placed under observation for three months in a specialized youth care facility to assess their needs, risks, and protective factors, before the child is subsequently placed with extended family, a foster family, or an institution. During the observation period, a multidisciplinary team, including trauma psychologists, child psychiatrists, pediatricians, radicalization experts, and education experts, provides care to the children and advice to child protection authorities regarding longer-term services. In Sweden, children who return with their mothers may spend time in an “observation home,” where social workers have unrestricted access to assess the children and their mother. In Uzbekistan, children are kept with their mothers, while orphans are assigned to guardians or group homes.
In Kazakhstan, children and mothers are initially sent for an initial month-long assessment to an “adaptation center,” staffed with mental health professionals, religious scholars, lawyers, healthcare workers, and teachers. They then move to regional rehabilitation centers, where mothers receive vocational training and counseling, and children participate in cultural enrichment activities and classes to prepare them to re-enter the school system. After leaving the centers, mothers and children typically move in with relatives or friends, and children are enrolled in school. Children with special needs may be kept in rehabilitation centers for six months to a year. Some children are kept with their mothers in these centers, other children receive services at day hospitals.
II. The Lives of Returned Children
The children want to play, to go to school, to have a good family. They want what all children want—nothing more, and nothing less.
— a French psychiatrist who has assessed more than a dozen returned children
According to caregivers and professionals interviewed and surveyed for this report, many children are reintegrating successfully after being brought to their countries of nationality. Respondents said that most of the children are attending school, with many excelling in their studies. The children engage in a wide range of activities, play with friends, and are often intensely curious about the new world that they inhabit.
When asked how the child is adjusting overall to their country of nationality, 55 of 79 survey respondents reported that the child was doing “very well.” An additional 15 said the child was doing “quite well.” Only three of 79 said the child was having difficulties.
A foster parent of a 6-year-old Dutch boy said: “You wouldn’t say that the child was born elsewhere. There’s no difference between this child and his peers.” The foster parent said that the boy enjoys school and excels in his studies. He enjoys playing with other children, cycling, swimming, and playing football. A German grandfather of three children who returned from Iraq said: “The kids’ teachers say the kids are like other kids. They get good grades, have good behavior, have good friends that they visit in each other’s homes.”
Many of the returned children are keen to learn as much as possible about the world around them. A Swedish mother of a 5-year-old spoke about her son’s love of new experiences: “If he sees a firetruck, he wants to go talk to the firefighters. He’s curious about how things work and why birds fly. He has so many questions. He has learned the names of so many dinosaurs.”
Like other children, returnees enjoy a wide range of activities, including football, skating, cycling, swimming, dancing, crafts, and music. They enjoy playing with Lego, jumping on trampolines, and going to zoos, the circus, and museums. A 12-year-old in Kazakhstan competes in volleyball tournaments, while a 14-year-old, also in Kazakhstan, enjoys Taekwondo.
A Swedish grandfather said that his 10-year-old grandson saw a notice at his school library about a book club at the public library. “He found out about it himself and asked his foster parents if he could join. He just went to the first session and found it really interesting.”
According to their caregivers, many of the children are very social, enjoy playing with other children, and have made many friends. The mother of a 9-year-old boy in Kazakhstan said her son makes friends easily and described him as “joyful, open, and self-confident.” She said he enjoys playing hide-and-seek and scootering with his friends.
For all of the children, their new home country is significantly different than the camps where they previously lived. A Swedish mother who returned with her children said: “In the beginning it was difficult with everything. They didn’t know how to use the tap with running water, or open or close a door. But with each week, they are adjusting and making progress in understanding how to live in this new world.”
Human Rights Watch research found that many returned children enjoy school, are doing well in their studies, and are eager to learn. A Swedish grandfather of several children said: “They love going to school. It’s a place for them to be social and learn. The reports from their teachers are only positive. They are so curious about this new world that they haven’t experienced before.”
According to survey responses, the majority (65 of 80) of returned children were attending school. Of the 15 children not in school, most were either too young, or had returned recently and had not yet enrolled. For those in school, 27 of 71 respondents said the child was performing “very well” and 25 performing “quite well.”
Several respondents said that despite having no access to formal education in northeast Syria or in Iraq, many of the children caught up to their classmates very quickly. A family member of a 5-year-old girl said: “In Syria, she had zero access to education, so it’s remarkable how she excels now. She’s learning so fast, her teachers love her.” A German grandfather of three children who returned from Iraq said that in the beginning, the children struggled a bit in school, but that now, all three are doing very well, and that his 7-year-old granddaughter gets top grades in her class. A French grandmother said her oldest grandson, age 8, was one of the best in his class.
A mother of two in Kazakhstan said: “They study well, considering that they missed first grades and went to second and fourth right away. They always take additional classes to catch up on some subject and are always busy.” The mother of a 9-year-old boy said that only four months after their return to Sweden, he had nearly caught up with his peers in school.
A legal guardian for eight children in another Western European country said that the children old enough to be in school were doing very well. “I am a little astonished that they are doing so well, when you think about what they have gone through. I am very happy with this development, how they are doing.”
Five survey respondents reported that the child was having difficulty in school. These responses were generally regarding older children—one aged 17, one aged 15, two aged 13, and one aged 10—who may have greater difficulty catching up to their peers than younger children. For example, a mother in Kazakhstan said: “[My son] is 17 and he is in the 7th grade. He doesn’t want to attend school. He wanted to shift to an evening school, but there are no options for him. He has no friends as his classmates are too young.”
The mother of a 15-year-old boy in Kazakhstan said that before the pandemic her son had almost caught up with the curriculum. “He understood everything and enjoyed his classes.” But after school closures due to the pandemic, she said, “his learning enthusiasm has vanished.”
Even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the education system in Kazakhstan functioned poorly, with 6 out of 10 students “functionally illiterate.” During pandemic-related school closures, the Ministry of Education acknowledged that the internet in Kazakhstan was not reliable or strong enough to support live online lessons for 2.5 million children.
Of 81 survey respondents, 73 reported that the child was proficient in the primary language of their country of nationality. Many returned children learned their parent’s native language while living in detention camps in northeast Syria, while other respondents said the child became proficient within a few months of their return to their country of nationality. For example, according to their great-grandmother, two children (ages 4 and 6) “did not speak a word” of German when they were first repatriated to Germany in early 2022, but spoke “wonderfully” within a few months. The mother of a 4-year-old girl who returned to Sweden in 2021 said that her daughter quickly learned to understand Swedish. “The staff at the institution are surprised that she is developing so quickly. They think she is ambitious and driven.”
Emotional and Psychological Health
Over half of survey respondents said the child’s emotional and psychological well-being was “very good” (41 of 79 respondents), while another 24 said that it was “quite good.” Nine respondents said the child was “doing okay” and 5 said the child was “having difficulties.”
A family member caring for an 8-year-old boy in France said that a psychologist followed the child for a few months, but the visits ended because the psychologist found that the boy was fine. A German great-grandmother arranged for a private psychologist to see her two great-grandchildren, ages 4 and 6, every two weeks, and said that the psychologist was impressed with how quickly they had adapted.
A French psychiatrist assessed a dozen children, ages 3 to 15, as part of legal determinations over their care after their return to France in 2018 and 2019. He worked with each child for 6-8 months, and often with their extended family as well. “Nearly all the children are doing well,” he said. “They have a new life, lots of energy.” Case managers working with more than 50 returned and repatriated children in Germany similarly said that the great majority of the children are doing well and that cases of children experiencing trauma-related difficulty during reintegrating are quite rare.
Younger children often have an easier time adjusting to their new environment. For example, a mother of an 8-year-old in Kazakhstan said: “We were repatriated when my children were very young, so they remember almost nothing. For this reason, they are adjusting very well, as if they had been born here.” A family member caring for a 3-year-old boy who returned to Sweden in 2021 said: “He is the most happy child, very polite and positive always. He is curious and full of energy. The staff at the institution is so surprised by his development; no one would ever think he has been to war.”
While detained in northeast Syria, many children spent many of their waking hours with other children, but their socialization inside the locked camps was dramatically different than in their countries of nationality. Two parents reported that their children’s social skills initially lagged behind other children, but that they soon learned to interact easily with their peers.
Returned children had a wide range of experiences in Syria and Iraq that may affect their emotional, psychological, and physical well-being. Due to their parents’ decision to join ISIS, the children were brought to or born in a conflict zone, where they may have witnessed violence or suffered injuries or other trauma. The fathers of most of the children were killed in battles to rout ISIS from northeast Syria or are imprisoned in the region. Some children have lost their mother as well or, if she is detained or imprisoned, are separated from her. Many younger children are too young to remember life under ISIS, but suffered horrific conditions in the camps, often with adverse health impacts. Most had no formal education.
Unsurprisingly, some children experience difficulties after their return to their country of nationality. A teacher of a 15-year-old boy in Uzbekistan said both of the boys’ parents had died in northeast Syria and that he was living in an orphanage. He exhibited some behavioral issues in school and was receiving help from a school psychologist. A legal guardian in a Western European country described two children who were struggling. Their mother has been criminally charged and they were living with their grandparents. “The children have a lot of trauma from their experiences in [northeast] Syria. It’s difficult for them to adapt. But when you look at their starting point, they have done well.”
A mother repatriated to Uzbekistan said her 13-year-old son was “very nervous and fights all the time,” wets the bed, and had trouble sleeping. She said that while they were living under ISIS, “His father died in the war, and it affected him badly. I married another man and my son had difficulty accepting it. My second husband also died. It was very hard for [my son] in the camp.… He is adjusting gradually.” The most important thing, the mother said, is that after years of living inside a war zone, her son now knows he is finally safe and that he has enough food to eat. “My life was hell, and my kids were starving. No one is in danger anymore.”
Several respondents indicated that their child exhibited separation anxiety, often linked to separation from their mother after their repatriation. This is discussed further below.
While the conditions in the camps were extremely difficult, many mothers did their best to protect their children from harm. A Swedish mother who was repatriated with several children said: “People expect that children from the camps will be completely mentally destroyed. That’s not the case. Parents do what they can to protect their children in the camps.” She said that a psychologist assessed her children and found no evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder. Another Swedish mother of two said: “Despite being in a very dangerous environment in the camps, I managed to protect my children so that they didn’t have much trauma. The social workers were surprised that my children are as well-adjusted as they are.”
Dr. Stevan Weine, a psychiatrist who has worked in several countries with mothers and children who have been brought home from northeast Syria, says that while most returned children are either thriving or “managing,” a minority of perhaps 20 percent are “struggling.” He says: “This is not too different from what you would see with other vulnerable children exposed to adversity, such as refugee children.”
III. Barriers to Successful Reintegration
Although we found that many returned children are reintegrating successfully into their new communities, policy choices by some governments have made it more difficult, and in some cases, even caused additional harm. In particular, the separation of children from their mothers prior to or upon arrival in their new country has caused additional trauma, and the failure to place children with extended family in a timely manner has undermined their long-term stability. At the same time, some countries have shown that it is possible to prioritize family unity, while also taking measures to address security concerns.
Separating Children from Their Mothers
Human Rights Watch research found that for some returned children, the most traumatic experience in their lives was not the hardship of the camps, but separation from their mothers prior to or upon arrival in their new home country. In countries including Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden, authorities have immediately separated children from their mothers, because the mother is either subject to investigation or is being detained and charged for ISIS-related offenses. In many cases, the separation takes place without warning, with no opportunity for the mother to explain to the child what was happening.
A psychiatrist who assessed a dozen children that returned to France in 2018 and 2019 described their separation from their mothers as “a great brutality.” The mothers had fled Syria through Turkey, which flew them home, and on their arrival in France, they were immediately taken to detention. The psychiatrist said that for the children, “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.”
Psychologists who worked with repatriated women and children in Belgium similarly found that the separation of children from their mothers upon arrival in Belgium was often traumatic. Their 2022 study said: “The very close bond that developed between mothers and children should not be underestimated and cannot simply be broken without causing serious and lasting psychological damage.” The study found that for several returned children in Belgium, the separation from their mother was “so great and painful” that the children said they would prefer to return to the detention camps if that was the only way they could remain with their mother.
In Sweden, returned children are placed in care under the Swedish Care of Young People Act while social services in local municipalities conduct individual investigations of their mothers.
One repatriated mother was separated from her children for three months after their return to Sweden while authorities investigated her. She said: “In the camps, the children know no one but their mom, and she is the only person they trust. Suddenly taking the mom out of their life can be traumatizing.” She continued:
During the three months of separation, my children were sad and confused about what was happening and why they were separated from me. I felt the separation traumatized them even more.… Some of my children developed behavioral problems they didn’t have before. My three-year-old son didn’t speak for weeks, and the foster family thought he was mute.
After their reunification, the mother said that her son began to speak again and became “the most talkative” member of the family.
Another mother repatriated to Sweden in 2021 was separated for 10 days from her two children, a 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter, while authorities investigated her. She said: “The separation was very difficult.… Authorities need to recognize that these children have been with their mothers in the camps for years. She is the only person they trust and love and feel safe with. Why would you not reunite them with their mothers as soon as possible?”
Some repatriated mothers said their children developed anxiety from the separation. One said her 6-year-old son “has asked many times how long he can stay with me and is constantly worried that we will be separated again.… People often talk about the best interests of the child. But I do not think you look after the best interests of the child when children are separated from their parents.”
The Belgian study found that in cases where a child’s mother had a chance to explain to the child in advance of repatriation that they would be separated and what would happen to them, trauma could be minimized. It described the cases of six children brought home with their mothers to Belgium in 2020, where the mothers were able to explain to the children ahead of time that the mothers would be taken to prison, and the children would be taken to a children’s hospital where their grandparents would be waiting for them. Youth court judges acted to re-establish contact between the mothers and children as soon as possible, through daily phone conversations and weekly video or in-person visits. The French psychiatrist interviewed by Human Rights Watch also recommended that if separation was unavoidable, the mother and child should be prepared in advance and that extended family should be linked to the children as soon as possible.
Dr. Stevan Weine, a psychiatrist from the University of Illinois who has helped women and children who came back from northeast Syria reintegrate in several countries said: “The most important priority is to follow the best interests of the child. What is in the child’s best interests is almost always to be in the care of their biological parents or other family.” He believes that in many cases, it is possible to place a child with their mother in the community while the mother is being investigated, without risk to the child.
In Sweden, mothers and children are separated during an initial investigation, and then reunified in an “observation” house or apartment where social workers have unrestricted access and can drop in at any time. Multiple individuals interviewed for this report stated that placing mothers and children in such observation houses from the outset could avoid the trauma of family separation, while allowing authorities to identify any security or child protection concerns. The Swedish mother of several children said: “I have nothing against an observation home or cooperating with social services, but I don’t want separation.”
In Canada, terrorism “peace bonds” allow law enforcement to monitor individuals through periodic visits while the individual lives in the community. A peace bond may also require counseling or other conditions. According to a Canadian lawyer who represented a woman who returned to Canada from northeast Syria in 2021, this option permits mothers and their children to stay together while giving the government the opportunity to manage risk. He said: “If there’s information there, they can prosecute the individual.”
Inadequate Contact with Detained Parents
In some countries, mothers returning with their children from the camps in northeast Syria face criminal investigations or prosecution for activity associated with ISIS. These mothers are typically held in detention facilities or prison and may have limited contact with their children. Several caregivers for returned children commented that the children did not have enough access to their detained mother and that visits were too short or in an environment unsuitable for children. A mother imprisoned in the Netherlands reported that she is allowed 30 minutes of live video chat each week with her two children, ages 5 and 7, and a one-hour physical visit each month at the prison. She said: “The contact between the child and his mother needs to be more continuous, in a child-friendly environment.”
A French lawyer working with multiple families said that children with detained mothers “need more time with their mothers. One or two hours once or twice a month is not enough.” A German family member caring for two children said that the children could speak with their detained mother by phone, but that the prison was too far away for visits. The children’s mother has filed a request with the prosecutor to be able to visit her children outside of the prison.
Delayed or Limited Contact with Extended Family
Many children repatriated from northeast Syria have grandparents or other extended family members who are willing and eager to be involved in providing care or support for returned children. The children may already be familiar with these family members through telephone or video calls while in the camps in northeast Syria. Ensuring contact with these family members as soon as possible after the child’s return—particularly if the children’s parents are deceased or detained—can help provide the children with stability and minimize further upheaval. In Germany, for example, grandparents or other extended family members are typically able to take responsibility for the care of returning children immediately, and investigations of the families are rare.
In other countries, however, extended family members are not allowed to provide care for children until after lengthy assessments or investigations by authorities. In France, for example, two to three years can pass before a child is placed with family members. A lawyer working with affected families noted: “This can be half the child’s life.” She represents the grandparents of a girl who arrived in France at the age of five, but spent three years in foster care before her grandparents were allowed to care for her.
A French grandmother of three waited for nearly a year to be able to care for her three grandchildren. The children’s mother had been killed in a bomb attack and their father was in prison in northeast Syria. After the children arrived in France, they were placed with a foster family while authorities investigated the grandparents and conducted DNA tests to establish their relationship. Despite the wait, she said: “We consider ourselves lucky to have the children back. They bring us a lot of joy, especially since we lost our daughter.”
When investigations of extended family members are prolonged, children develop bonds with foster families, and the eventual transition to family care can further traumatize the child. A Swedish grandfather said his orphaned grandchildren were initially moved around to different foster families, and that it took more than a year for long-term placements to be identified for some of them. He said:
Each separation is harmful and reminds them of the loss of their own parents. The authorities should try to arrange permanent placements from the beginning to minimize transitions.... My most important recommendation is that social services should integrate family members in the planning for the kids’ situation. They have lost their parents, so they shouldn’t have to lose their extended family.… I wish there was more trust from the authorities towards the families. It’s terrible for us families to be left out of the process and I don’t think it’s good for the children.
The aunt of a young girl placed in foster care said: “Families should have opportunities to meet the child and get visitation. Until I could prove I wasn’t a terrorist, I couldn’t have any contact with my niece. Governments should do the assessments earlier, not wait until the last minute.”
The French lawyer working with affected families recommended that extended family members be present when children first arrive, even if the children will initially be assigned to a foster family. “Many of them have already seen and spoken with their grandparents from Syria. If they do not see their grandparents, they aren’t even sure they are in the right country.” She recommended that grandparents be immediately allowed observed visits, and if desired, responsibility for the care of children as soon as possible.
Lack of Documentation
In Kazakhstan, several survey respondents indicated that they had not been able to obtain a death certificate for fathers who had died in Syria. As a result, the family was not able to receive a survivor’s benefit from the government. A Kazakh mother said: “I do not have a death certificate [for my husband]. If there’s no body, no death certificate may be issued. No benefits.” The benefit can be significant for a low-income family: A parent with two dependents can receive 53,667 tenge (US$112.56) per month. In Kazakhstan, a minimum wage is 60,000 tenge (US$124.60) per month.
Other respondents in Kazakhstan said that they had not been able to obtain Kazakh birth certificates for their children, despite having returned in 2019. Birth certificates are required for mothers to receive social benefits, for children to access educational services, and to obtain passports and identity cards.
A French lawyer working with families spoke about lengthy delays in securing identity papers for returned children and said that some still do not have them three or four years after returning to France. She said the local courts are overwhelmed and even ordering a DNA test to establish family relationships can take a year or more.
Case managers for returnees in Germany said that the biggest challenge for returning children is obtaining birth certificates. Without a birth certificate, children are unable to get a passport, receive social benefits, and face challenges enrolling in school. For example, without a birth certificate, families often need to disclose the child’s background to school authorities to gain admittance, potentially exposing the child to stigma.
Insufficient Psychosocial Support
Most countries of return provide mental health and psychosocial support for returned children, including psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers who work with both the children and their families and caregivers. However, some professionals may not have the training or background needed, and in some cases, leadership and coordination is inadequate.
A legal guardian working with eight repatriated children in a Western European country stressed the importance of specialized professionals to support the children. “They need a group of highly qualified professionals with specific knowledge and qualifications to work with the children and the people around them, including the extended family. The foster families also need support. They have no experience with children from Syria.” Case managers in Germany said that returned families needed expanded and easier access to psychologists.
Dr. Stevan Weine, the psychiatrist who has worked with repatriated women and children in several countries, stressed that successful reintegration entails “more than a handful of professionals. It requires government leadership and resources, multiagency involvement, and skilled professionals.” Weine advocates for a multidisciplinary program—including mental health providers, social workers, teachers, school administrators, and others—to assess a child’s needs and strengths and provide appropriate support. He noted that some professionals are reluctant to work with returned children because of their past and would benefit from more guidance and teamwork with professionals who have worked with children who have survived situations of armed conflict or other crises. He said: “These children are not unicorns, but should be regarded as any other children who come your way. They are not unlike other children who have been displaced, or trafficked, or experienced family separation.”
Weine noted that younger children may face more difficulties as they become teens or adults, and that long-term support is important. He has also found that peer support groups for returned mothers can be helpful so that they can learn from each other as they navigate challenges with their children.
Some family members also highlighted the importance of continuity among the professionals dealing with their children. A German family member commented that when a new social worker was assigned to her great-grandchildren, they were fearful. “I believe they are very well adjusted,” she said, “but it’s important to not be constantly changing people in their environment.”
Lack of Learning Assistance
Some children may need help in catching up with their peers academically, particularly older children who enter the school system with little, if any, formal education. For example, an Uzbek mother of a 13-year-old boy who returned in 2019 said that in the camps in Syria, her son had no access to education. He is now in fourth grade but is having difficulties. “He doesn’t know his letters and doesn’t want to go to school.” Another Uzbek boy is 15 but is in a class where most of the other students are 11. One of his teachers said he does not enjoy school and would prefer to work.
Several survey respondents in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan said that tutoring or other learning assistance would help their children fill learning gaps. The mother of a 17-year-old boy in Kazakhstan who is in grade seven, said: “He needs an individual tutor to start catching up with peers.” Another Kazakh mother said that her 15-year-old son was having difficulties with English, noting that other children started learning it in first grade. “My children started in fifth grade, so are behind in many subjects.”
Some family members commented that it would be helpful to provide children with programs to help enter society more quickly and learn about their new country and its culture. Various survey respondents identified a desire for more free classes (for example, cooking or English language) and extracurricular activities for the children and their mothers. A repatriated Swedish mother said: “I feel like my children are integrating very well, but I would have appreciated the opportunity for them to meet other kids and learn about their new society. Everything is new for them.”
IV. Existing Knowledge, Resources, and Capacity
Many countries have long-established programs to assist children who have experienced adversity and help them navigate the challenges they may face. For example, many countries have resettled thousands of refugee children, who, like children in the camps in northeast Syria, have often experienced displacement, conflict-related violence, family separation or loss, and interrupted schooling. Countries in the European Union, for example, granted refugee status to nearly 60,000 children in 2021. Canada accepted approximately 20,000 child refugees from Syria in 2016 and late 2015, and resettled over 3,800 school-aged children from Afghanistan between August 2021 and June 2022. The situations of refugee children and children returned from the camps are not entirely analogous; to avoid stigma, for example, children returned from the camps in northeast Syria may need special measures to protect their identity. However, many countries can utilize existing programs and expertise to assist the reintegration of children from the camps, particularly considering their relatively small numbers.
Research by Dr. Stevan Weine et al. has identified significant overlap between the trauma and adversity experienced by child returnees and that experienced by other vulnerable children, including refugee children, child soldiers, other war-affected children, child survivors of trafficking or maltreatment, and child members of criminal gangs. Scientific literature on the rehabilitation and reintegration of these groups provides useful guidance on evidence-based interventions that can support successful reintegration of returned children.
Based on this existing knowledge, Weine and others have developed a framework for the rehabilitation and reintegration of returned children. The framework advocates a multi-level approach that includes mental health and health services; strengthening families through family education, support, and counseling; and encompasses promoting individual mental health and well-being, family support, educational success, community support, structural conditions, and public safety.
The challenges that returned children face are largely not new. Their numbers are also considerably smaller than many other groups of vulnerable children who have received reintegration assistance. As governments continue to repatriate and reintegrate children from the camps in northeast Syria, they can utilize existing knowledge and resources to provide returned children with the support they need to thrive in their new communities.
V. The Risks of Inaction
Children remaining in the camps face escalating risks of recruitment, radicalization, and trafficking. US military sources state that ISIS has targeted residents of al-Hol for recruitment and radicalization and uses the camp as a “center for the recruitment of children.” According to Danish intelligence sources, ISIS smuggled dozens of foreign children out of the camps in 2020, with the intent to train them to carry out acts of terrorism in their own countries and planned to smuggle hundreds of others.
Many security and counterterrorism experts emphasize the importance of repatriating women and children remaining in the camps in northeast Syria as soon as possible, saying that leaving them in the camps carries greater risks than bringing them home. The acting US coordinator for counterterrorism and special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Timothy Alan Betts, said in July 2022: “Leaving fighters and family members in northeast Syria is not a viable option; we risk these individuals migrating from conflict to conflict in a way that creates new strife and instability elsewhere, threatens our collective security, and presents serious threats to innocent civilians.”
The UN’s under-secretary-general for counterterrorism, Vladimir Voronkov, has said that inaction on repatriation threatened to “bring about the very outcomes we intend to prevent,” including “the radicalization and recruitment of a new generation of terrorists, and the strengthening of terrorist groups in the region and around the world.” In a briefing to the UN Security Council in August 2022, he said he remained “deeply concerned” regarding the limited progress in repatriating foreign fighters and their families, noting, “Those individuals, many of whom are children who did not choose to be there … remain deprived of rights and are at a very real risk of radicalization and recruitment.” He reiterated the secretary-general’s repeated calls on member states to repatriate all individuals in the camps and other facilities in Syria and Iraq.
The commander of US military forces in the Middle East, US Army General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, visited al-Hol in September 2022 and described the conditions as a “humanitarian catastrophe” and a “flashpoint of human suffering.” He warned that ISIS sought to exploit these conditions and called al-Hol a “breeding ground for the next generation of ISIS.” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has similarly warned, “Unsuitable and overcrowded facilities can be breeding grounds for despair and radicalization to violence, especially in the case of young people, endangering rehabilitation attempts and leading to the possibility that many may become hardened violent extremists.”
A risk assessment by the Danish Police Intelligence Service concluded in 2019 that Danish children from the camps in northeast Syria did not pose a terrorist threat to Danish society, primarily due to the children’s young age. It noted, however, “that the risk of indoctrination and influence basically increases the longer the children stay in a radicalized environment, including in the camps in north-eastern Syria.” Finland’s special envoy for repatriations, Jussi Tanner, stated that Finland’s commitment to repatriate all Finnish women and children from the camps reflected the government’s constitutional obligation to guarantee the rights of children. “But it’s also a security interest,” he said. “[W]e very much feel that the longer children remain in those camps, the harder it will be to counter violent extremism and radicalization.”
A Canadian lawyer who represented a woman who returned to Canada in late 2021 emphasized the reputational cost to countries who fail to repatriate their nationals. He said that Canada’s refusal to repatriate more than 30 Canadian women and children who remain in al-Hol and Roj “is horribly cruel to those individuals and those children” and undermined Canada’s reputation and credibility as a rights-respecting country. “If we let those children grow up in the camps, they will—and rightly so—have only contempt for Canadian institutions.”
Caregivers and professionals interviewed for this report also emphasized the need to act quickly, noting that the longer children are in the camps, the more challenging their reintegration. A Swedish mother said: “Staying in the detention camps is not a solution. The more you wait, the more you damage these children.” Another family member said: “Governments need to take them out [of the camps] to get control over their exposure and their education. You’re going to lose your chance to save these kids.”
VI. Legal Standards
International Human Rights Law
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) sets forth universal civil and political rights and freedoms, including the right to enter one’s country; to life; to be free from torture and other ill-treatment, including in detention; to freedom of religion; to fair trials and freedom from arbitrary deprivation of liberty; and to a nationality. The ICCPR requires all states parties to ensure and respect the fundamental rights of all persons not only within their territory but also those abroad who are subject to their jurisdiction.
According to the UN Human Rights Committee, which interprets the ICCPR, this means that a state party must extend and ensure the rights set forth in the Covenant to “anyone within the power or effective control of that State Party, even if not situated within the territory of the State Party.” Consequently, governments should not, whether through action or inaction, create direct or indirect obstacles to citizens’ efforts to exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms, including when they are abroad.
Right to Enter
The ICCPR holds that, “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.” Any government that fails to provide travel documents and other citizenship verification to its nationals arbitrarily detained in northeast Syria effectively bars them from exercising that right.
Right to Life
The right to life is a fundamental right under the ICCPR. The indefinite, arbitrary detention of third-party nationals by an embattled non-state actor in camps and prisons in the volatile northeast Syrian theater of armed conflict, where detainees are unable to exercise their rights to adequate food; health, including through protective measures against infection by Covid-19; housing; clean drinking water; and sanitation; all essential rights under international law, compromise the detainees’ right to life.
Torture and Other Ill-Treatment
The international prohibition on torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment is
absolute. The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment obligates states parties to establish jurisdiction over acts of torture committed anywhere in the world when the alleged offender is a national of that state or if, if it considers it appropriate, when the victim is a national.
The Human Rights Committee has repeatedly found that arbitrary as well as indefinite or protracted detention, combined with dire conditions and a failure to provide procedural rights to detainees, constitutes torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, by “cumulatively inflicting serious psychological harm.” Under this finding, the detentions of third-party nationals in camps and prisons in northeast Syria may constitute torture or other inhuman or degrading treatment.
The ICCPR protects every person’s liberty and security and prohibits arbitrary detention. The ICCPR guarantees the right of the accused to promptly appear before a judge or to otherwise challenge their detention, as well as the rights of the accused to a fair trial, including the right to be presumed innocent until found guilty in fair and impartial proceedings.
Anyone detained, including civilians initially held in wartime as security threats, should be detained on a clear legal basis, and have the right to challenge the necessity and legality of their captivity before a court. The Human Rights Committee has said that the right to a judicial review of detention continues at all times, including in situations of emergency or armed conflict.
The detention of men, women, and children in the camps and prisons in northeast Syria solely on the basis of their suspected ISIS affiliation or their family ties to ISIS, with no judicial review or criminal charge, amounts to guilt by association and collective punishment, which are prohibited under international human rights law as well as the laws of war. Detaining individuals solely because they are family members of alleged criminals is an “egregious” form of arbitrary detention, according to the Human Rights Committee.
States’ Duties Toward their Nationals
In a joint legal opinion on foreign ISIS suspects and family members arbitrarily detained in northeast Syria, the UN special rapporteur on countering terrorism and the UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial executions in February 2020 found that, “States have a positive obligation to take necessary and reasonable steps to intervene in favor of their nationals abroad, should there be reasonable grounds to believe that they face treatment in flagrant violation of international human rights law.” The violations they listed include denial of justice; imposition of the death penalty or other immediate or foreseeable threats to the right to life; torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; sexual violence; and deprivation of liberty in grave violation of human rights standards.
Rights of the Child
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) defines a child as any person under the age of 18 and requires states parties to take all feasible steps to protect the survival and development of children, including protection from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, or neglect. A core principle of the Convention is that in all actions concerning children, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration. The Convention also requires states parties to “take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by an armed conflict.”
Right to a Nationality
International human rights law provides that everyone has the right to a nationality and that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of their nationality. Countries have a responsibility to ensure that children are not deprived of this right under the CRC. This obligation extends to providing access to nationality for all children born abroad to one of their nationals who would otherwise be stateless, according to the Human Rights Committee. Countries must ensure acquisition of nationality by an otherwise stateless child “as soon as possible.”
Preserving Family Unity
The right of the child to remain with their family is contained in the CRC. The CRC requires states parties to ensure that a child shall not be separated from their parents against their will, except when competent authorities subject to judicial review determine, in accordance with applicable law and procedures, that such separation “is necessary for the best interests of the child.” Absent this best-interest determination, repatriations of children detained in northeast Syria without their parents would run counter to this obligation.
Children in Armed Conflict
International standards recognize that children who have been involved in armed conflict are entitled to special treatment, placing a priority on their rehabilitation and reintegration into their communities. These standards—including both hard and soft law—recognize these children primarily as victims of violations of international law, not perpetrators, and reject the use of detention, except in exceptional cases where children may have committed grave offenses or pose a serious threat to a state’s security. Even in such exceptional cases, international law still requires the application of due process and international juvenile justice standards and does not allow deviations based on national emergency or the seriousness of the offense.
The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (the “Optional Protocol”) prohibits any forced recruitment or conscription of children under 18 by government forces, and the participation of children under 18 in active hostilities by any party, including non-state forces. The Optional Protocol calls on states to provide appropriate assistance for the physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration for children who have been recruited or used in armed conflict contrary to the protocol.
Since 1999, the UN Security Council has adopted a series of resolutions on children and armed conflict that call on member states to ensure the rehabilitation and reintegration of children recruited in violation of international law. These include resolutions 1261 (1999), 1314 (2000), 1379 (2001), 1460 (2003), 1539 (2004), 1612 (2005), 1882 (2009), 1998 (2011), 2225 (2015), and 2427 (2018).
The non-binding Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups ( “Paris Principles”), endorsed by more than 110 countries, call for children who are associated with armed groups to not be arbitrarily deprived of their liberty and to be provided with reintegration support. Signatories commit to considering all children associated with or recruited into armed groups “primarily as victims of offenses against international law; not only as perpetrators,” including those accused of crimes against international law.
Women and Children as Potential Victims of Trafficking
A number of UN resolutions and protocols call on member states to consider women and children as potential victims of armed conflict or of human trafficking, an international crime committed by ISIS against many women and children.
For example, UN Security Resolution 2396 requires member states to “develop and implement comprehensive and tailored” strategies and protocols not only for the prosecution of suspects who join groups such as ISIS but also for the rehabilitation and reintegration of such suspects as well as their spouses and children. It also “stresses the importance of assisting women and children associated with foreign terrorist fighters who may be victims of terrorism, and to do so taking into account gender and age sensitivities.”
Where women have been victims of trafficking for the purpose of exploitation, the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, known as the Palermo Protocol, provides that a state party whose citizen is a victim of human trafficking “shall facilitate and accept, with due regard for the safety of that person, the return of that person without undue or unreasonable delay.”
The Palermo Protocol encourages states to provide for the physical, psychological and social recovery of victims. It defines trafficking in persons as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”
The UN Security Council has underscored the need for member states to ensure that trafficking victims are treated as victims and “not penalized or stigmatized for their involvement in any unlawful activities in which they have been compelled to engage.”
Recent Jurisprudence on Repatriation of Women and Children from Northeast Syria
In a September 2022 ruling, the European Court of Human Rights instructed France to reconsider all requests for repatriation, giving those affected a fair hearing. French authorities are required, when considering requests for repatriation, to take into consideration the threats to their nationals’ health and lives, and in the case of children, their best interests.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child has issued two decisions in response to individual complaints, finding that both France and Finland had violated the rights of children by failing to repatriate them from the camps in northeast Syria. A February 2022 decision regarding France and an October 2022 decision regarding Finland found that both countries had the responsibility and power to protect their child nationals in the Syrian camps from an imminent and foreseeable threat to their lives, and that prolonged detention in the camps constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The committee found that both countries had an obligation to provide the child victims with reparations and recommended they take urgent positive measures to repatriate the child victims, acting in good faith; support the reintegration and resettlement of each child who has been repatriated or resettled; and take additional measures, in the meantime, to mitigate the risks to the lives, survival and development of the child victims while they remain in the north-east of the Syrian Arab Republic.
This report was researched and written by Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, with contributions from Letta Tayler, associate director in the Crisis and Conflict Division. The report was edited by Bede Sheppard, deputy director in the Children’s Rights Division and Tom Porteous, deputy director for Program. Clive Baldwin, senior legal advisor, provided legal review. Brian Root, senior quantitative analyst in the Digital Investigations Lab, reviewed the methodology and created the data visualization.
The following Human Rights Watch staff contributed to the research for this report and provided specialist review: Bénédicte Jeannerod, France director; Farida Deif, Canada director; Yasmine Ahmed, UK director; and Letta Tayler, associate director in the Crisis and Conflict Division. Måns Molander, Nordic director; Sophie McNeill, Australia researcher; Katrien van de Linde, Netherlands director; Mihra Rittmann, senior Central Asia researcher in the Europe and Central Asia Division, and Hiba Zayadin, senior researcher in the Middle East and North Africa Division, also provided specialist review.
Additional research assistance was provided by Syinat Sultanalieva, researcher in the Europe and Central Asia Division; Svetlana Vorobyeva, Central Asia researcher in the Europe and Central Asia Division; Katherine La Puente, associate in the Children’s Rights Division; Klara Funke, associate in the Europe and Central Asia Division; Christina Abdulahad, associate in Development and Global Initiatives, Laureen Garcin, Communications and Advocacy intern with the Paris office; and Vika Kim, assistant researcher in the Europe and Central Asia Division. Gulnaz Razdykova, an independent consultant, contributed research on Kazakhstan.
Production assistance was provided by Katherine La Puente, associate in the Children’s Rights Division; Travis Carr, Publications Officer; and Jose Martinez, administrative officer.
Human Rights Watch extends a special thanks to Beatrice Eriksson of Repatriate the Children Sweden and Dr. Stevan Weine of the University of Illinois for their assistance during this research. We are particularly grateful to the family members of returned and repatriated children who agreed to speak with us about their experiences.