FOR years, they heard little from daughters who went to join Islamic State. Now dozens of families across Europe have received messages from those same women, desperate to return home from detention in Syria.
They are among 650 Europeans, many of them infants, held by US-backed Kurdish militias in three camps since IS was routed last year, according to Kurdish sources. Unwanted by their Kurdish guards, they are also a headache for officials in Europe.
In letters sent via the Red Cross and in phone messages, the women plead for their children to be allowed home to be raised in the countries they left behind. In one message played by a woman at a cafe in Antwerp, the chatter of her young grandchildren underscores their mother’s pleas.
Another woman in Paris wants to care for three grandchildren she has never met, born after her daughter left for Syria in 2014, at the age 18.
“They are innocent,” she says. “They had no part in any of this.”
Like other relatives of those held in Syria, the two mothers asked to remain anonymous – afraid of being linked to IS and worried their daughters may face reprisals.
The United States has taken custody of some citizens, as have Russia and Indonesia, and wants Europe to do the same – fearing the camps may breed a new generation of militants.
“We are telling European governments: ‘Take your people back, prosecute them. ... They are more of a threat to you here than back home,’” a senior US counter-terrorism official says.
Europe is largely reluctant: there is little sympathy for militants’ families with the trauma of deadly attacks still fresh in many capitals, and European diplomats say they cannot act in a region where Kurdish control is not internationally recognised.
For the children it may be that their fate is determined by which country their mother came from.
The Kurds say it is not their job to prosecute or hold them indefinitely, leaving the women and children in legal limbo.
“Absolutely nobody wants them,” says a senior diplomat grappling with the issue.
“How can you sell to the public that you are proactively helping the families of your enemies?”
However, mounting concern over abandoning hundreds of children with a claim to EU citizenship – most of them under six – is pushing governments to quietly explore how to tackle the complexities of bringing them back.
“The threat emanating from children of the caliphate is really an unprecedented, invisible and very complex one – one that we have to deal with right now,” Robert Bertholee, head of the Dutch AIVD intelligence agency, said earlier this year. “These children are victims above all.”
French officials have said they will work to repatriate the children – but not their mothers. Other EU nations are in talks with Kurdish authorities, but these are complicated because the Kurds want governments to take back all their nationals – not just the young.
While women made up almost 20% of 5,900 Western Europeans who joined IS – and they had at least 566 babies abroad, a report by the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalism found, few have returned.
Families in Belgium, France and the Netherlands are suing governments to intervene to get their relatives home. But the children are seen both as victims and threats, so bringing them back to schools and homes in Europe is fraught with difficulties.
“I understand the sensitivities in countries that suffered from terrorist attacks; still we hope to facilitate humane solutions for kids,” says Peter Maurer, president of the ICRC.
But DNA testing to confirm claims of nationality may not be possible when parents are dead. IS widows often remarried, complicating custody issues. And separating children from their parents breaches international humanitarian law.
“The debate must stop oscillating between denial and panic,” says Muriel Domenach, who leads efforts against radicalisation in France. “These are neither kids like any other, nor are they time bombs.”
When French psychiatrists first see their young charges, they are in a state of shock from being separated from their mothers at the airport.
“They are in a terrible state when we see them,” says Thierry Baubet, who is treating 40 children under a programme set up by French authorities last year.
With their returning mothers in pre-trial detention, the children are placed with foster families – many of whom are at a loss on how to handle their trauma and have begun attending a support group set up by psychiatrists. Mostly the children are too young to understand the stigma of IS or how their words may alarm neighbours, teachers and social workers.
“They talk about bombs. They talk about fathers who passed away,” Baubet says. “They talk about the IS all the time.” – Reuters
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