France, which has referred to those who joined the ISIS jihad as “enemies” of the nation who should face trial in Iraq or Syria, has refused to take back fighters and their wives. The repatriation of children born to French citizens who travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State (ISIS) jihadist group is not an option for now, France’s junior interior minister Laurent Nuñez said on Wednesday. “The SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] have said that the children should stay with their mothers, and so their return is not being considered for now,” Mr Nuñez told lawmakers.
“The children are for the most part being held alongside their parents, with their mothers at least. The question of their return is not an issue at present,” he insisted. “ISIS children are just like any other child, but have suffered major trauma.”
French President Emmanuel Macron echoed his minister’s position later on Wednesday, telling a press conference in Nairobi that the children of ISIS militants would be repatriated on a “case-by-case basis”.
French government policy has been to refuse to take back fighters and their wives, who the interior ministry has branded “enemies” of the state.
The fate of jihadi children is a headache for many European nations whose citizens travelled to join ISIS at the height of its success and now wish to return.
But their suffering was brought to light last week by the death of the infant son of Shamima Begum, a British teenager who left London to join her militant husband in Syria. The 19-year-old joined ISIS when she was just 15.
Her three-week-old son Jarrah died of pneumonia, according to a medical certificate.
Ms Begum, whose first two children also died, was stripped of her British citizenship last month on security grounds after she was discovered in a detention camp in Syria.
The decision to cancel the jihadi bride’s passport was heavily criticised following her son’s death and the UK has since been urged to do more to protect the children of British terrorists.
But the fate of Ms Begum has illustrated the ethical, legal and security dilemmas that governments face when dealing with the families of militants who joined the religious war against the West.
In France, lawyers representing the families of ISIS fighters launched an online petition earlier this week calling for the return of their children.
“No child chose to be born in Syria or join Daesh [ISIS]. They are victims of the choices of adults. They are, quite simply, war victims,” said lawyers Marie Dosé and Henri Leclerc.
“These children will become ticking time bombs if France persists in its refusal to repatriate them,” they warned. Some 4,000 people had signed their petition by Thursday afternoon.
On Monday, the head of the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said there were about 3,000 children from 43 countries living in camps in north-east Syria, along with many more Syrian and Iraqi children, in “extremely dire conditions”.
“Since January 1, 2019, every single day, a child has died fleeing the fight against ISIS,” UNICEF head Geert Cappelaere told a news conference in Beirut.
“We estimate that close to 3,000 children of foreign nationality are living in extremely dire conditions,” he said.
“There are many more children of Syrian and Iraqi parents, unfortunately with the same ISIS label, many of them younger than six years old. These are children, not terrorists. These are children entitled to a childhood, deserving a fair chance in life.”