France’s repatriation of 35 French children and 16 women held in northeast Syria is welcome news. For these returnees, it means an end to hellish detention in camps for families of Islamic State (ISIS) suspects. But about 160 French children and 75 women are still arbitrarily held in the region in life-threatening, squalid conditions. About 60 French men suspected of ISIS links are detained in overcrowded prisons.
These French nationals are among tens of thousands of foreigners from about 60 nationalities held in northeast Syria as ISIS suspects and family members since at least 2019. None have been charged, much less brought before a court.
Seven of the repatriated children are unaccompanied minors. All of the women are mothers to French children whom France repatriated with them or had already done so.
For years, relatives in France, joined by prominent public voices, rights organizations, and United Nations bodies, have called on France to repatriate the children and their mothers. In February, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said France’s failure to repatriate the children violates their right to life and exposes them to inhumane treatment. Security experts have warned France and other countries that abandoning their nationals in northeast Syria, where the children could be recruited by ISIS, is a greater security risk than bringing them home. Turkey’s threats to invade the area heightens the risks.
Despite this, France persisted until last week with a cruel case-by-case approach, repatriating only 35 children in three years and no adults, citing security concerns. France even refused to repatriate a seriously ill woman and her 6-year-old daughter. The woman died in December. Her orphaned daughter had to wait seven months, until last week, to come home. One woman repatriated last week has advanced colon cancer. France had long refused to repatriate her, ignoring her mother’s pleas.
Last week, France repatriated as many children in one day as it did in three years, and brought back mothers for the first time. The government should show that it has truly changed course by repatriating all children, their mothers, and the men, too. Adults can be prosecuted or monitored in France as appropriate.
Abandoning these detainees will not help stop ISIS. It will only increase the suffering of those left behind, a majority of them children.