PARIS – France on Tuesday repatriated another group of women and children from former Islamic State group-controlled areas of Syria, the latest return of French nationals who'd been stranded in camps there, eyed warily by Paris.
The group was made up of 32 minors and 15 adult women, France's national counterterrorism prosecutor’s office said. It said the women, ranging in age from 19 to 56, were held in custody — some on the basis of arrest warrants previously issued against them. The children were placed in the care of protective services.
The returnees had previously been detained in a sprawling, wretched and lawless camp in northeastern Syria that holds tens of thousands of women and children, according to Kurdish authorities in the region.
Around 50,000 Syrians and Iraqis are crowded into tents in the fenced-in al-Hol camp. Nearly 20,000 of them are children; the rest are mostly the wives or widows of IS fighters.
The camp also has a separate, heavily guarded annex holding 2,000 women from 57 other countries and about 8,000 of their children.
Before the latest repatriation, Kurdish authorities Monday met with a French delegation in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli.
Many European countries were slow to allow the return of women and children from areas where IS operated for fear they would violently turn on their homelands.
France saw more of its citizens join IS in Syria than any other European country, and has been especially wary about having them back.
Authorities insisted on repatriating citizens and their children on a case-by-case basis, a long and cumbersome procedure that has been repeatedly criticized by human rights groups. French authorities have also insisted that adults, men and women who fought with IS, should be prosecuted in the country where they committed crimes.
French authorities are also wary of IS fighters' children. Speaking last month to lawmakers, Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti described children coming from Syria as “lion cubs” of the so-called Islamic caliphate that IS declared over the territory it once controlled. The minister's comments seemed to suggest that some children may not be loyal to France.
“On the one hand, these kids are not responsible for the criminal choices of their parents. On the other hand, absolute vigilance is required,” the minister said.
“Our fear is that these children, in growing up, could be recovered by terrorist groups,” he said.
Speaking before the latest group were brought back, the minister said 270 children had been repatriated — and that nearly three-quarters of them were under the age of 10.
The repatriation to France came days after a Canadian federal judge ordered Ottawa to help bring home four Canadian men held in Syrian camps. Spain this month also announced the repatriation of two women and 13 children from camps in Syria.
Following the rise of IS in 2014 and its declaration of a so-called Islamic caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq, thousands of men and women came from around the world to join the extremist group. IS lost the last sliver of land it once controlled in east Syria in March 2019, but since then its sleeper cells have been blamed for deadly attacks in Syria and Iraq.
Humanitarian agencies and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have urged the international community to repatriate its nationals from al-Hol and other facilities in Syria, as they struggle to maintain security in the camps amid security fears.
Hogir Al Abdo reported from Qamishli, Syria.
A previous version of this story was corrected to show that the spelling of the Syrian city is Qamishli, not Qamilishi.