Western Countries Continue to Resist Return of ISIS Children

The refugee camp Al Hol, in northeastern Syria, holds many foreign children and their parents who fled ISIS' last areas of control in the country. Credit: Ivor Prickett for The New York Times
The refugee camp Al Hol, in northeastern Syria, holds many foreign children and their parents who fled ISIS' last areas of control in the country. Credit: Ivor Prickett for The New York Times
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Western Countries Continue to Resist Return of ISIS Children

The refugee camp Al Hol, in northeastern Syria, holds many foreign children and their parents who fled ISIS' last areas of control in the country. Credit: Ivor Prickett for The New York Times
The refugee camp Al Hol, in northeastern Syria, holds many foreign children and their parents who fled ISIS' last areas of control in the country. Credit: Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

Years after their parents left Belgium and France to join ISIS, 18 children were taken from squalid refugee camps in Syria and flown recently to new lives in Belgium and France, drawing widespread attention in those countries as examples of Europe grudgingly accepting the children of its extremists.

But they were the exceptions, not the rule; estimates vary, but 1,300 or more children of European fighters and followers of the self-professed “caliphate” remain trapped in Syria and Iraq. While some European governments have softened their stands on repatriation, marginally, it is still unclear when — or even whether — the children might be able to leave.

The recent airlifts, which took place only after months of negotiation and vetting of the children, illustrate how resistant Western countries still are. On those flights in June, France and Belgium received only children whose extremist parents were dead; most are orphans, and some were taken to ISIS lands by their fathers, who were killed there, while their mothers remained in Europe.

Days earlier, a Belgian team had set up a makeshift clinic in the overcrowded Al Hol camp in northeastern Syria, which holds thousands of current and former ISIS adherents and their family members, providing medical care and psychiatric assessments for the children of Belgian nationals.

“They wanted to come to Belgium,” said Heidi De Pauw, a member of the team. “They kept saying to us, ‘We want to come home.’”

But De Pauw, the chief executive of Child Focus, a center for missing and sexually exploited children, had little hope to offer them, in part because most of them had at least one living parent with them in the camp.

With few exceptions, European countries have refused to take back the adults. The Kurdish authorities who run the major camps have made it plain that they do not want to separate families, and do not want to be left holding stateless parents.

The issue is politically charged across Europe. ISIS survivors, even children, are seen as a threat, no matter how reformed they appear. Theo Francken, a former secretary of state for asylum and migration in Belgium who is a lawmaker for a conservative Flemish party, denounced the recent repatriation, warning that it might signal the return of all ISIS children.

“I say no, no, no,” he tweeted. “Their parents are no longer fellow citizens.”

When ISIS controlled parts of Iraq and Syria, an estimated 41,000 people from other parts of the world left their homes to join the group — about one-third of them from Europe, including the Caucasus. Some took children with them and others had children there. Thousands were killed and thousands more managed to slip away, many of them making their way home and risking prosecution as terrorists.

But as ISIS lost the last of its territory early this year, tens of thousands of survivors crowded into refugee camps that were built for far fewer people. At least 29 children died just in traveling to Al Hol or soon after arriving at the camp, the World Health Organization reported in January.

Violence, disease and despair are common there, and food, medicine — and sometimes even clean water — are scarce. Gerrit Loots, a psychologist who led the Belgian team at Al Hol, said that women still faithful to ISIS threw stones at those who had renounced it.

About 3,000 women and 7,000 children from countries other than Iraq and Syria are held at Al Hol, according to the Kurds and the group Human Rights Watch. Many of them want to return to their home countries. The largest contingents are thought to be Russian and French, while Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium are also among the major nations of origin.

Some women who joined ISIS soured on it, but others believed fervently and even took part in atrocities. Children were indoctrinated and sometimes pressed into service. It can be difficult to determine who is guilty of crimes, who still adheres to radical ideology, and who might change with counseling.

A very few countries, including Kazakhstan and Kosovo, have repatriated many of their people from ISIS territory, including adults. Turkey, Russia and a few others have taken in significant numbers of children recently, mostly orphans, though more remain.

But most countries have taken a harder line. Britain has gone so far as to revoke the citizenship of people who want to return. Many European countries, after first refusing, have said they would take in children, but it has been slow going.

The New York Times



Iraq Counts Cost of Stray Bullets Fired in Anger or Joy 

The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)
The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)
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Iraq Counts Cost of Stray Bullets Fired in Anger or Joy 

The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)
The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)

At weddings, football matches and other special events, some Iraqi men like to fire salvos of celebratory gunfire into the sky, worrying little about where the bullets might fall.

For some Iraqis, the tradition has been devastating, as have random bullets from sporadic gun battles in a society still awash with weapons after decades of war and turmoil.

Baghdad mother Randa Ahmad was busy with chores when a loud bang startled her. Alarmed, she hurried to the living room to find her four-year-old son Mohamed bleeding on the floor.

"A stray bullet hit him in the head," the 30-year-old said weeks later, her child sitting timidly by her side in their suburban house.

The bullet "came out of nowhere", said Ahmad, who doesn't know who fired it or why.

Her child now suffers from severe headaches and tires easily, but doctors say surgery to remove the bullet is too risky.

"If the bullet moves," Ahmad said, "it could cause paralysis."

Celebratory gunfire and gun battles sometimes sparked by minor feuds are a daily occurrence in Iraq, where firearms possession remains widespread despite a period of relative calm.

Iraq, a country of 43 million, endured wars under ruler dictator Saddam Hussein, the 2003 US-led invasion, and the sectarian conflict and extremist insurgencies that followed.

During the years of bloody turmoil, all types of weapons flooded into the country and have often been used in tribal disputes and political score-settling.

Many households claim to own firearms for protection.

As of 2017, some 7.6 million arms -- handguns, rifles and shotguns -- were held by civilians in Iraq, says monitoring group the Small Arms Survey, which believes the number has since risen.

- 'Bullet fell from the sky' -

Saad Abbas was in his garden in Baghdad when he was jolted by a sharp, searing pain in his shoulder.

"At first, I thought someone had hit me with a stone," the 59-year-old said. Then he realized that a "bullet fell from the sky" and hit him.

Months later, he remains mostly bedridden, the projectile still lodged in his shoulder after doctors advised against surgery because of a pre-existing medical condition.

"I can't raise my hand," he said. "It hurts. I can't even remove my bed cover."

Abbas voiced fury at those who fire off celebratory rounds when "a football team wins, during a wedding or an engagement party".

"Where do the bullets go?" he asked. "They fall on people!"

He decried the rampant gun ownership and said that "weapons should be exclusively in the hands of the state".

Iraqi law punishes illegal firearms possession with up to one year in prison, but authorities announced plans last year to tighten controls.

Security forces have urged civilians to register their guns in 697 centers, allowing each family to possess just one light weapon for "protection", said interior ministry spokesman Miqdad Miri.

The government also recently started offering civilians up to $4,000 to buy their weapons.

But Miri acknowledged that in tribal and rural areas, many people "consider weapons a part of their identity".

In recent years, their collections have been swelled by the "huge quantities" of firearms left behind by the Iraqi army during the US-led invasion, he said.

During the tumultuous years since, weak border controls and the emergence of extremists allowed arms trafficking to thrive.

- 'Attached to their weapons' -

"Our main problem is not small arms but medium and large weapons," Miri said, referring to military-issue assault rifles and other powerful guns.

Security expert Ahmed el-Sharifi also said that "civilians are attached to their weapons" but that even harder to control are the arsenals of "armed political groups and tribes... This is the most dangerous."

Despite the state's efforts to control the gun scourge, the problem frequently makes headlines.

Earlier this year, a video went viral showing armed clashes between relatives in a busy market in eastern Baghdad that left one person dead.

In March, a senior intelligence officer was shot dead when he tried to resolve a tribal dispute.

And in April, celebratory gunfire at a wedding took the life of the groom in the northern city of Mosul.

Last year, another man, Ahmed Hussein, 30, said he was hit in the leg, presumably also by a bullet fired at a wedding.

He said he had just gone for a nap when he was startled by gunfire and then felt a sharp pain.

"I fell out of bed and looked at my leg to find it bleeding," Hussein said.

He too decried how even a simple argument "between children or at a football game" can quickly lead to someone squeezing a trigger, with those paying the price often "innocent bystanders".