European families stranded in northeastern Syria must be repatriated
Over 200 academics call upon European countries to take immediate action to repatriate their nationals from the detention camps of northeastern Syria
Children look through holes in a tent at the al-Hol displacement camp in Hasaka governorate, Syria, on 2 April 2019 (Reuters)
The issue of repatriating European nationals who joined various groups, including Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, has divided European public opinion. There are currently more than 400 European adults and 700 children, most under 12, in camps overseen by Kurdish authorities in northeastern Syria.
These families face hazardous living conditions, including outbreaks of illness and malnutrition. These children are growing up in a war zone, facing various traumas and being deprived of their most fundamental liberties. Temperatures in the camps go below freezing in the winter and soar above 40C in the summer. Fresh water is scarce. In 2019 alone, more than 500 people, most of them children, reportedly died in the al-Hol camp alone.
Violating basic rights
Amid growing instability in the region and with the outbreak of coronavirus in the camps, Kurdish authorities face increasing difficulties in supplying residents with proper medication and food. There have been repeated called for the international community to act and ensure the repatriation of European nationals.
While European countries are well aware of these challenges and risks, they have failed to develop a coherent strategy on this urgent issue. While countries like Kosovo have repatriated some of their citizens, most other European countries simply refuse to do so.
By refusing to address this question, Europe is not only outsourcing this responsibility onto others, but also putting at risk the lives of hundreds of innocent children
Inside the camps, children are exposed to grave danger, trauma and illegal detention. Countries such as Belgium and France have only been willing to repatriate unaccompanied children, opposing the return of the adults and thus enforcing a separation between children and parents.
This violates the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the rights of children to be with their parents. In some cases, European countries have revoked the citizenship of adults.
Failing to repatriate European children violates their fundamental rights, including the right to be free from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment, the right not to be arbitrarily detained and the right to education. This has been reiterated by various regional and international bodies, including the Council of Europe, the United Nations and the European parliament, which has called on European countries to undertake all possible measures to repatriate these children.
The ostentatious refusal by some European countries to repatriate adult citizens reflects a growing trend to erode the basic human rights of those implicated in terrorism offences, including the right to a fair trial. European nationals are being subjected to indefinite and unlawful detention. By outsourcing this matter to the Kurds, European states are neglecting their responsibilities towards their citizens.
Beyond violating the rights of the children and adults involved, the short-term vision of European governments could have devastating long-term effects. While security concerns have been used to justify non-repatriation of adults, security and intelligence services have warned of the possible consequences of this passive stance.
By refusing to prosecute or reintegrate these individuals, European countries effectively lose their grip over them, which risks having these stranded citizens develop a deep resentment against their home state, which could lead to retaliation. Controlled and coordinated repatriation, with the prospect of due legal process, is the only sustainable and durable solution in the long term.
Call for action
We, the undersigned, urgently call upon European countries to take immediate action to repatriate their nationals from the detention camps of northeastern Syria. We demand the following:
– An immediate repatriation of all European nationals, with priority given to children with their mothers and a coordinated plan for the repatriation of male adults in Syrian and Iraqi prisons;
– That European countries cease pushing for the separation of children from their mothers, and call for an immediate repatriation of children with their primary caregivers;
– A fair and equitable trial for all adults in European courts;
– An end to the deprivation of citizenship from European nationals, which, in some cases, produces new conditions of de facto statelessness.
By refusing to address this question, Europe is not only outsourcing this responsibility onto others, but also putting at risk the lives of hundreds of innocent children, with potentially devastating long-term effects on peace and stability. The lives of these innocent children and our fellow citizens are in our hands. The time to act is now.