France repatriates 'several' children from camps in Syria

Issam Abdallah, Reuters | Boys walk around at al-Hol displacement camp in Hasaka governorate, Syria, on March 8, 2019.

The French government said Friday it had repatriated five orphaned children of French jihadists’ from camps in northeast Syria, where a five-year offensive against the Islamic State (IS) group is drawing to a bloody close.


The children, aged five or under, were flown home in a military aircraft and placed under medical supervision, the foreign ministry said.

Their mothers are dead and their fathers are either dead or missing, a diplomatic source said.

“The decision was taken in view of the situation of these very young children, who are particularly vulnerable,” the foreign ministry said, adding that the government was in touch with their French relatives.

France and other European governments have been agonising over what to do with the wives and children of jihadists who have died fighting in Syria or Iraq or been taken prisoner there.

According to the UN children’s agency UNICEF, around 3,000 foreign children from 43 countries are housed at the Al-Hol camp alone, which has taken in most of the people fleeing IS’s self-proclaimed “caliphate” in recent weeks.

'These children have been through a lot,' France 24's James André reports

This is the first time that France has brought any children home from Syria, with officials previously saying that most mothers had refused offers to let their children be taken home and placed with relatives.

Russia has repatriated dozens of children and placed them with family members or foster parents, but countries like Belgium and Britain have washed their hands of jihadists’ families.

On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron said his government was taking a “humanitarian” case-by-case approach to the children but that the government’s position on “adult fighters and jihadists who followed IS to the Middle East had not changed”.

“They must be tried in the place they committed their crimes,” he said.

Battle nearly over

Up to 1,700 French nationals are thought to have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight with the jihadists between 2014 and 2018, according to government figures. Some 300 are believed to have died in combat.

The diplomatic source said more children could be brought home but that no mothers would be allowed to return with her children, confirming the hardline stance also taken by Britain.

The situation of the children had gained urgency as the battle against IS nears an end in the jihadists’ last holdout in the Syrian village of Baghouz.

Thousands of extremists and their families have given themselves up to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led outfit which has spearheaded the fight against IS on the ground since 2014, with the help of a US-led coalition.

France thanked the SDF on Friday for helping repatriate the children, saying “their cooperation... made this outcome possible”.

Last week, the British government drew fire after it emerged that the infant son of a jihadi bride who it refused to allow home had died in a Syrian camp.

Nineteen-year-old Shamima Begum was stripped her of her British citizenship after giving interviews in which she begged to return home but showed little remorse for having been an IS propagandist.

Her baby Jarrah died less than three weeks after he was born of pneumonia.


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