Open Letter: “Repatriate the European children and their parents in North-East Syria!”

An edited version of this letter was published in Middle-East Eye on 26 October 2020.

The repatriation of the European nationals who joined various groups, militant or not, including ISIS, in Syria and Iraq has been dividing the European public opinion. There are currently more than 400 European adults and 700 children in the camps overlooked by the Kurdish Authorities in North-East Syria. Most of these children are less than twelve years old.  

Recent reports on the conditions of the children in the camps have documented their hazardous living conditions, including various forms of illnesses (pneumonia, hypothermia, diarrhoea, dehydrations…) or complications related to their malnutrition. In addition, these children are growing up in a war zone, which also means that they are facing various traumas, and are deprived of their most fundamental liberties.  Temperatures in the camps go below 0°C in the winter, and soar above 40°C in the summer. Fresh water has become increasingly scarce.  In 2019 alone, more than 300 children have died in the camp of Al Hol. 

With the growing instability in the region and the outbreak of the Coronavirus in the camps, the Kurdish authorities have been facing increasing difficulties to keep control over the camps and supply its residents with proper medication and food. Since 2018, they have repeatedly called upon the international community to act and to repatriate their European nationals imminently. 

The European countries are well aware of the various difficulties facing the Kurdish authorities and the risks for the children, yet they have failed to develop a coherent strategy around this urgent question. While otherEuropean countries, like Kosovo, have repatriated all their citizens, most other countries simply refuse to do so. Countries like Belgium or France are only willing to repatriate unaccompanied children, and oppose the return of the adults, hereby enforcing a separation between the children and their parents. Furthermore, several European countries, like the UK, Belgium and Denmark, have also proceeded with revoking the citizenship of the adults. 

The non-repatriation of the European children is in violation with a number of their fundamental rights, which European states are held to respect and ensure on the basis of international, European and national law,  amongst others: the right to life, the right to be free from torture or cruelty, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the right not to be arbitrarily detained and only as a measure of last resort, and the right to education.  

This has also repeatedly been reiterated by the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism,  the OHCHR, UNICEF and a motion by the European parliament that has called on the European countries to undertake all possible measures to repatriate the children. The children’s presence in the camps exposes them to grave danger, traumas and illegal detention. Furthermore, several European countries (like France and Belgium) have put an increasing pressure to separate the children from the mothers as a condition of a possible repatriation. This stands in complete violation with art 9 and 16 of the UN Rights of the Child and art 8 of the ECHR, that says that a child cannot be separated from their parents when this is not in the interest of the child. 

The ostentatious refusal by several European countries to repatriate the adult citizens, furthermore, reflects a growing trend to erode some basic human rights of those implicated in terrorism offenses, such as the right to a fair trial (article 6 of the European Convention of the Human rights and article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), including the right to be present at one’s trial. The European nationals are prevented from proper prosecution and subjected to indefinite and unlawful detention. By outsourcing this question onto the shoulders of the Kurds, the European countries have created their spaces outside the law in the region, thereby neglecting their responsibilities towards their citizens. 

Apart from violating the rights of the children and adults involved, the short-term vision of European governments could have long term devastating effects. Although security concerns have been used to justify the non-repatriation of adults, security agencies and intelligence services have warned for the consequences of this passive stance. By renouncing to prosecute and reintegrate them properly, the European countries have opted to lose the grip over these individuals, with the risk of having them develop a deep resentment against their home state and returning to their countries in an uncontrolled manner. A controlled and coordinated repatriation, with the prospect of a prosecution in due process of the law and a reintegration of these nationals into their countries, is the only sustainable and durable solution on the long term.

We, the undersigned, urgently call upon the European countries to take immediate action for the repatriation of the European nationals from the detention camps in North East Syria. We therefore demand: 

  • An immediate repatriation of all European nationals, with a priority given to the children with their mothers and a coordinated plan for the repatriation of the male adults in the prisons in Syria and Iraq. 
  • That European countries cease putting pressure on the separation of the children from their mothers, and call for an immediate repatriation of the 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, produce new conditions of de-facto statelessness.

By refusing to address this question, Europe is not only outsourcing this responsibility onto others, but is also putting the lives of more than 700 innocent children at risk, with possibly 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. 


First Signatories 

Nadia Fadil, Associate Professor, KU Leuven 

Gerrit Loots, Professor Emeritus, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB)

Marijke Van Buggenhout, Doctoral researcher, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB)

Hannan Jamai, Psychotherapist and Researcher, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) 

Evelien Wauters, PhD Researcher International Law, KU Leuven 

Annelies Moors, Professor Emeritus, University of Amsterdam 

Martijn de Koning, Lecturer and Senior Researcher, Radboud University Nijmegen 

Anja Kublitz, Associate Professor, Aalborg University 

Lisa Stampnitzky, Lecturer, University of Sheffield

Nisha Kapoor, Associate professor, Warwick University 


Abdellali Hajjat, Associate Professor, Université libre de Bruxelles

Adnan Albaba, PhD candidate, Vrije Universiteit Brussel  

Alain Brossat, Research Fellow à National Chiao-Tung University, Taïwan 

Alban de Kerchove d’Exaerde, Research Director FNRS, Université Libre de Bruxelles 

Alice Elliot , Lecturer, Goldsmiths – University of London 

Alyssa Miller, Anthropologist, Scripps College

Amade M’charek, Professor Anthropology of Science, University of Amsterdam

Amal Miri, Doctoral researcher, Ghent University

Annerienke Fioole, Doctoral researcher, University of Amsterdam

Anouk de Koning, Associate Professor, Leiden University

Antoine Corre-Basset, Professeur, université Rouen-Normandie

Anya Topolski, Associate Professor, Radboud University Nijmegen

Arun Kundnani, Writer and Researcher, US 

Atalia Omer, Professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peace Studies, The University of Notre Dame

Barbara Van Dyck, Assistant professor Coventry University

Bård Kårtveit, Researcher, Norce Research Norway 

Barry Goldson, Professor, University of Liverpool

Benedikte Zitouni, Lecturer, Université Saint-Louis Bruxelles

Benoit Nemery, Emeritus professor, KU Leuven

Birgitte Schepelern Johansen, Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen

Brigitte Herremans, PhD researcher, Ghent University

Brunilda Pali, Postdoctoral Researcher, KU Leuven

Carole Ammann, Postdoctoral researcher, University of Amsterdam

Carolien Vekemans, Affiliated researcher, Ghent University 

Chaïma Ahaddour, Professor Islamic Ethics, KU Leuven

Charles Hirschkind, Associate Professor, UC Berkeley

Charlotte Watelet, PhD researcher, EHESS 

Chia Longman, Associate Professor, Ghent University

Chiara De Cesari, Associate Professor, European Studies, University of Amsterdam  

Chrisje Sandelowsky-Bosman, PhD Researcher, Leiden University

Christian Suhr, Associate Professor, Aarhus University

Christophe Mincke, Professor, Université Saint-Louis à Bruxelles

Claire English, Lecturer, University of the West of Scotland 

Corinne Torrekens, Associate Professor, Université libre de Bruxelles

Damien Scalia, Professor, Université Libre de Bruxelles 

David Jamar, Associate Professor, University of Mons

Didier Debaise , FNRS Senior Researcher, Université Libre de Bruxelles

Donna Haraway, Professor Emerita, University of California Santa Cruz

Elena Arigita, Permanent Lecturer, University of Granada

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Professor of Politics and Crown Chair in Middle East Studies, Northwestern University

Els Dumortier, Professor, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Elsa Roland, Researcher in Educational sciences, ULB 

Erik Swyngedouw, Professor of Geography, The University of Manchester

Eva Brems, Professor of Human Rights Law, Ghent University

Fabienne Brion, Professor, UC Louvain

Farid El Asri, Lecturer, Université Saint-Louis- Bruxelles (USL-B)

Francesco Ragazzi, Associate Professor, Leiden University

Francio Guadeloupe, Senior Lecturer, University of Amsterdam

Francisco Rodríguez, Associate Professor, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

Frank Moulaert, Professor Emeritus, KU Leuven

Gily Coene, Professor, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Giselle Corradi, IDC Coordinator, Ghent University

Gita Deneckere, History Professor, Ghent University

Guillermo Martín-Sáiz, Research Associate, Washington University in St. Louis

Hamza Esmili, PhD Candidate, EHESS-ENS

Heike Schotten, Associate Professor of Political Science, UMass Boston

Herman De Ley, Professor Emeritus, Ghent University

Hichem Sahli, Professor, VUB

Hilde Heynen, Professor, KU Leuven

Hubert Van Puyenbroeck, Postdoctoral researcher, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Ibrahim Bechrouri, Adjunct Lecturer, City University of New York

Iman Lechkar, Professor, Vrije Universiteit Brussel 

Iris Kolman, PhD Candidate, University of Amsterdam

Isabelle Stengers, Professor Emeritus, Université Libre de Bruxelles 

Ivo Aertsen, Professor Emeritus, KU Leuven

Jaap Doek, Guest lecturer Law Faculty, University of Leiden

James Dickins, Professor of Arabic, University of Leeds

James M. Day, Professeur Emerite, UCLouvain

Jan Cornelis, Professor Emeritus, Vrije Universiteit Brussel 

Jan Gabriel Delrue, Professor Emeritus, Catholic University of Leuven KUL

Jan Orbie, Associate Professor, UGhent

Jan Wyns, docent, PCVO Groeipunt

Jasmin Tabaković, PhD researcher, University of Cambridge

Jasmin Zine, Professor, Wilfrid Laurier University

Jean-Luc Rwogera, Phd candidate in Political Sciences, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Jean-Michel Lafleur, FNRS Senior Researcher, University of Liège 

Jeanette Jouili, Associate Professor, Syracuse University

Jenneke Christiaens, Professor Criminology, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Jennifer A. Selby, Associate Professor, Memorial University

Jérémie Piolat Anthropologue, LAAP

Joachim Ben Yakoub, Postdoctoral Researcher, UGent

Johanna M. Lems, Predoc researcher and teaching assistant, Universidad Complutense de Madrid

Jorgen Nielsen, Professor Emeritus, University of Birmingham

Justine Bakker, Postdoctoral Researcher, Radboud University

Karin De Bruyn, Research coordinator, VUB

Karin Hannes, Associate Professor, KU Leuven

Katrin Solhdju, FNRS Senior Researcher, University of Mons 

Katy Fox-Hodess, Lecturer, University of Sheffield

Koen De Feyter, Professor, University of Antwerp

Laleh Khalili, Professor of International Politics, Queen Mary University of London

Laura Galián, postdoctoral researcher, University of Granada

Laura Lundy, Professor, Queen’s University Belfast 

Laurent Bonelli, Associate Professor, Paris Nanterre University

Lesley Hustinx, Associate Professor, Ghent University

Liesbeth De Donder, Associate Professor, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Lionel Zevounou, Associate professor in Public Law, Université Paris Nanterre

Lore Janssens, Researcher IMMRC, KU Leuven

Lotte Buch Segal, Lecturer, University of Edinburgh

Louise Johansen, Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen

Louise Reyntjens, PhD Candidate Human Rights Law (KU Leuven)

Lucas Catherine, Independent researcher and author

Luz Gómez, Associate professor, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid 

Marc Craps, Associate professor, KU Leuven

Marc De Meyere, professor emeritus,University Gent

Marcello Maneri, Associate professor, Università di Milano-Bicocca

Marco Martiniello, Director Center for Ethnic and Migration Studies, Université of Liège 

Maria Luisa Cesoni, Professeur Emeritus, UCLouvain

Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, Associate Professor, University of Warwick

Mariska Jung, PhD candidate, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Marjo Buitelaar, Professor of Contemporary Islam, University of Groningen

Marta Lotto, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Paris 8

Martin Vander Elst, Anthropologue (mandat FNRS), Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Prospective (UCL)

Maryam Kolly, Lecturer, Université Saint-Louis Bruxelles

Matte Gagliolo, Associate Professor, Université libre de Bruxelles

Matthea Westerduin, Phd Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, lecturer Utrecht Universit

Matthias De Backer, Postdoctoral Researcher, KU Leuven 

Mayanthi Fernando, Associate Professor, University of California, Santa Cruz

Melanie Richter-Montpetit, Lecturer in International Security, University of Sussex 

Mériam Cheikh, Lecturer, Inalco Paris

Meriam Mabrouk, PhD candidate, Birkbeck University of London

Merve Kayikci, Postdoctoral Researcher, KU Leuven

Michael Whyte, Associate Professor Emeritus, University of Copenhagen  

Michel Vanhoorne, Retired Professsor Occupational and Envrironmental Health,, Ghent University

Michiel De Proost, PhD researcher, VUB/RHEA

Mieke Groeninck, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Leiden

Miriyam Aouragh, Senior Lecturer, University of Westminster 

Montassir Sakhi, PhD Candidate, Université Paris 8

Nacira Guenif, Professor, University Paris 8 Vincennes Saint-Denis

Nicolas Prignot, Professeur, Ecole Recherche Graphique (ERG) 

Nina Gren, Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropologu, Lund University

Noëmi Willemen, Research Assistant, UCLouvain

Norman Ajari, Assistant Professor, Villanova University, USA

Nouria Ouali, Associate Professor, Université Libre de Bruxelles

Olivier Servais, Professor, University of Louvain

Olvia U. Rutazibwa, Senior Lecturer, University of  Portsmouth

Omar Jabary Salamanca, Postdoctoral Researcher, Free University of Brussels

Orhan Agirdag, Associate Professor, KU Leuven

Patrick Devlieger, Professor, KU Leuven

Patrick Jeuniaux, Senior researcher, Institut National de Criminalistique et de Criminologie

Peter Rodrigues, Professor of Immigration Law, Leiden University

Rachel Spronk, Associate professor, University of Amsterdam

Rahma Bavelaar, Doctoral Researcher, University of Amsterdam

Reinhard Haudenhuyse, Postdoctoral Researcher, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Robin Celikates, Professor of Philosophy, Free University Berlin

Ruben De Smet, Doctoral researcher, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Sadi Shanaah, Research Fellow, University of Warwick

Sally Anderson , Associate Professor, Aarhus University

Salman Sayyid, Professor, University of Leeds

Salvatore palidda, Professor, University of Genoa (Italy)

Sami Zemni, Full Professor, Ghent University

Santiago Slabodsky, FRK Chair in Jewish Studies, Hofstra University-New York

Sara Salem, Lecturer, London School of Economics

Schirin Amir-Moazami, Professor, FU Berlin 

Seda Gürses, Associate Professor, TU Delft

Serge Gutwirth, Human Rights Professor, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Shifra Kisch, Lecturer, University College Utrecht

Sigrid Vertommen, Postdoctoral Researcher, Ghent University

Simon Rushton, Senior Lecturer, University of Sheffield

Sonia Gsir, Lecturer, University of Liège 

Sophie Lauwers, Doctoral Researcher, University of Aberdeen

Sophie Withaeckx, Assistant professor, Maastricht University

Stefan Salomon, Assistant Professor, University of Amsterdam

Steven Van Wolputte, Professor, KU Leuven

Thijl Sunier, Professor emeritus, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Thomas Berns, Professor, Université Libre de Bruxelles

Thomas Renard, Senior Research Fellow, Egmont Institute

Thomas Van Riet, Associate Professor, KU Leuven

Tine Destrooper, Associate Professor, Ghent University

Tom Vanwing  Professor, Vrije Universiteit Brussel 

Ton Liefaard, UNICEF Professor of Children’s Rights, Leiden University

Valentin Escudero, Professor, University of A Coruña

Veerle Provoost, Professor, Ghent University

Vsevolod Kritskiy, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Amsterdam

Willie van Peer, Professor, Ludwig-Maximilian University, Munich

Wissal Allaoui, Doctoral researcher, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Yolande Jansen, Professor, Free University Amsterdam and University of Amsterdam

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