Europe must develop a consistent repatriation policy

2021 has been a busy year as several European countries have finally started repatriating their citizens. In the light of these recent operations, we have written a text evaluating these policies and addressing the many incoherences that still exist. For instance, whereas several countries have finally accepted to repatriate children with their mothers, many still refuse (e.g. France and The Netherlands). Furthermore, all EU countries refuse to bring back childless women and men. Our text has been published in several European Media outlets such as the French Mediapart, the Flemish daily De Morgen and the Dutch newspaper NRC.

Read here the original and integral version of the text.

Europe needs a fair and consistent policy of repatriation towards its citizens in north-east Syria

A year ago, in a text signed by two hundred academics, we called upon European countries to take immediate action to repatriate all European nationals from the detention camps in north-east Syria. We argued that the ostentatious refusal of European countries to do so amounts to a violation of basic human rights and puts the lives of both European children and European societies at risk. Now, a year after our public letter, we are happy to report that several European countries have, finally, taken the first steps to repatriate some of their citizens during 2021. Nevertheless, we remain very concerned about the way in which these operations have unfolded, both in terms of the human rights of the European nationals involved and in terms of Europe’s security. 

First repatriations, arbitrary decisions

There are currently an estimated 640 European children and 400 adults in the detention camps in north-east Syria. They form some of the 40,000 children and 20,000 adults estimated to live in the camps. The majority of the European children in the camps are under the age of twelve, and many are suffering from severe malnutrition and other diseases. While EU countries initially opposed repatriating the children with their mothers, in some cases even pressuring the mothers to give away their children, countries such as Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Italy and Finland have finally stepped back from this initial refusal and proceeded to repatriate some of the children with their mothers in 2021. This is how, over the course of this year, around 27 women and 90 children have been brought back to their home countries. 

We applaud these first steps of repatriation and encourage all countries to follow suit. However, many questions remain regarding the way in which these repatriations have proceeded, in particular regarding the unequal and arbitrary treatment of European citizens. For instance, while Belgium repatriated six mothers and ten children from the Al-Roj camp in July 2021, it has refused to repatriate the four childless Belgian women in Al-Roj – amongst them women who have lost their children. France still refuses to repatriate 200 French children with their mothers in the camps, and only brought back a few French children in January 2021 after their dramatic and forceful separation from their mothers. Furthermore, none of the European countries has addressed the situation of the fathers of these children. 

We believe that these arbitrary decisions are not only problematic from a human rights point of view, but are also dangerous from a security point of view. First, because they will most likely feed anger and resentment among those who are left in the camps and among their families and local communities in Europe. Second, because ISIS has been abducting children from the camps, as has been confirmed in the Danish press. Thirdly, because the overall security situation in the region is very volatile and Kurdish authorities have repeatedly demanded European countries to repatriate their nationals from the camps. Many European countries seem, however, to remain tone-deaf to these risks and demands, and continue to proceed in a short-sighted way by stripping their nationals of their citizenship, assuming incorrectly that this will ‘solve’ the problem.

The European nationals in Syria, men, women and children, constitute a diverse group of people who left Europe with various motives. All of them have very deep ties with their European home countries, as most were born in Europe and have family in their countries of birth. As for the children: some left when they were still minors, and many were born in Syria. These are European nationals and the product of European societies. Their human rights, the right to protection, or to a fair trial and the obligation to prosecute (in the case of the adults), are European responsibilities. 

Unprecedented international mobilization

Over the course of this year, we have witnessed an unprecedented mobilization of international organizations and actors calling on governments to repatriate their citizens from the camps in north-east Syria. 

Earlier this year, the head of the UN anti-terrorism centre, Vladimir Voronkov, and Virginia Gamba, the UN Special Envoy for children and armed conflict, called for the repatriation of children from the Syrian detention camps. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs published a report on the dangerous and deteriorating conditions in the camps in Syria, and Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, urged Western countries to do more to bring their citizens back home.  

Meanwhile, several international NGO’s such as Save the Children or the European Network on Statelessness published reports on the catastrophic humanitarian situation for the thousands of children in the camps and their pending statelessness. And in September 2021, a first hearing was held at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg regarding the repatriation of two French families in the detention camps in north-east Syria. 

All these different examples demonstrate that there is a growing international consensus among security and humanitarian organisations in favour of repatriation. European countries, on the other hand, seem to be committed to trying to buy time for political reasons, even though the repatriation of all their citizens is the only sustainable long-term solution. 

For a sustainable and just solution 

As a new winter has arrived, temperatures will soon again be dipping below zero with heavy snowfall. For many of the women and children in the camps, this will be their third winter in these dire circumstances. European countries often present themselves as the inventors and guardians of universal human rights for all. But instead of taking action that demonstrates their commitment to these values, these countries have preferred to outsource and neglect the humanitarian and human rights responsibilities they have for their own citizens.

There remain some 640 European children in these camps. They are living in harsh and highly insecure circumstances, facing malnutrition, living in tents, and exposed to extreme cold in the winter and heat in the summer, (sexual) violence, COVID-19, and continuing military conflict and various forms of retaliation in the camps. They have been abandoned by their governments, leaving them without legal rights and protection and with very little safety on a very basic level. Four hundred European adults are, in turn, living with no prospect of a fair trial and are stuck in judicial limbo and indefinite detention. Effectively outlawing these European adults and children, and leaving them to be forgotten, is not a solution, from either a human rights or a security point of view. A consistent and durable solution for all parties involved is the only solution for a long-term peace and security. Europe must stop looking the other way on a question that is fundamentally ours. 

Martijn de Koning (Radboud University, Nijmegen, the Netherlands)

Nadia Fadil (KU leuven, Belgium) 

Anja Kublitz (Aalborg University, Denmark) 

Montassir Sakhi (KU Leuven & LAVUE, CNRS France) 

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