In the face of momentous events sometimes it is the smallest who are forgotten. It feels that is an apt description of the children trapped in North East Syria. The collapse of Isis left those women who’d committed to the organisation trapped between home states who were unwilling to repatriate them and the worsening humanitarian conditions in a part of Syria that is in a violent flux.
As for their children - tens of thousands remain in unsuitable half way houses. Many were brought to Syria by their parents, others were born there. All are innocent and are only there due to the mistakes of their nominally ‘responsible’ relatives.
The fact that these children have been caught up in a dangerous limbo is a reflection of both the unique circumstances of this particular conflict and a transition - sparked by modern terrorism - in how children are viewed as responsible actors.
The uniqueness of the conflict is explained by one non-state group setting up a global ‘caliphate’ that attracted supporters from around the world. Isis was allowed to operate in the vacuum of state authority in eastern Syria and western Iraq. Their defeat was spearheaded in Syria by another non-state group, the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) who took 11,000 casualties in the process.
This group is viewed as hostile by Turkey but has been a close ally of the US-led anti-Isis Coalition. The SDF have been left with the responsibility of clearing up after Isis and are the guardians of the camps where some 80,000+ women and children now live. As recent events have shown the North East of Syria is a difficult and dangerous part of the world and European states in particular have been unwilling to repatriate their citizens in the same way they would if another State was responsible for the area.
The issue of repatriation has seen a huge gulf in the energy and strategy that different states have adopted in getting their civilians back. The US, perhaps surprisingly, has been pro-active, as have the Russians and central Asian states. The Europeans and Great Britain in particular, have been more reticent, citing logistical issues as the primary reason for being unable to bring the children back.
It is indeed no easy feat, there are practical difficulties with extractions but also the moral / legal concerns about separating children from their families especially those who are unwilling to allow the repatriation to occur. Meanwhile a larger debate around justice mechanisms for former Isis members continues to rumble with Kurdish authorities increasingly pushing for an international justice system to base itself in their jurisdiction to try those who may have committed crimes.
Back in countries like the UK, reporting has surfaced the plight of unaccompanied and orphan British children, leading the Government to change tact and promise to do more. However, a General Election has put any solutions on the back burner and conditions in the northeast remain febrile.
Reports from on the ground tell of a place that is no place for a child. Poor access to healthy food is seeing children develop bow legs, and there is little in the way of adequate schooling let along the mental health support needed for those who may have witnessed horrific events whilst living under Isis. What is more being surrounded by radicalised adults is not the recipe for children to grow into normal adults and commentators have increasingly stressed the strategic dimension to this argument.
European governments have been largely focussed on the security dimensions of the issue; with concerns that returning women are not prosecutable but nor do they represent no threat to society at large. The logistical, legal difficulties combined with the strategic and security dilemmas have led to an impasse characterised by a lack of clear planning and urgency, and it are the children trapped in camps that are suffering most as a result.
A pan-European response, consistent between states, is needed to show that defeating Isis is not just a military endeavour but a morally strategic one. These countries should refuse to abandon innocent children to terrible presents and uncertain futures, they can and they should do more.
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