A while ago, the impact of the large outpouring of Tunisian youth to fight alongside the terrorist lines in Syria, Iraq and Libya became clear. In addition to the obvious dangers of this movement of people, many catastrophic humanitarian side effects appeared, including the presence of more than 83 children and dozens of women suffering the stress of conflicts or imprisonment. They are the families of those fighters.
The Rescue Association for Tunisians Trapped Abroad has revealed that the number of Tunisian mothers and children stuck in conflict zones has reached 105 cases, with 83 children and 22 mothers unable to escape.
The association’s figures indicate that 50% of those children are present in Libya, 32% are in Syria, while the percentage of children left behind in Iraq around Mosul does not exceed 4%, with other areas accounting for the remaining 7%. The association also reveals that 26% of the children are under 2 years old, while 24% of them are between the ages of 2-4.
According to the same statistics, 34% are between the ages of 4-6 and 16% are above the age of 6. A number of these children were born in the areas of conflict and are the children of Tunisian fathers who had joined terrorist groups.
The head of the association, Mohammed bin Rajib, spoke to 7Dnews. “We have requested on more than one occasion that the Tunisian authorities should unify the efforts of the many Tunisian bodies that work on the matter of those who are abandoned abroad,” he said.
Rajab added that these efforts should be unified and coordinated in a formal and permanent committee in Tunisia’s foreign affairs ministry, as this specialised unit charged with gathering information about abandoned citizens would facilitate the task and make it more practical.
Bin Rajib suggests that the “security option” followed by Tunisian authorities toward the foreign fighters is insufficient and cannot prevent the country from terrorist threats. “Rescuing those women and children from jails filled with terrorists and removing them from areas of conflict will be a step forward on the road of tackling extremism. If a citizen commits a crime or a mistake he should face trial, but his country should not ignore him as if he does not exist,” he said.
The Tunisian authorities recently reached an agreement with the Libyan side to issue permits that allow security teams to examine the DNA of Tunisian children and infants connected to Isis, and held in captivity in the Libyan capital, Tripoli and in Misrata. According to a note issued by the Tunisian Foreign Ministry on August 19th, clarifications were provided as a response to a parliament written question about the fate of the Tunisian children marooned in Libya, and it recommended intensifying talks with the relevant Libyan body about this issue, which has legal, technical and judicial aspects.
The Libyan authorities promised to follow up, using procedures of the Libyan Public Prosecution to issue permits to a Tunisian technical team for them to travel to Libya and study the DNA. The international Red Cross Bureau in Tunisia is also investigating the case of the missing Tunisian children in Libya via the Libyan Red Crescent Association. A representative of the committee finally announced that they will resume their efforts in Libya, and they are ready to work alongside the Tunisian authorities and help them to conduct DNA analysis for the relevant children, especially the infants, in order to identify them.
After the battle which Libyan forces launched successfully against Isis in Sirte in the summer of 2016, the victorious army began a campaign of arresting a number of the foreign fighters, who represented the backbone of Isis, along with their families. It was at this time that the case of the “Isis children in Libya” came to the surface, as dozens of women and children were arrested. Their husbands and fathers of various nationalities - Tunisian, African and Sudanese - had been killed in the fighting.
In the two years since, the Tunisian and Libyan authorities have been investigating the case, with Tunisia setting the condition that the women and children must be transferred in a legal manner between the two countries and through the official diplomatic channels, following identification of the children and completion of the administrative and legal processes. Libya meanwhile wants to put the women on trial in its territory and hand back the children, a solution rejected by Tunisia, which requests no separating of children from their mothers.
It seems that the case of the foreign fighters and their families will a challenging one for the Tunisian authorities, whether at an internal level with the size of the security threats represented by the return of the families, or at an external level with diplomatic issues impacting the receiving, legal and administrative processes.
The Tunisian authorities have not yet announced any complete programme to deal with the those who will return, or with their children and families, except for a security solution. Even if this proves effective in the short run, it will be temporary and unsuitable for the long term.