In the murky world of ISIS families, all diplomacy is conducted quietly. On Monday, the Spanish government quietly admitted it would bring back several Spanish wives and children of ISIS fighters, before the end of the year. Newspaper reports placed the number at three women and 13 children – a figure which, while small, represents a significant change for European countries.
It takes to more than 500 the number of women and children repatriated from Kurdish-run detention camps in northern Syria this year – the highest number of foreign nationals ever sent back, and a sign that the tide of refusals by countries abroad, especially European countries, is gradually turning.
The question of what to do with women and children of ISIS fighters has bedeviled countries across the world since the once-sprawling ISIS territory was retaken in 2019. There are perhaps 10,000 men and boys held in Kurdish-run prisons, and another 60,000 women and children in Kurdish camps. The exact number of Europeans is unknown, but has been estimated at around 1,000. For years, the focus has been on returning women and children, many of whom were born in ISIS-controlled territory.
Almost all European countries initially refused to bring back their citizens, citing a variety of reasons, from lack of access to the camps to security issues. But in the past 18 months, most have relented, and all the major European countries have taken back at least a handful of their citizens, always women and children.
Spain is only the most recent Western country to do so. In the past few weeks, France, Britain and Australia have returned citizens. The change appears to be related to a high profile case brought against France at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) this year.
The French case was watched particularly closely because so many French citizens joined ISIS – more, in fact, than any other European country. Paris has been very reluctant to bring back women and children – even orphans – arguing that they still pose a security risk.
The case at the ECHR was brought on behalf of two women currently in a Kurdish-run prison camp with their children, and argued the refusal of the French government to repatriate them amounted to a violation of the women’s right to enter the territory of their nationality. In mid-September, France lost the case and agreed to reexamine the files of the two women.
A week later, France suddenly repatriated 15 women and 40 children, one of the largest mass repatriations by a European country. It is unknown whether the two women whose cases went to the ECHR were among those returned.
The ECHR decision didn’t change the legal terrain for European states; it didn’t even establish that European citizens had to be returned. All it did was argue that an independent body ought to examine any such decisions, so that detainees would not be subject to arbitrary decisions.
But the ECHR decision appears to have influenced European and Western countries into thinking that legal pathways for stopping their citizens returning are running out.
The same week as the ECHR decision, Britain quietly brought back a woman and her child from the same camp. (That woman was not the most high profile British detainee, Shamima Begum; Begum currently has a case before a special immigration court to reverse a controversial decision to strip her of her citizenship, rendering her stateless.)
The biggest change, however, has come in Australia. Having refused to repatriate any citizens since 2019, at the end of October, Australia brought back 17 citizens, a decision that caused a media firestorm. Even the families in Australia heard the decision via the media, such was the secrecy. Yet Australia’s government may well be about to go further. Media reports suggested as many as 60 Australians may come home before the end of the year. Given that media reports had previously put the number of Australians in Kurdish camps at just 50, that could mean the government will repatriate all its citizens. Given the secrecy, the government hasn’t addressed whether the ECHR decision was a factor.
Yet for all the legal and political arguments over the repatriation of Western citizens, the hardest part is yet to come. Bringing back women and children from ISIS camps was always going to be controversial, but it was the easier half of the problem. For one thing, it was always clear they couldn’t stay; it is not the job of Syrian or Kurdish authorities to look after the criminal citizens of the West.
Moreover, the tools to deal with them already exist. Just this month, an American woman from Kansas who led an all-female ISIS brigade was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Allison Fluke-Ekren was one of a suspected 300 Americans who fought for ISIS – she was repatriated and faced trial. Similar trials or extended periods of surveillance are manageable.
No, the real test is yet to come. Because once the women and children of ISIS fighters have been brought home, attention will turn to the fighters themselves. The political firestorm accompanying every single repatriated male of fighting age will be immense. Politicians may have taken notice of the ECHR decision and sped up the return of some former ISIS brides. But every Western politician will be keen to delay the day their husbands are processed as far into the future as possible.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern