France repatriates 51 from Syria camps in policy change

Emilie Konig, a Muslim convert from northwest France who became a notorious recruiter for the Islamic State group, pictured in the Al-Roj camp in northeastern Syria in 2021, is expected to face judicial proceedings after being repatriated

France repatriated 35 children and 16 mothers from camps in Syria holding family members of suspected Islamic State jihadists on Tuesday in the largest such operation by Paris after pressure from campaigners.

The French government had long refused mass repatriations of the hundreds of French children detained in Kurdish-controlled camps, dealing with them on a case-by-case basis that rights groups criticised as deliberately slow.

It added that the minors were handed over to child protection services while the mothers would face judicial proceedings that lawyers expect to lead to their prosecution for terror offences.

Family members of the returnees said that French officials had entered the sprawling and squalid Roj camp on Monday to select orphans and women with medical problems for the flight home.

Western countries have faced a dilemma over how to handle their citizens detained in Syria since the end of military operations against the Islamic State group there in 2019.

Until now, France had prioritised its security over welfare concerns for the detained, pointing to a series of attacks by IS jihadists, including the November 2015 assaults on Paris that left 130 people dead.

Before Tuesday’s operation, Paris had repatriated 126 children since 2016.

The decision to return 51 people in a single operation points to a change in policy that came after Germany and Belgium announced that they would bring back all of their minors from Syria. 

“Our country has isolated itself more and more by choosing inhumanity and irresponsibility, unlike Germany, Belgium and many other European countries,” the French campaign group Collective for United Families said in a statement on Tuesday.

The president of the Seine-Saint-Denis region northeast of Paris, where many previous returnees have been housed, said it was important to make a distinction between IS fighters and children, many of whom are orphans.

But “the children are not guilty. They are above all the victims of the deadly excesses of their parents and what they need more than anything is an opportunity to rebuild themselves if we want them to rejoin society”, he added. 

In addition to Konig, there is also a mother-of-four with colon cancer whose mother, Pascale Descamps, went on hunger strike to campaign for her return on humanitarian grounds.

One of the minors, who is nearly 18, was also detained because “evidence exists likely to prove his association with a terrorist organisation”, the statement from anti-terror prosecutors added.  


Originally published as France repatriates 51 from Syria camps in policy change

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