France has repatriated a group of women and their children from camps in Syria where suspected family members of the Islamic State terror cell have been held since the organization’s downfall, the French foreign ministry confirmed on Tuesday.
A total of 16 women and 35 children currently being cared for by social services were told they could return to France, the largest group to return to the country since 2019 when the Islamic State lost control of its territory in Syria and Iraq.
“France has allowed the return of 35 children from camps in the north of Syria today to the country. This operation also included the return of 16 mothers from the same camps,” the French ministry said.
All the women, of whom 14 have French citizenship and two are mothers of children with French nationality, ended up in custody. The authorities also imposed this on one minor, who will soon turn 18.
Since 2016, 126 children whose parents joined the Islamic State have returned to France. However, around 200 children and 80 of their mothers are still waiting to return to Europe in northern Syria.
U.N. and NGOs are pushing for return of Islamist families
According to Le Monde, Paris has a stricter approach to its citizens in camps in Syria than neighboring Belgium, which practically enabled the return of all children and mothers who have Belgian citizenship. France instead assesses each request individually. The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child criticized the country for this practice in the past. According to the U.N. body, Paris violated the rights of the child with its approach.
The committee pointed out the squalid conditions in the camps that threaten children’s lives. Occupants are often living in overcrowded tents, exposed to extreme temperatures, lack food and drinking water, and lack access to education, a U.N. committee said in a report in February.
The Collectif des Familles Unies, an organization bringing together relatives of French people who went to Iraq and Syria to join IS, welcomed the decision.
“This is the first time that France has allowed the return of children together with their mothers from Syrian prison camps,” said the association, which hopes to change the attitude of the French authorities.
Psychologists, lawyers, and some legislators are also calling on the government to enable a widespread return. According to AFP, the French government is proceeding cautiously so as not to upset public opinion. Polls in the past have shown that most of the French oppose the return of jihadist children.