A man and child walk through destruction in Raqqa, Syria, August 20, 2017 (Amnesty International)

Christina Okello writes for Radio France International, including an interview with EA’s Scott Lucas

Rights groups have raised concerns about a French plan to repatriate the children of jihadist fighters in Syria, without their mothers. About 150 children are reportedly being held by Syrian Kurdish forces in the northeast of Syria. Their return would depend on mothers agreeing to be separated from their children.

“I don’t think it’s a solution to separate them from their mothers,” says Mohamed Alolaiwy, who heads the NGO Syria Charity.

“Children cannot be held responsible for their father’s crimes or mistakes. Syria is not their home; it’s definitely not their home. They should be brought back home with their mothers,” he told RFI.

Current government policy stipulates fighters and their wives are not allowed back in France, but now Paris is mulling how to deal with minors.

Their mothers, reportedly about 40, would be left to be prosecuted by local authorities, French officials said.

“Do mothers not deserve to be brought back to France to rebuild their lives too?” asks Scott Lucas, a professor of International Politics at Birmingham University in the UK.

“Are they to be considered as jihadists, as outsiders, as criminals? Immediately there’s an artificial division over who gets to come back,” he told RFI.

“It really has to be a case by case determination,” reckons Iolanda Jaquemet, spokesperson of the International Red Cross for the Middle East.

“In general, we would prefer children to stay with their mothers, given the trauma the separation might lead to. The over-arching principal must be the best interest of the child,” she told RFI.

Syrian Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria are reportedly holding about 150 children. Most of them are under the age of five.

“We can’t wait much longer. Winter is coming and the conditions are extremely difficult,” comments Sophie Mazas, a French lawyer representing a mother who wishes for her two children to be returned to her parents in France.

The mother, Saida, fled Raqqa with her two children, after the fall of the IS capital in 2017, and travelled to the Kurdistan region of Iraq. She is currently living in a refugee camp called Roj in northeastern Syria.

“They’re in danger because of the conflict,” continues Mazas, “Conditions inside the camps are dire, so they need to be brought back rapidly.”

Recognizing The Kurds

Bringing the children back from Kurdish forces, according to Professor Lucas, represents a political victory for the Kurds in their quest for autonomy.

“France is at least acknowledging that the responsibility, the authority inside Syria for determining who is a criminal, who is dangerous, lies not with the Assad regime in the Kurdish areas. It lies with Kurdish authorities,” he says.

France is “attributing to them the decision making over these women and children in terms of if there will be repatriation”, he adds.

Paris is concerned that if these minors are left in the war-ravaged country, they could eventually also become militants.

The country has suffered a wave of deadly militant attacks over the past three years, and is grappling with the threat of homegrown militancy.

“I think the French authorities are taking the line of well children under age, under the age of responsibility, will get more public sympathy for that, than if we bring adults back,” comments Lucas.

The first children could return from Syria by the end of the year, although the complexity of the situation may push back the timeline.

The problem is that Kurdish northern Syria lacks a functioning legal system.

When France brought back three children from Iraq last December, belonging to a French woman who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, it was at least able to deal with authorities in Baghdad. Not this time.

“As challenging as the problem may be, solutions must be found,” concludes Iolanda Jaquemet of the International Red Cross.

“They must be both in line with legal obligations of the state and obviously with humanitarian imperatives,” she said.