France opens the door to the repatriation of children and women from jihadist detention camps after years of rejection | International
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The call expected for so many years did not come this July 5 either. That day, early in the morning, two planes chartered by the French government landed in Paris with 51 of its nationals repatriated from the Al Roj jihadist detention camp in Syria; 16 women and 35 children. Marc and Suzanne Lopez’s heart beat faster when they heard that the flights had arrived. His son Léonard joined the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria in 2015 and these two retired teachers were waiting on the plane for their four grandchildren who were then trapped in jihadist hell. But the phone didn’t ring. The little ones were not on the list of the first mass repatriation that France has carried out since the fall of the last Syrian stronghold of ISIS in 2019.
The Lopezes, however, are today more hopeful than ever. A profound change seems to have taken place in the French government and the relatives of minors still trapped in Syria are confident that the final countdown for all French children to return to their country has already begun.
“It’s a total change,” celebrates Marc Lopez in a telephone conversation. Until now, France maintained the “case by case” doctrine, which involved repatriating only children from detention camps, and only if they were orphans, unaccompanied minors or their mothers, did they agree to return them alone. At least since 2019, Paris had not returned any adults, considering that they should be tried on-site
The announcement of the first massive repatriation operation with adults at the beginning of the month is a clear sign that “there are no longer any obstacles to a global repatriation”, agrees Vincent Brengarth, lawyer for Margaux Dubreuil, another French woman who is also still in Syria with his three children. At least another 150 minors of French nationality and up to a hundred women continue to live in very precarious conditions in the Syrian camps guarded by Kurdish forces.
No one in the Government has publicly confirmed so far that the “case by case” approach that it still defended tooth and nail at the beginning of the year has been abandoned. The environmentalist deputy Hubert Julien-Laferrière, who supports the repatriation of minors, does not believe that he will do it either. “The Government tries to communicate the minimum, we all know that the policy of the case by case It is not sustained, but there is fear of public opinion, this case is terrifying”, he says. He recalls that, in 2019, the president himself, Emmanuel Macron, categorically denied that a massive repatriation operation was underway, as various media had reported in great detail. His denial came after a survey revealed that more than 80% of the French were opposed and that up to 67% preferred that minors also stay in Iraq or Syria.
Times, however, have changed. Julien-Laferrière acknowledges that he was “surprised” that the repatriation of July 5 has not caused noise in a National Assembly where the opposition is stronger than ever. Nor has there been a stir in a public opinion that has been evolving: a year ago, a hundred personalities signed a forum in Le Monde urging the Government to “immediately repatriate those French children who, victims of inhuman and degrading treatment, slowly die in Syrian camps”. It was the first call from French civil society “on a taboo subject both in public opinion and within the Government,” the newspaper said. After the repatriation, the Secretary of State for Children, Charlotte Caubel, declared that the children of jihadists “are not responsible for the acts committed by their parents” and must “also be treated as victims.” Even some associations of victims of terrorism, she stressed, have requested their repatriation. Asked directly if it is the end of the “case by case”, she avoided giving a resounding yes, but indicated that repatriating “35 children is not case by case”.
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The Government has also not explained why it can be done now and not before. Such a complicated operation takes time to plan and it is clear that the measure of July 5 had been decided for months. But it was only carried out once the electoral cycle of the presidential and legislative elections had passed and when the new government of Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne was already underway. It has also visibly waited for the long trial for the attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015 to conclude at the end of June, which has served to heal wounds and demonstrate that France is capable of judging jihadist terrorists. The Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, has been careful to ensure that “very important supplementary means” have been provided to ensure that the arrival of returnees does not pose a security problem. The 16 women have already been charged with terrorist association and are in preventive detention awaiting trial, as is one of the minors, who came of age shortly after returning and who was suspected of radicalization.
Lawyer Brengarth recalls another reason for the change of course: the legal “pressure” that France suffered for refusing to bring the minors. Only Spain, which has also not repatriated the 17 Spanish children who are still in Syria along with three Spanish women (and a Moroccan with Spanish children) and the United Kingdom, which has at least thirty children in Syria, shared the Paris policy. . National bodies such as the National Human Rights Commission or the Ombudsman have criticized it and countries such as Germany or Belgium have accelerated repatriations in recent times. In February, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child accused France of “violating the rights of French children detained in Syria by not repatriating them”. The families’ lawyers took the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in 2021, whose ruling is pending.
risk of conviction
“The government is aware of the risk of condemnation that weighs on France today,” says Brengarth. By deciding on a collective repatriation, “France confirms that it is capable of acting. The masks have fallen: the Government can no longer pretend that it does not have the logistical and material capacity to coordinate a repatriation, so, paradoxically, it exposes itself more to a conviction, ”he analyzes. Hence, he concludes, “the logical thing would be to repatriate all families.”
Time is short, all those involved insist. As the French section of Lawyers Without Borders recalls, “more than 500 people, mainly children, would have died in 2019 in the camps, where living conditions and access to sufficient medical care remain extremely difficult.”
Although, as everyone expects, there will be a new mass repatriation this summer, the Lopezes know that even if their grandchildren arrive in the coming months they will have to arm themselves with patience before they can welcome them. The children who have already been repatriated have been placed at the disposal of the social services which, in close collaboration with the anti-terrorist authorities, follow their evolution before being returned to their relatives on a date that has not yet been set. However, they are already in France and closer to recovering, one day, normality. It is the only thing that the Lopezes and the dozens of families who mark the passing of the days on their calendars want.
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