Despite multiple pleas from international bodies, Switzerland refuses to repatriate adult detainees from Syrian camps, a policy that effectively leaves seven Swiss children stranded in the war-torn country.This content was published on May 4, 2021 - 09:00
They were just four and nine years old, when in 2016 their Swiss mother took them on a holiday abroad. It was to be a one-way ticket. Instead of returning to their home in Geneva, the two half-sisters were taken to Italy, then on to Greece and Turkey, before arriving in Syria, where their mother planned to join the Islamic State terror group (IS).
Now detained along with their mother in a Kurdish-controlled camp, Roj, in the northeast of the country, the girls made news headlines after their fathers sent a written plea for their return to all federal parliamentarians last March. Their letter prompted United Nations human rights experts to urge the Swiss authorities to get the two minors out of Syria.
“We have written several times to the Federal Council and the Department of Foreign Affairs, asking for concrete measures to repatriate the children – without success,” said Olivier Peter, one of the Geneva-based lawyers representing the girls’ fathers.
Since 2019 Switzerland has stuck to a policy of not actively repatriating adults who left the country for Syria and repatriating children only on a case-by-case basis, arguing national security trumps the return of people suspected of links to IS. The Swiss intelligence service estimates there are seven Swiss minors at Roj and at a larger camp, Al-Hol.
But the policy of repatriating only children has proved difficult to implement. The mothers have refused to be separated from their children, says the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. For their part, the Kurdish authorities who control the camps won’t separate mothers and children, unless the mother consents or there are humanitarian reasons, such as health issues, to let the child go.
Among the nearly 60 states that altogether have an estimated 12,000 nationals detained in the camps (not counting Iraqi and Syrian detainees), more and more European countries are repatriating children – and in some cases their mothers too, in a sign that there may be a way out of this complex dilemma.
De-politicising repatriation in Finland
In late 2019 the government in Helsinki publicly acknowledged its “obligation to guarantee the rights of Finnish children” in the Syrian camps and appointed a special envoy, Jussi Tanner, to make decisions on repatriating minors and their mothers case by case.
At the time, human rights groups were reportingExternal link that conditions at Al-Hol camp, already “overcrowded with inadequate services and deplorable living conditions”, had worsened since the arrival of Turkish forces in northern Syria. The humanitarian NGO Save the Children saysExternal link that 70% of the people in Al-Hol camp are under age 18; 90% of the children in Al-Hol and Roj are under 12.
News of the repatriation policy, however, provoked a public backlash, with security a main bone of contention.
“The children immediately became a political hot potato,” said Tanner, who works for the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The public debate became very toxic [and] emotional”.
In the end the government instructed Tanner to do a thorough evaluation of possible risks to national security in each repatriation case – a reminder of just how politically sensitive the subject of repatriating people with suspected terror links can be.
Domestic security vs. long-term threats
Fears over national security “are an absolutely legitimate concern that should be taken very seriously,” said Tanner.
“The risk varies a lot from person to person and is not easy to quantify,” he added. “So far, for the women we have repatriated, I have not determined security risks that might be serious enough to warrant leaving the mother and her children in the camp.”
By March 2021, Finland had secured the return of 20 children and six women from Syria.
Tanner believes that leaving the children there can have more serious consequences for security in the long run than allowing them to return now.
“The longer the children stay in the camps – and grow up in a radical environment, without education and protection – the harder it will be to counter violent extremism and radicalisation,” he said. “As Finnish citizens, it is highly likely that they will return at some point anyway. What we can really choose is when and how, not if.”
The envoy evaluates the best interest of the child, a principle set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that’s critical when considering repatriation, according to Save the Children.
“Normally, children do better in their family environment and separation from their parents – or one parent – is rarely in the best interest of the child,” said Fabian Emmenegger, communication manager at the NGO.
De-radicalisation and reintegration in Belgium
Belgian officials seem to have reached a similar conclusion. In March 2021, the prime minister, Alexander De Croo, announced that his country would “do everything” to repatriate from Syria all Belgian children aged 12 and under, plus their mothers on a case-by-case basis.
“In these camps there are terrorists of the future,” De Croo told parliament. Belgium has been a target of extremists over the last decade, most notably in 2016, when coordinated attacks killed 32 people in the capital, Brussels.
“For our national security, an organised return is the best guarantee of an adequate follow-up by all the competent agencies,” the national security service OCAM statedExternal link a few weeks after De Croo’s announcement.
To manage any security concerns for the less than 30 children and 13 mothers concerned, OCAM plans a risk analysis for the women and to detain them on arrival.
Géraldine Casutt, a junior researcher at the Swiss Centre for Islam and Society at the University of Fribourg, agrees that adult returnees should “be kept away from society by serving a sentence commensurate with their crimes.”
Countries such as Switzerland and France want their nationals to face justice in the states where terror-related crimes were committed, even though, according to Emmenegger, there are few signs that local trials in northeastern Syria are going ahead.
Indeed some governments have “cited the costs associated with long-term […] prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration” to justify not repatriating their nationals, he said. But Casutt argued there was no need to “reinvent the entire system” and instead, to re-orientate and strengthen existing socio-educational structures to reintegrate returnees.
OCAM reports that most of the 123 Belgians who have returned from Syria so far have shown “positive signs of reintegration and seem to have given up their extremist ideology.” The rest continue to follow personalised inter-agency “de-radicalisation” programmes.
The weaknesses of a children-only policy in France
Like Switzerland, France has a policy of not repatriating adults and bringing back children on a case-by-case basis.
Around 120 French women and 300 children are in Syrian camps, one of the largest European contingents, accordingExternal link to French media. Yet the government has repatriated just 35 minors since 2019 – orphans and children whose mothers agreed to let them go – despite pressure from lawmakers, rights groups and detainees and their families to do more. France has suffered multiple terror attacks in recent years.
“A children-only policy can entail no repatriation at all,” Emmenegger pointed out. In other words, children whose mothers refuse separation – like the mother of the two girls from Geneva detained at Roj – remain stuck in Syria.
Banning adults from repatriation throws up “impossible equations” for countries like France and Switzerland, said Casutt.
“It may sound paradoxical, but the best solution in terms of security is to repatriate all categories of people – men, women and children,” she added.
Breaking a deadlock in Switzerland
The Swiss government, however, is sticking to its 2019 policy, having reaffirmed its aim of safeguarding national security in a March 2021 letter to UN human rights experts.
Johannes Matyassy, director of consular services at the Swiss foreign affairs department, said he and his staff are in regular contact with the local Kurdish authorities to find a solution for the two Geneva girls and ensure their well-being in Roj. He added that, according to their information, the children are in good health, attend school and can speak to their fathers on the phone once a month.
Since their mother – who was stripped of her Swiss citizenship in 2019 – has a federal arrest warrant against her for kidnapping and participation in a criminal organisation, she could be extradited to Switzerland, the lawyer for the girls’ fathers argued. This would allow the children to also return. But, said Olivier Peter, although the Kurds would accept this solution, the Swiss authorities were against it.
Matyassy would not comment to SWI swissinfo.ch on extradition, saying instead that the Swiss were trying to convince the mother to let her children leave. He also suggested another possible partial solution: the older child could choose to return to Switzerland on her own upon turning 15, the age of majority under Kurdish law.
Her 15th birthday was reportedly at the end of April.