40 countries can’t figure out how to repatriate their kids from Syria

The larger story is that no countries want their citizens back, including kids.

Wounded children are seen in a hospital in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 23, 2018.  (photo credit: REUTERS/BASSAM KHABIEH)
Wounded children are seen in a hospital in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 23, 2018.
Forty countries, among them the wealthiest in the world with access to the latest technologies and innovations that can get to the moon and explore microbes, can’t figure out how to get the children of their citizens out of Syria.
A recent decision by the UK to cancel a rescue mission to help British orphans – the sons and daughters of parents who went to Syria to support ISIS – illustrates the challenges governments face and their unwillingness to take responsibility.
When ISIS was mostly defeated in its last major foothold in Syria in March, tens of thousands of men and women were found by the coalition forces and their Syrian Democratic Forces partners. These were mostly women and children, as well as 10,000 ISIS fighters. The women and children, some 70,000 of them, ended up in al-Hol camp. These included some 7,000 children from 40 different countries, according to various accounts. The foreign children are housed in an annex of the camp apart from the Syrians and Iraqis.
But numerous foreign countries have refused to take back their citizens. This has led to heartbreaking cases, such as the Albanian father of Alvin Berisha, whose mother took him to Syria in 2014 when she joined ISIS. The child, now 11, was found in al-Hol after his father traveled through northern Iraq’s Kurdish region to Syria to see his son. Finally, with the help of Albanian, Italian and Red Cross and Crescent organizations, the young boy came home. But for thousands of others, there is scant hope.
A glimmer of hope emerged in mid-October when the UK, prodded by the sudden chaos erupting over the US decision to withdraw from Syria, tasked officials with finding a way to bring some orphans home. The Guardian reported that up to 57 minors and three orphans could have been affected, some between age six and 10. “A quick and safe route had been identified to take them out of north-east Syria and then to Erbil, Iraq, where they would be flown home direct to the UK,” The Guardian reported.
On October 16, The Guardian reported that the UK’s Home Office would assist the orphans. But the Turkish invasion on October 9 and the SDF’s decision to seek out the Syrian regime and Russian discussions for a ceasefire amid the US withdrawal made it appear these children would soon fall into the hands of the Assad regime.
Could special forces, such as the SAS, be used to rescue them? The US had just exfiltrated two British ISIS members known as “the Beatles,” and taken them to a “secure location.” The UK considered its next move throughout the last weeks of October. The young boy Alvin was brought out in early November. But the British couldn’t accomplish what Albania and Italy could.
Instead, Home Secretary Priti Patel intervened to block the “rescue operation.” It came at the last minute, but the decision was backed by Defense Secretary Ben Wallace in the UK, according to reports. The operation was stopped at the last moment amid claims the children might pose “security concerns.”
The story that the UK canceled the rescue operation illustrates the larger problem affecting the thousands of foreign children trapped in Syria. Many of them are being kept with their radicalized parents, including violent mothers who support ISIS. These women have been reported to have created a “religious police” inside al-Hol camp, and have murdered women they accuse of being not sufficiently pro-ISIS. There is also a high mortality rate among children.
Yet the most powerful countries in the world devote no resources to al-Hol, and have abdicated responsibility regarding eastern Syria. The remaining US forces in the area are securing oil wells. Other countries in the coalition have not put funds into helping civilians in eastern Syria, even their own citizens. Save the Children has estimated that 4,400 of the foreign children are under the age of five. It is unclear how five-year-olds pose a security concern.
The larger story is that no countries want their citizens back, including children. Only in rare cases, such as the father who went to Syria to find his son, has local press encouraged local authorities to act. Countries in Europe that spend large amounts on foreign aid for all sorts of countries in the world don’t offer aid to help their own citizens trapped in eastern Syria.
In many cases, this appears to punish the kids for the alleged crimes of the parents. Even in the cases of the parents, many countries have made it difficult, if not impossible, for their own citizens to return, sometimes stripping them of citizenship and rendering them stateless.
It seems that the countries that joined the coalition against ISIS increasingly did so in order to avoid having to take back their own citizens who joined ISIS, instead of joining the coalition in order to take responsibility for dealing with their own criminal citizens. The coalition has not made it incumbent on members to deal with their citizens.
This leaves the SDF – an organization the US says it is only working with in a “tactical, temporary and transactional method” – with the burden of dealing with the ISIS members and their families in eastern Syria.