Up to 750 children of foreign fighters, specifically EU nationals, are currently stranded in camps in north-eastern Syria, with many as young as under six years old.
The largest of the camps and the most known is the Al-Hawl camp, which is controlled by the Kurdish-led militia the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF); it reportedly holds around 70,000 people of whom the vast majority are women and children.
“Among them, the largest group of children in the range of 300, is reported to be French,” according to Dominique Parent from the UN Human Rights Regional Office who informed Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) of the situation yesterday. The remaining children of European fighters in Syria consist of 200 from the Netherlands, 160 from Belgium and 60 who are UK nationals.
The revelation of the extent of the number of children born to foreign fighters in the Syrian conflict comes amid a significant ongoing debate within European and Western countries in particular regarding whether they should allow the former fighters and their children back into their countries.
Following the territorial defeat of Daesh last year and the capture of many of its fighters and their families, there have been increasing concerns about the EU nationals who went to join the group, many of whom now regret their choices and are looking to return to their home countries. Due to their former affiliation with Daesh and the perceived risk of them posing an extremist threat once they return, European countries have largely refused to grant them access and in many cases have revoked their citizenship, sparking controversy over the ethics of such a move, especially with regards children born into the conflict.
MEP Maria Arena, who chairs the European Parliament’s sub-committee on human rights, stressed: “If a child is a member state citizen, then their protection should prevail over any political concerns.” The issue is made even more difficult due to the fact that the SDF allegedly will not allow children to be returned without their mothers who are often Daesh members of sympathisers.
The 750 EU national-born children are among an estimated 28,000 children from over 60 countries who are currently stuck in north-eastern Syria, of which less than 20 per cent are at least 12 years old, and half of whom are under the age of five. Around 20,000 of the children are Iraqis, and the remaining 8,000 come from other countries.