In a derelict camp in northern Syria, Belgian children are growing up in a lawless land.
Their short lives have been defined by the brutal rise and fall of the Islamic State (IS) and have unfolded on the sidelines of a years-long proxy war, which ravaged the region and whose violent ripples were felt well beyond the country's borders.
After a long and bitter battle, the Islamic State's grip on the region was broken and its self-proclaimed caliphate collapsed. Its soldiers, many of them from Europe, were driven away, killed or captured – but their children remained. Some have died, some are missing and others have been brought back to their estranged countries, but thousands are still held in unsustainable conditions in the refugee camp of Al-Hol.
A situation report by the United Nations' humanitarian action body, OCHA, said that after thousands of arrivals since December 2018, the camp's population has surged to reach 73,782 as of May of this year. According to that document, over 90 per cent are women and children. The vast majority are either Syrian or Iraqi, and 15 per cent are nationals of other countries, such as Belgium, France or the Netherlands.
Out of the 23,328 school-aged children of 63 different nationalities the UN body estimated to be living in the camp, a Belgian mission sent to Syria in June identified 47 Belgian kids, out of whom 38 were less than five years old. According to intelligence reports, roughly 90 others are missing. The exact presence of Belgian children in Syria remains uncertain, but between 137 and 160 are estimated to be still living in the war-torn country, most of them born there with at least one Belgian parent.
By the end of the diplomatic trip in June, six of them were flown back to Belgium.
Organised in secrecy, their return represents the first step by federal authorities to live up to a 2017 commitment to actively work for the return of all children under the age of ten who remain in former IS strongholds, with the cases of older children studied on a case-by-case basis, due to concerns that they may have received military training or been indoctrinated.
While the six children are not the first to be brought back to Belgium from active conflict zones in the region, their return remains unprecedented, as it marks the first state-led repatriation of the descendants of Belgian jihadist fighters since their departures were first recognised as a threat to national security.
Starting over in Belgium
After landing in a military airport near Brussels, the six children were handed over to child protection services from Belgium's different language communities, who will oversee their reintegration.
Few details were released to the media regarding their identities: there are two separate sets of siblings, aged six to fourteen. They were all born in Belgium and were orphaned during the conflict; they were living alone in the foreign section of the squalid camp and have at least one surviving relative in Belgium, for the most part, grandparents. The sixth one, turned 18 just before her return, still has a mother in Belgium. At age 12, she was kidnapped by her late father who wanted to marry her off to a fellow IS recruit.
"She never wanted to leave," said Bernard de Vos, children's rights delegate of Belgium's French-speaking community, who was in Al-Hol when the repatriation mission came to recover the children. "She lived in a very particular context for years, and she will have to rebuild her life here. She experienced and witnessed extremely difficult things and that will undoubtedly leave a trace."
While they all speak either Dutch or French, the youngest in particular presented signs of poor mental and physical development due to lack of intellectual stimulation, and the conditions of isolation and privation they have known for most of their lives.
Flanders' youth welfare agency, Agentschap Jongerenwelzijn, took in some of the six children. Agency spokesperson Peter Jan Bogaert declined to provide an exact number but said they were some of several admitted into their services over the last two years, as mothers brought their infants and children back from countries ravaged by armed conflicts in the region.
The past repatriations sparked a number of concerns within the agency, Bogaert admitted, as social workers juggled day-to-day concerns ("Will we find them a good foster family?") with unprecedented ones ("How can we deal with the onslaught of media attention?; How can we make sure they are no longer exposed to radical sympathies?")
"But they have all adapted very well. So we believe it will be the same in this case, even if it will take some time – a few weeks, a few months… it depends on each situation," Bogaert added.
Admitted into the agency's system, Bogaert said the children are treated like "any other Flemish orphan”, with the exception that authorities on different levels of government carry out thorough background checks on their remaining relatives in Belgium to ensure they are not going back to radicalised environments.
"We try to contact the family here, to get a picture of who they have remaining in Belgium and of what influence they can have on the child," he said, adding that the agency worked closely with federal counter-terrorism agency OCAM and with local authorities. "The goal is to let them go to school, have friends, hobbies, happy weekends – to let them be normal."
The first step in the process is to place them with a caregiver, which can be anyone from the children's remaining family to a foster institution, although the agency sees the latter as a measure of last resort.
"We believe that the little ones need a family, so we work to return them to their own relatives or to place them in a foster family," Bogaert said. The agency will keep constant contact with these families, providing them with the guidance and support needed to ensure the children are given the best possible chance to successfully readapt to the lives they were yanked away from – a situation of which some of the child returnees are acutely aware of.
"They had very human, concrete concerns upon their return," said Heidi De Pauw, who leads the centre for missing children, Child Focus, which has been working with relatives of the kids abducted to Syria since the first incidents took place between 2011 and 2012.
"They knew they were lagging behind academically, and worried about how to explain it to their future classmates," she said. "Some told me: 'I can't say I have been in Syria – what am I going to tell them?'"
Left behind in a dustbowl inferno
After the return of the six children in June, it is not clear when and if more will be brought back by the government. Belgium said at the time that no further repatriations were being planned, raising concerns with humanitarian workers who warned that the arrival of summer would worsen the disastrous living conditions in Al-Hol, where four Belgian children have already died since March of last year.
"Foreign women and children are indefinitely locked in a dustbowl inferno in northeast Syria while their home countries look the other way," a counterterrorism expert with Human Rights Watch said, urging foreign governments to protect their citizens, instead of leaving them at the mercy of "disease and death in a foreign desert."
"Some children do not start walking before the age of two, and most spend their days there in idleness, doing nothing," said De Pauw. "They are all chronically malnourished."
But Belgium now appears to be faced with a roadblock regarding the scores of Belgian children who are known to be still living in Al-Hol – one it put up itself.
"They are all under eight years old, but they are not orphans," said De Pauw. "The problem is that, even if Belgium said it will repatriate all children under the age of ten, the Kurdish authorities refuse to allow children to be separated from their parents."
Belgium has repeatedly said that it does not support the repatriation of the parents, and is one of several European countries who insist they should be tried for their crimes in the region. But in the middle of war-torn Syria, and under the custody of stateless Kurdish forces, it remains unclear who could bring these parents to justice. The current situation is also underpinned by the political instability that reigns in Belgium in the aftermath of the federal elections.
"It would require a lot of courage from the incoming administration to table a resolution for the repatriation of these so-called IS children as soon as it takes office, so the issue can drag on," De Pauw said.
The surge of Flemish nationalist and far-right parties in the May ballot casts an additional shroud of doubt over the fate of the children still stuck in Al-Hol, after the June repatriations were met with fierce resistance and condemnation from representatives of those parties.
For children's rights delegate de Vos, urgent action is needed. "We can't continue to allow those children to grow up in the inhumane and deplorable conditions of the camp, all the while knowing that it amounts to feeding the infernal circle of terrorism which, sooner or later, will blow up in our faces."
Lack of coordinated policy
In an email statement dated August 7, Steffie Geysens, a communications official with the ministry of justice, said that the Belgian government continued to actively work on the repatriation of Belgian children still in Syria. She also said contacts had been established with Belgium's European partners, but did not specify how the government planned to address the issue of the parents, nor who Belgium's European partners were.
A total of 22 descendants of jihadist fighters from Europe were brought back to the Continent on the same week in June, as missions from Belgium, France and Norway flew into and out of Syria in operations that were nevertheless organised and carried out independently of each other.
In the absence of a clear EU-wide stance or policy regarding the relatives of IS fighters with a claim to EU citizenship, member states have largely organised their responses to the situation in an uncoordinated manner, which vary from Denmark's hard-line approach of stripping the children of their nationality, to Germany's repatriation of all children generally regarded as victims, to Belgium and France's overall "case-by-case" approach.
But the situation in the camp is quickly worsening and is manifestly outpacing the resolutions of Belgian and European lawmakers. A US defence report published in June warned that IS was already regaining force after the US military drawback at the start of the year and amid the void resulting from the continued lack of engagement of European nations.
Amid the growing security concerns, the living and humanitarian conditions in the camp also continue to deteriorate. Aid workers from the 35 organisations on the ground have said the situation remains tense with millions of dollars still required in order to provide the camp's residents with medicines, food and drinking water.
Beyond these basic needs, the humanitarian groups are faced with the challenge of the education and upbringing of children who speak different languages and who come from different cultures. Thousands are estimated to not have received any kind of education for at least five years.
Scores of humanitarian and intelligence reports continue to document the life of the children who remain stuck in the former terrorist bastion and whose lives are caught in a complex international tug of war. As another summer draws to a close, the question still remains about the fate of the young descendants of IS fighters, the unaccounted-for corollary of the West's battle against jihadist terrorism.
Bringing Belgium’s jihadist fighters to justice
Belgium has turned a deaf ear to international calls asking it to bring back Belgian Islamic State (IS) fighters in Syria and prosecute them at home, insisting they should be tried in a local jurisdiction or, alternatively, by an international ad-hoc tribunal.
Trial in a local court
The majority of crimes committed by Belgium’s IS fighters were made abroad. But the cross-border nature of their crimes, many committed in Syria and Iraq, raises the question of which country should bring them to justice for which actions. Moreover, the majority of Belgian jihadists in the region are being held in Kurdish-controlled camps in Syria. Without a state or internationally recognised judiciary institutions, the Kurds have refused responsibility for foreigner fighters and repeatedly said they cannot continue to detain them indefinitely.
Humanitarian actors have further warned of violation of international justice standards during “one size fits all” expedite trials in Iraq, reporting that most foreigners, including those from Europe, were receiving life or death sentences and that foreign children, some as young as nine, were being handed years-long prison sentences.
Proponents of this option advance that an international ad-hoc tribunal would be best equipped to handle the evidence of crimes committed by Belgian IS recruits abroad, the nature of which could see it ruled inadmissible by a Belgian or EU court. But the establishment of past international tribunals has proven long and costly, and in this case it would fail to provide the quick action called for by military and humanitarian actors in the region.
By Gabriela Galindo