Children of IS fighters, victims or perpetrators

Children detained in al-Roj camp in northeastern Syria, 30 September 2020 (AFP)

Children detained in al-Roj camp in northeastern Syria, 30 September 2020 (AFP)

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Enab Baladi – Lujain Mourad

Within a milieu created by the Islamic State (IS) group, hundreds of children of different nationalities were forced to live in different conditions that turned their return into an obsession that haunts the governments of their countries and communities.

Between considering these children victims or linked to IS’ “terrorism,” many questions are raised about the mechanism of dealing with minor children and their legal and social future if they return to their countries.

Despite the presence of thousands of foreign women and children detained in the camps under the control of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeastern Syria, security concerns continue to limit the movement of countries to retrieve their nationals.

Legal Status Assessment

“Victims or perpetrators? It is the most prominent question in this case, and in order to answer it, there are decisions that determine the fate of minors who are returned by their countries from detention camps in northeastern Syria.

Bassam al-Ahmad, director of the Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) organization, told Enab Baladi that the main point in evaluating the legal and social status of minors is determining the level of their involvement in IS’ acts, especially since most children are forcibly recruited, and they cannot be held responsible.

Although many minors were involved in IS’ operations, the International Convention on the Rights of the Child requires dividing them into categories according to the level of participation while preserving their rights in all cases, according to al-Ahmad.

Many women joined the ranks of the Islamic State group with their children, while others gave birth to children from fighters in the organization. In both cases, the children did not have the right to choose.

While many governments and societies continue to consider minors associated with IS as perpetrators or accomplices of “terrorist” operations, dozens of human rights reports have been issued stressing the need to consider these children as victims and to consider their fate the responsibility of their countries.

According to a report issued by the Diakonia International Humanitarian Law Center, people associated with IS should be classified into “male combatants” and “family members,” and other classifications related to their role and involvement in hostilities fall under this.

The report clarified that the reasons for the presence of minors in the IS ranks or their association with it are different, and the degree of their involvement in its ideology and their participation in its operations determines how they are classified.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child also states that every child who is alleged to have violated the law must be presumed innocent until proven legally guilty.

This is confirmed by The Paris Principles relating to the future of children after wars, which require that minors recruited or associated with armed forces be treated as victims of war crimes.

Legal accountability

Many countries have taken back some of their nationals held in detention camps, and while the women are handed over to the competent judicial authorities, states say they have transferred minors to childcare services without mentioning their legal fate.

The issue of holding minors accountable and the mechanism for this remains unclear amid human rights concerns that states will violate the rights of minors and hold them accountable in illegal ways, such as stripping some of their citizenship and leaving many in detention camps.

Al-Ahmad, director of the Syrians for Truth and Justice organization, believes that it is necessary to commit to dealing with them as minors under the legal age in the event that they are held accountable.

Minors and adults must be separated, even in detention centers, to protect them and prevent them from being harmed, according to al-Ahmad, noting that many experiences in shared places of detention have resulted in children being sexually assaulted.

The responsible authorities should protect children from violence and torture and not extract any confessions under psychological or physical pressure, al-Ahmad said.

The accountability stage precedes the stage of rehabilitating minors to be able to provide their testimony under appropriate conditions.

It is necessary to involve the UN agencies when dealing with minors, especially in the rehabilitation and reintegration phase, al-Ahmad added.

According to a report issued by the Syrian Center for Justice and Accountability, the authorities must consider the circumstances that led minors to commit illegal acts and compare them with the individuals’ mental state and their awareness of the nature of what they did.

The report criticized the authorities’ limited efforts in this context to achieve justice for the victims, ignoring the perpetrator’s age or social conditions.

The minimum age for criminal responsibility should be 15 years, taking into account the level of mental, emotional, and intellectual maturity of minors, in addition to the need to integrate psychosocial support services within the approved legal procedures, according to the report.

The Paris Principles relating to the future of children after wars also stipulate the need to treat minors within the framework of restorative justice and social rehabilitation, in line with international law that provides children with special protection through many conventions and principles.

Back to the community

Foreign governments justify their fears that minors associated with IS are separated from their communities of origin and could be “ticking time bombs” once they return to their communities.

Countries consider that these children have been brought up with a “terrorist” ideology that can be transferred with them to their country. Moreover, these children are haunted by a “stigma” that makes them rejected by governments and society.

Safwan Qassam, a researcher and social psychologist, told Enab Baladi that countries should provide psychosocial support services at all stages, according to the needs of minors.

The return of minors to their communities requires restoring their psychological balance by providing them with deliberate and targeted activities, according to Qassam.

He added that the integration of children into society should be gradual, and the preparation of children begins by giving them life skills and studying the mechanism of ridding them of the violent thoughts they were raised on.

The children are supposed to undergo the stage of experimental integration by merging them with a small and specific sample of children to assess their response and ability to deal with them, according to the psychologist.

Experts at the Syrian Center for Justice and Accountability believe that the authorities should develop programs to disengage minors from the armed groups they have joined and reintegrate them into their societies to overcome their feelings of marginalization and to get rid of the stigma that can generate other crimes.

Such programs should allow for the design of tools to eradicate the effects of radicalization and the inclusion of psychosocial support services in all phases of the programs.

According to a report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) at the beginning of this year, about 10,000 children from 60 countries live in the al-Hol and al-Roj camps, where those suspected of being linked to IS are detained, under the control of the SDF, the military arm of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).

Detention centers lack the basics of health and social care and are witnessing a state of lawlessness, chaos, and frequent killings.

 

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