Children Syria ISIS Islamic state orphans repatriation
Children near Dashisha, Syria (Image: US Department of Defence)

In 2014, Khaled Sharrouf, one of the first Australians to join the Islamic State along with his family, posted a photo of his seven-year old son holding the severed head of a Syrian soldier. The picture, a window into the macabre brutality of the caliphate, gained worldwide opprobrium, and made Sharrouf Australia’s most infamous terrorist.

Now, Sharrouf is dead, reportedly killed in an airstrike in 2017. IS, which once controlled and terrorised large swathes of Iraq and Syria, is all but defeated. But this week Sharrouf’s three surviving children were found in a Syrian refugee camp, where his eldest daughter, aged 18, is pregnant with her third child. Their grandmother, Karen Nettleton, is desperately lobbying the Australian government to bring them home. With them in the camp are a further eight Australian IS families, including 19 children.

Hundreds of people from Europe, the United States and Australia left their countries to join IS. Some brought their families, others had children while over there. As the caliphate crumbles, children like the Sharroufs pose a tricky legal, ethical and political quandary for Western governments to grapple with.

Can the Sharrouf children come home?

Legally, there is nothing strictly stopping the Sharrouf children returning to Australia. In 2015, new anti-terror laws gave the immigration minister power to strip dual nationals of their citizenship if they are involved with terrorism. Two years later, Khaled Sharrouf became the first person to lose his citizenship under these laws.

But for members of IS families who aren’t dual citizens, the situation is more complicated. The Morrison government remains uninterested in repatriation, determined to deal with the problem as far offshore as possible. This year, it introduced legislation which would allow the government to make temporary exclusion orders against fighters returning home. If passed, the home affairs minister will have the power to block returnees for up to two years if suspected, on reasonable grounds, that an order would prevent terrorism or support for terrorism.

What are the practicalities?

Legal issues aside, there are significant difficulties involved with repatriating IS families. The Morrison government says it is difficult to safely extract children from the middle of a war zone. The al-Hawl refugee camp in northern Syria, where the Sharrouf children and many other surviving members of IS families are housed, is controlled by Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic forces.

According to the Washington Post, this creates a diplomatic minefield, since Turkey and Iraq both have frosty relations with the Kurds. The other option, to extract people through Syria, would involve difficult negotiations with President Bashar al-Assad.

How is the rest of the world dealing with the issue?

The defeat of IS has made the question of repatriation a live one for governments across the world. In February, Donald Trump called on reluctant European governments to take back over 800 foreign fighters and make them face trial. The US State Department has made similar requests to Australia.

But the US has been less willing to accept its own converts. This year, Hoda Muthana, who joined IS as a 20-year old college student after being radicalised in Alabama five years ago, announced she wanted to come home with her infant son and even offered to face trial. But Trump is refusing to let Muthana return, leading to an ongoing and complex legal battle which could have long-term implications for the law around citizenship in the US.

Recently, the UK revoked the citizenship of Shamima Begum, a teenager who fled East London to join IS in 2015 and wanted to return to give birth. Her child died in the al-Hawl refugee camp, and Begum remains in quasi-stateless limbo while her family attempts to challenge  UK home affairs minister Sajid Javid’s decision in court. Meanwhile, a court in Belgium held that the Belgian government could not be forced to return six children and their mothers from Syria.

Other countries have quietly begun the difficult task of repatriation. Following US troop withdrawal from Syria, France reversed its policy of not bringing back foreign fighters. Last month, five orphan children were evacuated. Russia, which reportedly had up to 4000 nationals join IS, has been particularly successful at repatriation, and in February returned 27 children whose parents were imprisoned in Iraq as suspected IS members. Russian IS children found an unlikely humanitarian advocate in Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen warlord who has lobbied Putin to bring children home.

But the West’s repatriation problem isn’t likely to go away soon. And as more and more broken families emerge from the ruins of the Islamic State, governments will have to figure out what to do with the failed caliphate’s forgotten children. 

Peter Fray

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