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Effort To Return ISIS Families To Their Countries Of Origin Meets Stiff Resistance

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Two weeks after the Turkish incursion into northeast Syria, Kurds in the region are still running detention camps that are holding the families of ISIS fighters. A humanitarian organization called Save the Children estimates that 9,500 children from more than 40 countries are living inside those camps. The parents of these children had left their home countries to join ISIS. And now there is an effort to remove these children from those camps in northern Syria and repatriate them to their countries of origin.

Joining us now is a woman who is part of that effort. Sonia Khush is the Syria response director with Save the Children. It's one of the many international NGOs working in the region.

Welcome.

SONIA KHUSH: Thank you.

CHANG: So can you just first describe what these detention camps are like, these camps that these children are still in. How urgent is this situation right now?

KHUSH: There are currently two camps which hold the foreign women and children who were associated with ISIS. One of them is called al-Hol. It holds about 68,000 people total, and about 11,000 of those live in what we call an annex. It doesn't get regular health care. It's getting colder in Syria right now. It floods a lot in the camp. So it's really no place for a child to grow up.

CHANG: OK. And to be clear, these camps were set up long before the recent Turkish incursion into northern Syria. But after Turkey's incursion and now this decision for U.S. troops to be leaving the region, how has all of that complicated the circumstances these families are facing?

KHUSH: Well, the situation in northeast Syria is pretty complicated and chaotic right now because no one is really sure what's going to happen next. So right now, the camps with the foreign women and children are controlled by the Kurdish self-administration. And they're really doing the best they can. And they're asking governments to take their women and children home.

But if control of the camps changes to either the government in Syria or to another party, we just don't know what's going to happen to the camps. And we don't know whether repatriation is going to be as easy an option as it is right now for governments who want to do it.

CHANG: And what kind of resistance are you getting from countries that you're trying to repatriate these families to? I mean, these are families - or at least in the case of the mothers who willingly left in order to join ISIS or join men who joined ISIS, is there hesitation for many of these countries to take these families back?

KHUSH: We're finding a lot of hesitation among many governments to take women and children back.

CHANG: Do you think these countries have a point, these countries that are hesitating, that there are real national security concerns?

KHUSH: You know, the women in the camps themselves say that they are fully willing to face the justice systems back in their own countries. And they fully are aware that they're most likely going to end up in jail. There's a Belgian woman who has been part of our programs for more than a year now. She's been in the camps. And if she goes back there, she's very quick to say that she knows that she's going to end up in jail.

But then she also says, I feel like I'm in a jail here, so I would rather be in a jail in Belgium rather than a jail in Syria. At least I know that my children will be taken care of and that they'll be safe.

CHANG: I mean, the conditions in these camps sound horrible. But even beyond that, is there a concern that if these children remain in these camps indefinitely, that there is a chance they could try to join ISIS or some similar organization?

KHUSH: Most of the children in the camps are under 5. So at this point, radicalization isn't the top threat to those children. They're not getting regular health care. You still have a lot of children that arrived in the camp with injuries from having been subjected to bombardment and fighting.

We can see the symptoms of trauma. I mean, this is such an unhealthy environment for them to be living in. I have a lot of fears for what prolonged exposure to these types of conditions will do for their emotional and mental well-being, not to mention their physical health.

CHANG: Right. Sonia Khush is the Syria response director with Save the Children.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

KHUSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.