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Islamic State: Swiss sisters repatriated from Syrian camp

Sisters leave al-Roj camp without their mother, an alleged IS sympathiser who took her daughters to Syria in 2016
Women and children at al-Roj camp in Syria's northeastern Hasakah province, where relatives of people suspected of belonging to the Islamic State (IS) group are held, 28 March 2021 (AFP)

Two Swiss half-sisters have been repatriated from a Syrian camp back to Switzerland without their mother, an alleged Islamic State sympathiser who took the two girls to the Middle East in 2016.

The Swiss foreign ministry on Tuesday confirmed that it had repatriated the two minors from the al-Roj camp in northeast Syria.

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The older girl, now 15, had suffered a severe shrapnel wound to her leg, requiring three operations, while the younger was said to be in poor health.

"The children arrived on Swiss soil on Dec. 6 at Geneva airport, having passed through Iraq," the ministry said in a statement.

The repatriation, believed to be the first of its kind to Switzerland, "was carried out with the consent of the children’s mother and of the mother’s lawyer," the ministry added.

The government has previously said that the mother is still in the camp and has several nationalities, although her Swiss citizenship had been withdrawn for security reasons. The girls have different fathers in Geneva.

The case of the sisters was raised in April by United Nations human rights experts who said that the girls were allegedly abducted in 2016 by their mother who had joined the Islamic State group. A senior Swiss official told Reuters at the time that it was working hard to have the girls sent home.

A 'tragedy in plain sight'

The al-Hol and al-Roj camps, run by Syrian Kurdish forces, hold nationals from some 60 countries who had fled from IS's last enclaves.

More than 60,000 people, two-thirds of them children, are held in camps for families associated with IS fighters.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which visits the camps, has described them as a "tragedy in plain sight".

Switzerland's foreign ministry has reaffirmed its 2019 policy on what it calls "travellers motivated by terrorism", which puts Swiss security first.

Repatriation can only be considered for minors in such situations but some mothers refuse to be separated from their children, it said.

In October, Germany and Denmark repatriated 11 women who had joined IS and their 37 children from al-Roj, in the biggest such transfer since 2019.

Germany brought home eight women and 23 children, while Denmark repatriated three women and 14 children as part of the same operation, which was carried out with US military support, the German government said in a statement.