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European families stranded in northeastern Syria must be repatriated

Over 200 academics call upon European countries to take immediate action to repatriate their nationals from the detention camps of northeastern Syria
Children look through holes in a tent at the al-Hol displacement camp in Hasaka governorate, Syria, on 2 April 2019 (Reuters)

The issue of repatriating European nationals who joined various groups, including Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, has divided European public opinion. There are currently more than 400 European adults and 700 children, most under 12, in camps overseen by Kurdish authorities in northeastern Syria.

These families face hazardous living conditions, including outbreaks of illness and malnutrition. These children are growing up in a war zone, facing various traumas and being deprived of their most fundamental liberties. Temperatures in the camps go below freezing in the winter and soar above 40C in the summer. Fresh water is scarce. In 2019 alone, more than 500 people, most of them children, reportedly died in the al-Hol camp alone.

Violating basic rights

Amid growing instability in the region and with the outbreak of coronavirus in the camps, Kurdish authorities face increasing difficulties in supplying residents with proper medication and food. There have been repeated called for the international community to act and ensure the repatriation of European nationals. 

While European countries are well aware of these challenges and risks, they have failed to develop a coherent strategy on this urgent issue. While countries like Kosovo have repatriated some of their citizens, most other European countries simply refuse to do so.

By refusing to address this question, Europe is not only outsourcing this responsibility onto others, but also putting at risk the lives of hundreds of innocent children

Inside the camps, children are exposed to grave danger, trauma and illegal detention. Countries such as Belgium and France have only been willing to repatriate unaccompanied children, opposing the return of the adults and thus enforcing a separation between children and parents.

This violates the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the rights of children to be with their parents. In some cases, European countries have revoked the citizenship of adults. 

Failing to repatriate European children violates their fundamental rights, including the right to be free from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment, the right not to be arbitrarily detained and the right to education. This has been reiterated by various regional and international bodies, including the Council of Europe, the United Nations and the European parliament, which has called on European countries to undertake all possible measures to repatriate these children.

Unlawful detention

The ostentatious refusal by some European countries to repatriate adult citizens reflects a growing trend to erode the basic human rights of those implicated in terrorism offences, including the right to a fair trial. European nationals are being subjected to indefinite and unlawful detention. By outsourcing this matter to the Kurds, European states are neglecting their responsibilities towards their citizens. 

Members of a displaced family sit outside a tent in Syria’s al-Hol camp on 25 August (AFP)
Members of a displaced family sit outside a tent in Syria’s al-Hol camp on 25 August 2020 (AFP)

Beyond violating the rights of the children and adults involved, the short-term vision of European governments could have devastating long-term effects. While security concerns have been used to justify non-repatriation of adults, security and intelligence services have warned of the possible consequences of this passive stance. 

By refusing to prosecute or reintegrate these individuals, European countries effectively lose their grip over them, which risks having these stranded citizens develop a deep resentment against their home state, which could lead to retaliation. Controlled and coordinated repatriation, with the prospect of due legal process, is the only sustainable and durable solution in the long term. 

Call for action

We, the undersigned, urgently call upon European countries to take immediate action to repatriate their nationals from the detention camps of northeastern Syria. We demand the following:

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- An immediate repatriation of all European nationals, with priority given to children with their mothers and a coordinated plan for the repatriation of male adults in Syrian and Iraqi prisons;

- That European countries cease pushing for the separation of children from their mothers, and call for an immediate repatriation of children with their primary caregivers; 

- A fair and equitable trial for all adults in European courts; 

- An end to the deprivation of citizenship from European nationals, which, in some cases, produces new conditions of de facto statelessness. 

By refusing to address this question, Europe is not only outsourcing this responsibility onto others, but also putting at risk the lives of hundreds of innocent children, with potentially devastating long-term effects on peace and stability. The lives of these innocent children and our fellow citizens are in our hands. The time to act is now. 

First signatories

  • Nadia Fadil, Associate Professor, KU Leuven 
  • Marijke Van Buggenhout, Doctoral researcher, Vrije Universiteit Brussel 
  • Gerrit Loots, Professor Emeritus, Vrije Universiteit Brussel 
  • Hannan Jamai, Psychotherapist and Researcher, Vrije Universiteit Brussel 
  • Anja Kublitz, Associate Professor, Aalborg University  
  • Annelies Moors, Professor Emeritus, University of Amsterdam 
  • Evelien Wauters, PhD Researcher International Law, KU Leuven
  • Lisa Stampnitzky, Lecturer, University of Sheffield 
  • Martijn de Koning, Lecturer and Senior Researcher, Radboud University Nijmegen 
  • Nisha Kapoor, Associate Professor, Warwick University 

Additional signatories

  • Abdellali Hajjat, Associate Professor, Universite libre de Bruxelles 
  • Adnan Albaba, PhD candidate, Vrije Universiteit Brussel  
  • Alain Brossat, Research Fellow, National Chiao-Tung University, Taiwan 
  • Alban de Kerchove d'Exaerde, Research Director FNRS, Université Libre de Bruxelles 
  • Alice Elliot, Lecturer, Goldsmiths - University of London 
  • Alyssa Miller, Anthropologist, Scripps College 
  • Amade M’charek, Professor Anthropology of Science, University of Amsterdam 
  • Amal Miri, Doctoral Researcher, Ghent University 
  • Annerienke Fioole, Doctoral Researcher, University of Amsterdam 
  • Anouk de Koning, Associate Professor, Leiden University 
  • Antoine Corre-Basset, Professor, Universite Rouen-Normandie 
  • Anya Topolski, Associate Professor, Radboud University Nijmegen 
  • Arun Kundnani, Writer and Researcher, US 
  • Atalia Omer, Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame 
  • Barbara Van Dyck, Assistant Professor, Coventry University 
  • Bard Kartveit, Researcher, Norce Research Norway 
  • Barry Goldson, Professor, University of Liverpool 
  • Benedikte Zitouni, Lecturer, Universite Saint-Louis Bruxelles 
  • Benoit Nemery, Emeritus Professor, KU Leuven 
  • Birgitte Schepelern Johansen, Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen 
  • Brigitte Herremans, PhD researcher, Ghent University 
  • Brunilda Pali, Postdoctoral Researcher, KU Leuven 
  • Carole Ammann, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Amsterdam 
  • Carolien Vekemans, Affiliated Researcher, Ghent University 
  • Chaima Ahaddour, Professor Islamic Ethics, KU Leuven 
  • Charles Hirschkind, Associate Professor, UC Berkeley 
  • Charlotte Watelet, PhD researcher, EHESS 
  • Chia Longman, Associate Professor, Ghent University 
  • Chiara De Cesari, Associate Professor of European Studies, University of Amsterdam 
  • Chrisje Sandelowsky-Bosman, PhD Researcher, Leiden University 
  • Christian Suhr, Associate Professor, Aarhus University 
  • Christophe Mincke, Professor, Universite Saint-Louis a Bruxelles 
  • Claire English, Lecturer, University of the West of Scotland 
  • Corinne Torrekens, Associate Professor, Universite libre de Bruxelles 
  • Damien Scalia, Professor, Université Libre de Bruxelles
  • David Jamar, Associate Professor, University of Mons 
  • Didier Debaise, FNRS Senior Researcher, Universite Libre de Bruxelles 
  • Donna Haraway, Professor Emerita, University of California Santa Cruz 
  • Elena Arigita, Permanent Lecturer, University of Granada 
  • Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Professor of Politics and Crown Chair in Middle East Studies, Northwestern University 
  • Els Dumortier, Professor, Vrije Universiteit Brussel 
  • Elsa Roland, Researcher in Educational Sciences, ULB 
  • Erik Swyngedouw, Professor of Geography, University of Manchester
  • Eva Brems, Professor of Human Rights Law, Ghent University 
  • Fabienne Brion, Professor, UC Louvain 
  • Farid El Asri, Lecturer, Universite Saint-Louis- Bruxelles 
  • Francesco Ragazzi, Associate Professor, Leiden University
  • Francio Guadeloupe, Senior Lecturer, University of Amsterdam 
  • Francisco Rodriguez, Associate Professor, Universidad Autonoma de Madrid 
  • Frank Moulaert, Professor Emeritus, KU Leuven 
  • Gily Coene, Professor, Vrije Universiteit Brussel 
  • Giselle Corradi, IDC Coordinator, Ghent University 
  • Gita Deneckere, History Professor, Ghent University
  • Guillermo Martin-Saiz, Research Associate, Washington University in St Louis 
  • Hamza Esmili, PhD Candidate, EHESS-ENS 
  • Heike Schotten, Associate Professor of Political Science, UMass Boston 
  • Herman De Ley, Professor Emeritus, Ghent University 
  • Hichem Sahli, Professor, VUB 
  • Hilde Heynen, Professor, KU Leuven 
  • Hubert Van Puyenbroeck, Postdoctoral researcher, Vrije Universiteit Brussel
  • Ibrahim Bechrouri, Adjunct Lecturer, City University of New York
  • Iman Lechkar, Professor, Vrije Universiteit Brussel 
  • Iris Kolman, PhD Candidate, University of Amsterdam 
  • Isabelle Stengers, Professor Emeritus, Université Libre de Bruxelles 
  • Ivo Aertsen, Professor Emeritus, KU Leuven 
  • Jaap Doek, Guest Lecturer Law Faculty, University of Leiden 
  • James Dickins, Professor of Arabic, University of Leeds 
  • James M Day, Professor Emeritus, UC Louvain 
  • Jan Cornelis, Professor Emeritus, Vrije Universiteit Brussel 
  • Jan Gabriel Delrue, Professor Emeritus, Catholic University of Leuven KUL 
  • Jan Orbie, Associate Professor, UGhent 
  • Jan Wyns, Docent, PCVO Groeipunt 
  • Jasmin Tabakovic, PhD researcher, University of Cambridge 
  • Jasmin Zine, Professor, Wilfrid Laurier University 
  • Jean-Luc Rwogera, Phd Candidate in Political Sciences, Vrije Universiteit Brussel 
  • Jean-Michel Lafleur, FNRS Senior Researcher, University of Liege 
  • Jeanette Jouili, Associate Professor, Syracuse University 
  • Jenneke Christiaens, Professor Criminology, Vrije Universiteit Brussel
  • Jennifer A Selby, Associate Professor, Memorial University 
  • Jeremie Piolat Anthropologue, LAAP 
  • Joachim Ben Yakoub, Postdoctoral Researcher, UGent 
  • Johanna M Lems, Predoc Researcher and Teaching Assistant, Universidad Complutense de Madrid 
  • Jorgen Nielsen, Professor Emeritus, University of Birmingham 
  • Justine Bakker, Postdoctoral Researcher, Radboud University 
  • Karin De Bruyn, Research coordinator, VUB 
  • Karin Hannes, Associate Professor, KU Leuven
  • Katrin Solhdju, FNRS Senior Researcher, University of Mons 
  • Katy Fox-Hodess, Lecturer, University of Sheffield 
  • Koen De Feyter, Professor, University of Antwerp
  • Laleh Khalili, Professor of International Politics, Queen Mary University of London 
  • Laura Galian, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Granada 
  • Laura Lundy, Professor, Queen’s University Belfast 
  • Laurent Bonelli, Associate Professor, Paris Nanterre University 
  • Lesley Hustinx, Associate Professor, Ghent University 
  • Liesbeth De Donder, Associate Professor, Vrije Universiteit Brussel
  • Lionel Zevounou, Associate Professor in Public Law, Universite Paris Nanterre 
  • Lore Janssens, Researcher IMMRC, KU Leuven
  • Lotte Buch Segal, Lecturer, University of Edinburgh 
  • Louise Johansen, Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen 
  • Louise Reyntjens, PhD Candidate Human Rights Law, KU Leuven
  • Lucas Catherine, Independent researcher and author 
  • Luz Gomez, Associate professor, Universidad Autonoma de Madrid 
  • Marc Craps, Associate professor, KU Leuven
  • Marc De Meyere, Professor Emeritus, UGent 
  • Marcello Maneri, Associate Professor, Universita di Milano-Bicocca 
  • Marco Martiniello, Director Center for Ethnic and Migration Studies, University of Liege 
  • Maria Luisa Cesoni, Professor Emeritus, UCLouvain 
  • Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, Associate Professor, University of Warwick
  • Mariska Jung, PhD Candidate, Vrije Universiteit Brussel 
  • Marjo Buitelaar, Professor of Contemporary Islam, University of Groningen 
  • Marta Lotto, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Paris 8
  • Martin Vander Elst, Anthropologist (FNRS mandate), Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Prospective, UCL 
  • Maryam Kolly, Lecturer, Universite Saint-Louis Bruxelles 
  • Matte Gagliolo, Associate Professor, Universite libre de Bruxelles 
  • Matthea Westerduin, Phd Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, lecturer, Utrecht University 
  • Matthias De Backer, Postdoctoral Researcher, KU Leuven 
  • Mayanthi Fernando, Associate Professor, University of California, Santa Cruz 
  • Melanie Richter-Montpetit, Lecturer in International Security, University of Sussex 
  • Meriam Cheikh, Lecturer, Inalco Paris 
  • Meriam Mabrouk, PhD candidate, Birkbeck University of London 
  • Merve Kayikci, Postdoctoral Researcher, KU Leuven 
  • Michael Whyte, Associate Professor Emeritus, University of Copenhagen 
  • Michel Vanhoorne, Retired Professsor of Occupational and Environmental Health, Ghent University 
  • Michiel De Proost, PhD researcher, VUB/RHEA 
  • Mieke Groeninck, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Leiden 
  • Miriyam Aouragh, Senior Lecturer, University of Westminster 
  • Montassir Sakhi, PhD Candidate, University Paris 8 
  • Nacira Guenif, Professor, University Paris 8 Vincennes Saint-Denis
  • Nicolas Prignot, Professeur, Ecole Recherche Graphique (ERG)  
  • Nina Gren, Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology, Lund University 
  • Noemi Willemen, Research Assistant, UCLouvain 
  • Norman Ajari, Assistant Professor, Villanova University, US 
  • Nouria Ouali, Associate Professor, Universite Libre de Bruxelles 
  • Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, Professor, Université d’Evry Val-d’Essonne
  • Olivier Servais, Professor, University of Louvain 
  • Olvia U Rutazibwa, Senior Lecturer, University of Portsmouth 
  • Omar Jabary Salamanca, Postdoctoral Researcher, Free University of Brussels 
  • Orhan Agirdag, Associate Professor, KU Leuven 
  • Patrick Devlieger, Professor, KU Leuven 
  • Patrick Jeuniaux, Senior Researcher, Institut National de Criminalistique et de Criminologie 
  • Peter Rodrigues, Professor of Immigration Law, Leiden University 
  • Rachel Spronk, Associate Professor, University of Amsterdam 
  • Rahma Bavelaar, Doctoral Researcher, University of Amsterdam 
  • Reinhard Haudenhuyse, Postdoctoral Researcher, Vrije Universiteit Brussel
  • Robin Celikates, Professor of Philosophy, Free University Berlin 
  • Ruben De Smet, Doctoral Researcher, Vrije Universiteit Brussel 
  • Sadi Shanaah, Research Fellow, University of Warwick 
  • Sally Anderson, Associate Professor, Aarhus University
  • Salman Sayyid, Professor, University of Leeds 
  • Salvatore Palidda, Professor, University of Genoa (Italy) 
  • Sami Zemni, Full Professor, Ghent University 
  • Santiago Slabodsky, FRK Chair in Jewish Studies, Hofstra University-New York 
  • Sara Salem, Lecturer, London School of Economics 
  • Schirin Amir-Moazami, Professor, FU Berlin 
  • Seda Gurses, Associate Professor, TU Delft 
  • Serge Gutwirth, Human Rights Professor, Vrije Universiteit Brussel
  • Shifra Kisch, Lecturer, University College Utrecht 
  • Sigrid Vertommen, Postdoctoral Researcher, Ghent University 
  • Simon Rushton, Senior Lecturer, University of Sheffield 
  • Sonia Gsir, Lecturer, University of Liege 
  • Sophie Lauwers, Doctoral Researcher, University of Aberdeen 
  • Sophie Withaeckx, Assistant Professor, Maastricht University 
  • Stefan Salomon, Assistant Professor, University of Amsterdam 
  • Steven Van Wolputte, Professor, KU Leuven 
  • Thijl Sunier, Professor Emeritus, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam 
  • Thomas Berns, Professor, Universite Libre de Bruxelles 
  • Thomas Renard, Senior Research Fellow, Egmont Institute 
  • Thomas Van Riet, Associate Professor, KU Leuven
  • Tine Destrooper, Associate Professor, Ghent University 
  • Tom Vanwing  Professor, Vrije Universiteit Brussel 
  • Ton Liefaard, UNICEF Professor of Children’s Rights, Leiden University 
  • Valentin Escudero, Professor, University of A Coruña
  • Veerle Provoost, Professor, Ghent University 
  • Vsevolod Kritskiy, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Amsterdam 
  • Willie van Peer, Professor, Ludwig-Maximilian University, Munich 
  • Wissal Allaoui, Doctoral researcher, Vrije Universiteit Brussel 
  • Yolande Jansen, Professor, Free University Amsterdam and University of Amsterdam

The views expressed in this letter belong to the signatories and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.