Brodie Owen, The National, March 5, 2021
Belgium will do everything it can to repatriate the children of Belgian ISIS fighters held in Syrian camps to stop them becoming “the terrorists of tomorrow”.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo issued a warning that conditions in the camps under Kurdish control were deteriorating and those under 12 years old must be allowed to come home.
Like the US, Europe has repeatedly said it is ready to take custody of some minors whose families went to fight for ISIS in Syria, fearing the camps may breed a new generation of militants.
But governments are reluctant because there is little sympathy for the families of ISIS’s foreign fighters after the trauma of terrorist attacks across the continent over the past decade.
Last week, the UK’s highest court dismissed an appeal by Shamima Begum, 21, to come home to fight the government’s decision to remove her British citizenship.
Ms Begum was 15 when she and two other east London schoolgirls left the UK in 2015 for Syria to join ISIS.
She lived under ISIS rule for more than three years, and was found, nine months pregnant, in a Syrian refugee camp in 2019.
The baby died of pneumonia and Ms Begum said she had previously lost two other children.
Mr De Croo said that conditions in the Al Roj detention camp – where Ms Begum was found – were unacceptable, and there was a risk of children there becoming radicalised.
“In these camps there are the terrorists of tomorrow and we cannot permit that,” he said.
“These children, we must do all we can to get them out.”
The prime minister said there were about 30 children under the age of 12 living in the camps.
He also said the situation of 13 Belgian women being held in the camps would be examined “case by case”. Nine of them, he said, had already been convicted by Belgian courts and four had international arrest warrants issued against them.
“It’s clear the situation of the mothers is also of concern,” he said. “If they distanced themselves from [ISIS], they could be repatriated.”
A UN expert said in February that inhumane treatment was being meted out to the inmates in the camps, where 64,000 people were being held, most of them women and children.
Belgium and France are among the main European countries from where the biggest number of foreign fighters left to join ISIS when Syria’s war broke out in 2011.
Since then, both countries have suffered terrorist attacks claimed by ISIS, including one in Brussels in 2016 that killed 32, and one in Paris in 2015 in which extremists killed 130 people.