France brings back 51 citizens from IS camps in Syria

PARIS (AP) – French authorities on Tuesday repatriated 51 women and children from former areas controlled by the Islamic State group in Syria, according to a statement from the national anti-terrorism prosecution.

This is the largest return of women and children to France from camps in northeast Syria since the territorial defeat of IS in March 2019. France has seen more of its citizens leave to join the group than any other country in Europe.

Tuesday’s group was made up of 16 women, aged 22 to 39, and 35 minors, seven of whom arrive in France unaccompanied by adults. All but two of the women in the group are French citizens. Twelve women returned with their children and four of them had previously accepted the return of their children, according to the prosecutor’s statement.

Eight women were taken into custody for questioning and the other eight were the subject of arrest warrants. The children were entrusted to the child protection services attached to the Court of Justice of Versailles.

One of the 35 minors is in custody on suspicion of participating in the activities of a terrorist criminal enterprise, according to the prosecutor’s statement. The minor will soon turn 18, according to the statement.

Many European countries have been slow to allow the return of women and children for fear that they will turn violently against their country of origin. France, which has seen more of its citizens join ISIS in Syria than any other European country and suffered multiple deadly attacks from 2015 onwards, has been particularly reluctant.

French authorities have insisted that adults, men and women, who fought with IS should be prosecuted in the country where they committed crimes. Authorities have also insisted on bringing citizens and their children back on a case-by-case basis, a cumbersome and lengthy process that has been repeatedly criticized by human rights groups.

In December, a 28-year-old French woman with diabetes died in the Roj camp in Syria, leaving her 6-year-old daughter an orphan, according to the family’s lawyer, who had been calling for their return since 2019.

The orphan was among the group of children repatriated on Tuesday, according to a statement from the United Families Collective, a family group that campaigns for the repatriation of women and children detained in Kurdish-held camps in Syria and Iraq.

The United Families Collective hailed the government’s repatriation effort and urged the French authorities to continue to bring home children and mothers trapped in “inhuman” and “degrading” living conditions in detention camps.

The collective indicated that there were still 150 French children and their mothers trapped in the Roj camp.

“France must repatriate (them) as soon as possible (…) and close without delay this shameful chapter in our history”, indicates the press release.

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