Europe wonders whether to bring back kids raised under ISIS

Ms Fatiha looking over the backpacks she has prepared for her six grandchildren at her home in Ranst, Belgium. A "Spider-Man" bedsheet and teddy bears (far left) on one of the beds she has ready. But there is no knowing if and when the children - now
Ms Fatiha looking over the backpacks she has prepared for her six grandchildren at her home in Ranst, Belgium. A "Spider-Man" bedsheet and teddy bears on one of the beds she has ready. But there is no knowing if and when the children - now in a camp in Syria - can return. PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST
Ms Fatiha looking over the backpacks she has prepared for her six grandchildren at her home in Ranst, Belgium. A "Spider-Man" bedsheet and teddy bears (far left) on one of the beds she has ready. But there is no knowing if and when the children - now
Ms Fatiha looking over the backpacks she has prepared for her six grandchildren at her home in Ranst, Belgium. A "Spider-Man" bedsheet and teddy bears (above) on one of the beds she has ready. But there is no knowing if and when the children - now in a camp in Syria - can return. PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

RANST (Belgium) • The children's voices crackled through the phone and into the grey-walled living room of Ms Fatiha's home.

"When are we going to grandma's?" one implored in the background, and then into the phone: "Are you coming to get us?"

In the hallway, six coat hooks were fixed in a row at child's height. A backpack hung on each one. Up a steep stairway, sheets with characters from the Pixar movie Cars were carefully tucked into bunk beds, awaiting the children's return.

But Ms Fatiha, 46, a Belgian whose grandparents emigrated from Morocco, did not know when her six grandchildren - who range in age from 10 months to seven years - would be back.

They are among the hundreds of children born to European citizens who went to fight for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Now that the caliphate has collapsed, and the planned US withdrawal has compounded regional instability, grandparents across Europe are pushing to save children whom in some cases they have seen only in photos.

"We're waiting for them," Ms Fatiha said at her home outside Antwerp, in a bucolic village where backyards give way to hay fields.

The children's fathers are dead, and their mothers - Ms Fatiha's daughter and daughter-in-law - face jail time if they return home.

For Belgium, France and other countries that saw some of their nationals gravitate towards ISIS territory as it expanded across Syria and Iraq, the plight of children who have claims to citizenship has ignited questions that would test the most Solomonic of judges.

Governments are grappling with how much responsibility they bear for the safety of these small citizens, most of them younger than six, in a region where fresh conflict could erupt.

Courts are weighing whether the rights of the children extend to returning with their ISIS parents. A bitter public debate is under way about whether grandparents whose own children ran away to join ISIS can be trusted to raise a new generation differently.

The Kurdish authorities who control the territory in north-eastern Syria where many of these families ended up estimate they have more than 1,300 children in their refugee and prison camps.

Russia repatriated 27 children last week. France is considering bringing back more than 100 fighters - who would face trial - and their families. But until now, most governments have calculated that the political downside of retrieving parents who may pose national security risks outweighs any need to bring back the children.

In Ms Fatiha's case, a judge has ruled that Belgium must repatriate her six grandchildren, along with their mothers - Belgian citizens who joined ISIS and now want to come back. The two women were convicted in absentia of joining a terrorist group and would each face a five-year prison sentence upon their arrival on Belgian soil.

The ruling last Dec 26 has spurred a furious response from Belgian leaders, and the government plans to appeal in court tomorrow. The authorities expect whatever precedent is set to affect decisions about other ISIS families.

At least 22 Belgian children are in Syrian camps, and more than 160 are believed to be in the conflict zone.

The most vociferous objections relate to the return of the parents. Even for the children, Belgian sympathy goes only so far. Many people are anxious.

Belgium contributed the largest number of ISIS fighters to Syria per capita of any European Union nation, and the country remains scarred by the attacks of 2016, when Belgian citizens with ISIS connections targeted Brussels with deadly bombings.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 19, 2019, with the headline 'Europe wonders whether to bring back kids raised under ISIS'. Print Edition | Subscribe