When Belgium said in March that it would repatriate some women who had joined the Islamic State, along with their children, Jessie Van Eetvelde welcomed the decision with relief — even though she knows it will likely mean time in prison.
She and her two children have been living for at least two years in detention camps in Syria. Her dream, she says, is to have her children, whose father fought for the Islamic State, attend school in Belgium. For that, she is ready to pay the price of having joined the militant group in 2014, if Belgium will take her back.
“Maybe they realized that those who want to go back are sorry and want a second chance,” Ms. Van Eetvelde, 43, said recently in a WhatsApp voice message.
Many European countries have balked at allowing the return of people linked to ISIS, yet some, like Belgium and Finland, are now heeding the advice of security experts and rights groups who say that repatriations are the safest option.
“Europe has long criticized the U.S. for Guantánamo Bay, but now you have a Guantánamo in the desert,” said Chris Harnisch, a former State Department counterterrorism official who organized the repatriation of American citizens in 2019 and 2020.
Two years after the Islamic State lost its last territorial foothold in Syria, more than 200 women from 11 European countries and their 650 children are living in two Syrian camps, Al Hol and Roj, according to figures compiled by Thomas Renard, a researcher at the Egmont Institute, a Brussels-based think tank.
Although the Europeans represent a small fraction of the 60,000 people being held in the camps, who are mostly Iraqis and Syrians, European governments are facing increasing pressure to bring the adults back to face trial amid an argument that the countries’ inaction violates their commitment to human rights.
Security experts, rights groups and lawyers of those who went to ISIS territories acknowledge that European governments face legitimate security concerns, along with political dynamics in countries fearful of terrorist attacks. But a growing number of government and intelligence officials say that leaving European citizens in Syria comes with greater risks, including that they could join terrorist groups that target Europe.
Countries like the United States, Kazakhstan and Turkey have repatriated many of their own citizens to prosecute them and, in some cases, reintegrate them into society.
The Kurdish leadership in the region that oversees the camps has not prosecuted the women, whose roles under ISIS’s rule often remain unclear. And because the administration is not internationally recognized, any prosecutions would still not get them out of their legal limbo.
Most European countries say that they have no legal obligation to help their citizens in the camps and that adults who joined ISIS should be prosecuted in Iraq and Syria.
Yet Belgium’s justice minister, Vincent Van Quickenborne, said his government would organize the repatriations of 13 women and their 27 children within months after the country’s intelligence services reported that ISIS was gaining power in the camps. He said the authorities had received “clear advice” that bringing the women and children to Belgium was the safest option.
An internal European Union document this year described the Hol camp as a “mini-caliphate.”
“A returnee will always present a risk, some of them low, some of them very high,” Mr. Renard said, adding that returnees could potentially radicalize inmates in prison or attempt attacks. “Yet the consequences of non-repatriation are increasingly outweighing those risks.”
Rights groups say that the children have done nothing wrong and are suffering from disease, malnutrition and sexual assault. Hundreds have died, and dozens of coronavirus cases have been reported in the camps, according to the nongovernmental organization Save the Children.
There is also concern about teenage boys who traveled to ISIS territories as younger children with their European-born mothers and are at higher risk of radicalization. They are being left behind as countries take in only younger children.
Letta Tayler, a senior counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that European governments were “creating tiers of children.” She said, “The most desirable are the orphans — the least desirable are the teenage boys.”
The advocacy group Reprieve says that many women in the camps were trafficked, raped and forced into marriage and domestic servitude.
Yet in several European countries, repatriations remain out of the question, said a French intelligence official who requested anonymity to discuss the topic. Part of the hesitancy, security analysts say, is that repatriated women could receive light or no prison sentences.
Britain has stripped British citizenship from nearly 20 women who joined ISIS, in some cases taking them to court to prevent their return. France has turned down numerous calls for repatriation, even as some of the women staged a monthlong hunger strike. The Netherlands and Sweden said that they might take in children, but without their mothers.
Ms. Van Eetvelde, a former cashier who was born near Antwerp in northern Belgium, traveled to ISIS territory with her husband in 2014. Now in the Roj camp, she hopes for a return to Belgium for herself and her children, who are 3 and 5.
She remains mostly cut off from the world, and even her lawyer, Mohamed Ozdemir, said he had been unable to communicate with her in recent months. Cellphones are not allowed, so Ms. Van Eetvelde communicated with The New York Times through voice messages sent via the phone of another woman in the camp whom The Times reached through the woman’s family and lawyer.
In January, a Belgian court convicted her in absentia of taking part in the activities of a terrorist organization, Mr. Ozdemir said. The court sentenced her to five years in prison.
Mr. Van Quickenborne said that any of the women wanting to return to Belgium would have to prove that they mean no harm to the country. “If they have not distanced themselves from ISIS ideology, they will remain on site,” he said.
That repatriation plan is likely to put pressure on neighboring France, which has Europe’s largest contingent of citizens in the camps and in prisons in Iraq and Syria. Yet as France reels from years of terrorist attacks, the government has opposed calls to repatriate people who left to wage jihad.
Although France has taken in 35 children from the camps on a case-by-case basis, 100 women with French citizenship and their 200 children remain mostly in the Roj camp, according to Jean-Charles Brisard, the director of the Paris-based Center for the Analysis of Terrorism.
France was due to repatriate at least 160 of them in early 2019, according to intelligence documents brought to light by the newspaper Libération that spring and seen by The Times this year. But the situation in the camps became too volatile, the French intelligence official said, and the plan was abandoned.
“We thought it was going to happen, and that the dominoes could have started to fall with other European countries,” said Mr. Harnisch, the former United States counterterrorism official. “But the French government pulled the plug at the 11th hour.”
Now, a growing number of European countries are taking action.
In Denmark, the authorities said this month that they would repatriate three women and 14 children. Germany and Finland repatriated five women and 18 children in December, and a spokesman for Germany’s Foreign Ministry said last month that the country was working “at full speed” to take in children from the camps whose mothers are German citizens.
In Britain, Conservative lawmakers called for the repatriation of some British citizens, arguing that prosecuting them in the country would be safer than leaving them in the camps.
The parents of one French woman in the camps have brought a case against France in the European Court for Human Rights over the repatriation of her and her children. And three French lawyers asked the International Criminal Court to consider whether the country’s policy makes President Emmanuel Macron complicit in war crimes.
A French woman who went on hunger strike in the Roj camp said that there was no running water and that many people there had respiratory problems. (The Times is not publishing her name, because she says she has received death threats from ISIS supporters who oppose their return to France.) “It’s very difficult to see doctors and dentists — there are no medicines,” she said, adding that the Frenchwomen wanted to return “to be tried, to be jailed.”
Jussi Tanner, a diplomat from Finland who is in charge of his country’s repatriations, said the women and children’s return was not a matter of “if, but of when and how.”
“Repatriating them as quickly as we can is better from a security point of view rather than pretending that the problem goes away when we look away,” he said. “You can leave them there, but they will return anyway.”
Claire Moses, Christopher F. Schuetze and Jasmina Nielsen contributed reporting.