• The Gender Security Project

Evaluating the Nordic countries’ response to repatriation of women and children affiliated with ISIS

Updated: Oct 25

By Taimi Vilkko



Indoor tents like these at UDI’s asylum reception center in Råde, south of Oslo, were the first stop for refugees arriving in Norway. PHOTO: UDI/Hero


“Europe’s Guantanamo” is how a recent report by Rights and Security International described the situation in Northeast Syria where tens of thousands of women and children from former ISIS controlled territories remain detained in prison camps at al-Hol and al-Roj [1]. Around 40,000 children live at the camps in increasingly insecure conditions, as risk of disease, malnutrition and violence are surging at the overpopulated detention sites. Many of the detainees are European citizens who left their home countries to join the Caliphate years earlier during the Syrian civil war, while there are also their children who have been born during the conflict or in detention. As dozens of children have died at the al-Hol camp in 2021 alone, human rights organizations have called for prompt repatriation of nationals to their home countries, in compliance with international human rights law [2]. So far, many countries have hesitated to repatriate citizens from Northeast Syria, which is extremely troubling especially given that most detainees are children. The responses and repatriation policies of western countries call for an evaluation which grounds human rights as the foremost issue. Here, this will be done through the lens of Feminist Foreign Policy, looking at the downfalls of the repatriation approaches of the Nordic countries and showing how shifting the focus of the repatriation policy frameworks from stringent national security concerns to a feminist understanding of foreign and security policy would ensure a more effective repatriation process without having to sacrifice neither the protection of human rights nor national security.


Along the many countries struggling with repatriation of nationals detained at al-Hol and al-Roj, the Nordic countries have shown inability to deal with the repatriation issue and agree on policies to retrieve the up to 150 Nordic citizens who remain at the camps. Human Rights Watch recently demanded the Nordics to repatriate nationals referring to the countries’ political complicity in unlawful detention of their citizens in life-threatening conditions [3]. This is no light accusation, and excuses for incapability to respond to a situation where children’s lives are put in danger in indefinite detention for crimes their parents might have committed seem increasingly hollow. None of the detainees have received formal legal assessment of the necessity of their confinement, and inaction by the Nordics contributes to the ongoing unlawful punishment of adults and children alike which violates international law.


This is a troubling development since traditionally the Nordic countries have made a name for themselves on the international arena as strong advocates for human rights. Sweden is also one of the few countries that are self-proclaimed practitioners of Feminist Foreign Policy, putting gender issues and equality at the forefront of the national agenda [4]. The handling of the repatriation issue showcases some of the double standards of Nordic (and Western) human rights discourse – while they are indeed vocal about certain issues, in other cases they fail to prioritize action for human rights when faced with a perceived trade-off between concerns over national interests and standing up for the most vulnerable.


So far, the Nordics have cited lack of authority or other capabilities as barriers to effectively deal with the situation. However, human rights organizations maintain that the logistics of repatriation are not an insurmountable challenge to countries retrieving nationals and the Kurdish-led authority under whose control the camps are has called on countries to repatriate their citizens [6]. The Nordic countries would have the capabilities and resources to carry out repatriations, however, it seems that political disagreement stands in the way of taking action.


Based on the political dispute this issue has caused among Nordic governments, the inability and hesitation to address the repatriation question can be attributed to the seemingly insurmountable issue of national security and the perceived threat the repatriation of these individuals poses to the nation. The way countries have been unable to agree on bringing home children, unless they are separated from their mothers or are orphaned [7] showcases this pitting of human rights and national security concerns against each other. For example, Denmark has adopted a selective repatriation policy, having first refused to bring home any citizens but has now agreed to repatriate citizens including 5 children, whose mothers will be left behind and have been stripped of Danish citizenship [8][9]. Sweden has retrieved seven children from Northeast Syria as government’s stance remains to bring home Swedish children, leaving the adults’ future unclear [10]. Altogether 27 Nordic nationals have been repatriated from Northeast Syria, and 24 of them are children [11].


These selective policies are problematic from a legal and an ethical point of view, as separating children from their mothers goes against the Convention on the Rights of the Child, whereas UN Security Council Resolution 2396 binds member states to aid women and children associated with violent groups who may have been subjected to terrorism themselves [12], and also maintains that these people require tailored prosecution and reintegration strategies as they may have served as supporters and facilitators of terrorism [13]. Moreover, states are bound by international law to repatriate nationals and ensure fair domestic trials and prosecution where there is evidence, and revocation of citizenship is considered a dire violation of human rights [14].


Of course, repatriation and the subsequent criminal justice procedures make for a difficult issue because it cannot be known what kinds of crimes these people may have been involved in and the risks of letting people resettle who have ties to an extremist organization should not be taken lightly. It is well known that the role of women in the Caliphate has largely been raising new fighters, and that is why in fact leaving nationals, especially children, at the camps for an extended period of time without doubt makes for a greater security threat than swift repatriation [15]. An approach which focuses on the dangers of repatriation instead of taking into account the issues associated with leaving citizens in detention, fostering radicalization and subjecting children to dangerous and possibly inhuman conditions is a deeply ineffective strategy. Conversely, a Feminist Foreign Policy approach calls for a recalibration of the traditional way of looking at national security concerns to a focus on the promotion of justice and equality, centering the experiences of the most vulnerable and looking at structural factors behind security issues that continue to reproduce violence on a global scale [16].


The repatriation policies of the Nordics have so far for the most part been merely reactionary and not responsive - dysfunctional repatriation processes combined with political indecision result in an ineffective approach in the long run and one that is problematic with regard to human rights. Denmark, Sweden and Norway have mostly highlighted the dire need for these women to be tried for their possible crimes, while Finland’s reaction has been to tighten counter-terrorism policies [17]. These policy responses are of course important, but they leave out the larger issue of structural domestic problems that have caused these women to leave their homes to join the Caliphate in the first place, i.e., dysfunctional integration strategies, marginalization of minority communities, and the failure to uproot problems that put women, girls, and non-binary persons in danger of abuse and manipulation [18].


This is especially crucial to take into account considering that many women have cited Islamophobic treatment in countries of origin as an influence to join ISIS [19]. A Feminist Foreign Policy approach to the security concerns associated with returning citizens and counter-terrorism measures calls for sensitivity in policy responses to gendered structural issues connected to why and how these citizens got there in the first place - this means rigid reintegration and rehabilitation policies that target the cause, not just the effect of radicalization. Gender and extremism expert Joana Cook has stated that effectiveness of policy responses to repatriation of citizens from al-Hol and al-Roj camps is dependent on the combined success of reintegration, rehabilitation and de-radicalization strategies, as well as ability to construct gender-conscious policies that consider the individual circumstances of returning women [20], as their reasons for traveling to Syria and roles in the Caliphate are not uniform and cannot be treated as such.


The inability of the Nordic countries adequately protect children and their rights is extremely troubling, and raises the inevitable question whether the notion of national security was so overbearing in this situation that helping children and ensuring swift repatriation, reintegration and rehabilitation came as the second concern. The Danish government only agreed to repatriate citizens once a report by the Police Intelligence Services stating that not retrieving children would pose a greater threat than bringing them back home went public [21]. Still, the unwillingness to ground justice and human rights as the foremost issue hinders effective repatriation policies that ensure the fulfilment of rights, as well as fails to adequately address underlying factors which are likely to affect the success of counter-extremism policies over the long haul.


But there is one effort by the Nordics which showed what a feminist approach to both protecting human rights and national security could foster: The Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs ensured in a covert program that Finnish children at the al-Hol camp waiting to be retrieved would have access to the Finnish education system, which is their constitutional right, through a remote teaching arrangement [22], while simultaneously taking steps towards their effective integration once they settle into their new communities. Practicing foreign policy through an approach which centers on the rights of the most vulnerable as the starting point is the only effective and most powerful tool to ensure justice and equality, and this is the lens through which national security should be looked at as well.

References:

[1] Rights and Security International (2021) “Europe’s Guantanamo: The indefinite detention of European women and children in North East Syria”, February 17. Available at: https://www.rightsandsecurity.org/assets/downloads/Europes-guantanamo-THE_REPORT.pdf

[2] Human Rights Watch (2021) “Nordic Countries: Repatriate Nationals from Northeast Syria”, May 26. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/05/26/nordic-countries-repatriate-nationals-northeast-syria

[3] Ibid.

[4] Vogelstein, R. (2019) “Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Policy, Long May It Reign”, Foreign Policy, January 30. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/01/30/sweden-feminist-foreignpolicy/

[5] Human Rights Watch (2021) “Nordic Countries: Repatriate Nationals from Northeast Syria”, May 26. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/05/26/nordic-countries-repatriate-nationals-northeast-syria

[6] Rights and Security International (2021) “Europe’s Guantanamo: The indefinite detention of European women and children in North East Syria”, February 17, p. 35. Available at: https://www.rightsandsecurity.org/assets/downloads/Europes-guantanamo-THE_REPORT.pdf

[7] Maack, H. (2021) “How Nordic Countries are Handling the Question of Repatriating Islamic State Women”, Terrorism Monitor, Volume: 19 Issue: 12. Available at: https://jamestown.org/program/how-nordic-countries-are-handling-the-question-of-repatriating-islamic-state-women/

[8] Ibid.

[9] Reuters (2021) Denmark to repatriate women, children from Syrian camps”, May 18. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/denmark-repatriate-women-children-syrian-camps-2021-05-18/

[10] Dagensjuridik (2021) “Vi tänker inte tyst bevittna hur Sveriges regering underminerar internationell rätt”, April 16. Available at: https://www.dagensjuridik.se/debatt/vi-tanker-inte-tyst-bevittna-hur-sveriges-regering-underminerar-internationell-ratt/

[11] Human Rights Watch (2021) “Nordic Countries: Repatriate Nationals from Northeast Syria”, May 26. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/05/26/nordic-countries-repatriate-nationals-northeast-syria

[12] Ibid.

[13] Cook, J. (2020) A Woman’s Place: US Counterterrorism Since 9/11. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, p. 396.

[14] Smyth, J. & England, A. 2019, "UN urges repatriation of Isis family members", FT.com, June 24. Available at: https://www.proquest.com/docview/2245967592?pq-origsite=primo

[15] Dworkin, A. (2019) “Beyond good and evil: Why Europe should bring ISIS foreign fighters”, European Council on Foreign Relations Policy Brief. Available at: https://ecfr.eu/publication/beyond_good_and_evil_why_europe_should_bring_isis_foreign_fighters_home/

[16] Centre For Feminist Foreign Policy (CFFP) (2021) “Feminist Foreign Policy”, Available at: https://centreforfeministforeignpolicy.org/feminist-foreign-policy

[17] Maack, H. (2021) “How Nordic Countries are Handling the Question of Repatriating Islamic State Women”, Terrorism Monitor, Volume: 19 Issue: 12. Available at: https://jamestown.org/program/how-nordic-countries-are-handling-the-question-of-repatriating-islamic-state-women/

[18] See e.g.: Segalov, M (2019) “Shamima Begum was groomed. She deserves the chance of rehabilitation”, Guardian, February 14. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/feb/14/shamima-begum-grooming-islamic-state-pregnant-uk

[19] Rights and Security International (2021) “Europe’s Guantanamo: The indefinite detention of European women and children in North East Syria”, February 17, p. 36. Available at: https://www.rightsandsecurity.org/assets/downloads/Europes-guantanamo-THE_REPORT.pdf

[20] Cook, J. (2020) A Woman’s Place: US Counterterrorism Since 9/11. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, p. 401.

[21] Reuters (2021) Denmark to repatriate women, children from Syrian camps”, May 18. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/denmark-repatriate-women-children-syrian-camps-2021-05-18/

[22] Manner, M. (2021) “The Secret Teacher of Al-Hol”, Helsingin Sanomat, October 3. Available at: https://www.hs.fi/sunnuntai/art-2000008302014.html

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