France evacuated 35 children and 16 mothers from camps in Syria holding family members of suspected Islamic State fighters on Tuesday, in the largest such operation by Paris after pressure from campaigners.
“France has today undertaken the return to the country of 35 French minors who were in camps in northeast Syria. This operation also includes the return of 16 mothers from these same camps,” a statement from the foreign ministry said.
The statement added that the minors were handed over to child protection services while the mothers would face judicial proceedings.
Families and campaigners have long sought to draw attention to the plight of around 200 French children in Kurdish-run camps in Syria after they were either brought to IS territory by their parents or born there during the years of fighting.
One of the biggest and most overcrowded camps is Al-Hol, where malnutrition and disease are common and around two children die every week on average, according to a report by the Save the Children campaign group last September.
Until now, France had refused to repatriate people in large numbers, arguing that its security concerns were paramount after a series of attacks from IS jihadists, including the November 2015 assaults on Paris that left 130 people dead.
Many of the children are being held alongside their mothers or fathers who pose a potential risk, and France has insisted that French nationals face local justice.
Before Tuesday’s operation, France had repatriated 126 children since 2016 under a policy that saw requests analysed on a slow-moving case-by-case basis.
The mass repatriations came after Germany and Belgium announced that they would bring back all of their minors in camps.
“Our country has isolated itself more and more by choosing inhumanity and irresponsibility, unlike Germany, Belgium and many other European countries,” the French campaign group Collective for United Families said in a statement on Tuesday.
A UN watchdog also increased the pressure in February when it said that France had violated the rights of children by leaving them for years in inhuman and life-threatening conditions.
Al-Hol is Syria’s largest camp for displaced people, housing about 56,000 people including displaced Syrians and Iraqi refugees, some of whom maintain links with the Islamic State group (IS).
About 10,000 are foreigners, including relatives of jihadists.
It was not immediately clear if any of the 51 people repatriated came from the camp.
“Each day that passes with the camp still there, hate grows and terrorism thrives,” Iraq’s national security adviser, Qassem al-Araji, told an international conference in April.
But the president of the Seine-Saint-Denis region northeast of Paris, where many of the children will be housed, said it was important to make a distinction between adult IS fighters and children, many of whom are orphans.
“Whenever this issue becomes a news story, I’m aware of the fantasies that it can creates,” Stephane Troussel had told AFP recently.
“The images of children indoctrinated by IS, weapons in their hands, are deeply imprinted.”
But “the children are not guilty. They are above all the victims of the deadly excesses of their parents and what they need more than anything is an opportunity to rebuild themselves if we want them to rejoin society”, he added.
A statement from France’s anti-terror prosecutor’s office said the mothers repatriated on Tuesday were aged between 22 and 39 and had been taken into custody.
One of the minors, who is nearly 18, was also detained because “evidence exists likely to prove his association with a terrorist organisation”, the statement added.
In a 2019 poll by Odoxa-Dentsu Consulting, seven out of 10 people surveyed were opposed to bringing back the children of jihadists to France.
IS declared a caliphate in 2014 in territory stretching across Iraq and Syria, but was progressively beaten back by a coalition of local forces, losing its last territory in March 2019.