The call that had been expected for so many years did not come on July 5 either. Early that morning, two planes chartered by the French government landed in Paris carrying 51 of their nationals being repatriated from the Al Roj jihadist detention center in Syria; 16 women and 35 children. Marc and Suzanne Lopez’ hearts beat faster when they heard the flights had arrived. His son Léonard joined the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria in 2015 and these two retired teachers waited on the plane for their four grandchildren, who were then trapped in jihadist hell. But the phone didn’t ring. The little ones were not on the list of the first mass repatriations France has carried out since the fall of ISIS’s last Syrian stronghold in 2019.
However, the Lopezes are more hopeful than ever today. A profound change appears to have taken place in the French government and relatives of minors still stuck in Syria are confident that the final countdown has already begun for all French children to return to their country.
“It’s a total change,” Marc Lopez celebrates in a phone call. So far, France has stuck to the “case-by-case” doctrine, which was to only bring back children from the detention camps, and only if they were orphans, unaccompanied minors or their mothers would they agree to a sole return. At least since 2019, Paris had not sent any adults back as they were to be tried on the spot.
The announcement of the first massive repatriation operation involving adults earlier this month is a clear sign that “there are no longer any obstacles to repatriation worldwide,” agrees Vincent Brengarth, lawyer for Margaux Dubreuil, another French woman still in Syria with his three children . At least 150 other minors of French nationality and up to a hundred women continue to live in very precarious conditions in Syrian camps guarded by Kurdish forces.
No one in the government has publicly acknowledged that the case-by-case approach it defended tooth and nail earlier this year has been abandoned. Environmentalist Hubert Julien-Laferrière, who supports the repatriation of minors, doesn’t believe in it either. “The government is trying to communicate the minimum, we all know that the case-by-case policy is unsustainable, but public opinion is afraid, this case is frightening,” he says. Remember that in 2019 the President himself, Emmanuel Macron, categorically denied that a massive repatriation operation was underway, as various media outlets had widely reported. His rejection came after a poll found that more than 80% of French people were against it and that up to 67% would prefer minors to stay in Iraq or Syria as well.
However, times have changed. Julien-Laferrière admits he was “surprised” that the July 5 repatriation made no noise in a National Assembly where opposition is stronger than ever. Public opinion has not changed either: a year ago, a hundred personalities signed a forum in Le Monde calling on the government to “send immediately back to the Syrian camps the French children who are slowly dying as victims of inhuman and degrading treatment.” It is the first call by French civil society “on a taboo subject both in public opinion and within the government,” the newspaper said. After the repatriation, Secretary of State for Children Charlotte Caubel declared that the children of jihadists were “not responsible for the actions of their parents” and “must also be treated as victims”. Even some associations of victims of terrorism, he stressed, have called for their repatriation. Asked directly if it was the end of Case by Case, she avoided a resounding yes, but cautioned that repatriation “35 children is not Case by Case.”
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Subscribe toA Kurdish man watches over women and their children in Al Hol camp in Syria in January last year. DELIL SOULEIMAN (AFP)
Nor has the government explained why this can happen now and not before. Planning such a complicated operation takes time, and it is clear that the July 5 measure was decided months ago. But it was only carried out after the voting cycle of presidential and general elections was over and the new government of Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne was already underway. She has also visibly awaited the conclusion of the long trial on the Paris attacks of November 13, 2015 at the end of June, which served to heal wounds and show France’s ability to judge jihadist terrorists. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has ensured that “very important additional funds” have been made available to ensure the arrival of returnees does not pose a security issue. The 16 women have already been charged with the terrorist group and are in pre-trial detention, as is one of the minors, who came of age shortly after her return and was suspected of radicalisation.
Attorney Brengarth recalls another reason for the change of course: the legal “pressure” that France suffered for not picking up the minors. Only Spain, which has also not repatriated the 17 Spanish children who are still in Syria along with three Spanish women (and a Moroccan with Spanish children), and the United Kingdom, which has at least 30 children in Syria, divided the Parisians Politics. National bodies such as the National Human Rights Commission or the Ombudsman have criticized this, and countries such as Germany and Belgium have recently accelerated returns. In February, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child accused France of “violating the rights of French children detained in Syria by failing to deport them”. The families’ lawyers took the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in 2021, awaiting a decision.
risk of conviction
“The government is aware of the danger of a conviction that weighs on France today,” says Brengarth. By deciding on collective repatriation, “France confirms that it is capable of acting. The masks have come off: the government can no longer pretend that it does not have the logistical and material capacities to coordinate a repatriation for which, paradoxically, it is more likely to be condemned,” he analyses. Therefore, he concludes, “it would be logical to repatriate all families.”
Time is of the essence, and everyone involved insists. As the French section of Advocates Without Borders recalls, “more than 500 people, mostly children, would have died in the camps in 2019, where living conditions and access to adequate medical care remain extremely difficult.”
Though everyone expects another mass repatriation to take place this summer, the Lopezes know that even if their grandchildren arrive in the coming months, they will have to arm themselves with patience before welcoming them. The children, already repatriated, have been made available to the social services, which, in close cooperation with the anti-terrorist authorities, are following their development before they are returned to their relatives at a date not yet specified. However, they are already in France and closer to restoring normalcy one day. That’s all the Lopezes and the dozens of families who mark the days on their calendars want.
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