The militarily-centered Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, also known as the Islamic State or Daesh, successfully liberated the expansive territories once occupied by the terrorist group. However, ISIS remains a key threat in both Syria and Iraq as well as globally. To bring about durable counter terrorism, there is an urgent need for a Global Humanitarian Coalition to Defeat ISIS to conduct human rights-centered action and build upon the hard-fought military gains. Repatriation of all third-country nationals in the squalid detention camps and prisons in northeast Syria must be the first joint task in order to ease the burden of the local administration and to accomplish long-sought security, justice, and stabilization goals.

In response to the rise of the so-called caliphate and ISIS’s occupation of large areas of Syria and Iraq, some 80 states successfully formed the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS to thwart the terrorist militants in 2014. In close collaboration with the Syrian Democratic Forces, its allies fighting ISIS on the ground, the Coalition announced territorial victory over ISIS in 2019.

However, the threat persists today. Maj. Gen. Matthew McFarlane, the former commanding general of the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), which is the military component of the Global Coalition, recently stated that although ISIS has been militarily defeated, its dangerous ideology remains a threat. Analyst Charles Lister, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, warns that ISIS appears to be regrouping inside a makeshift detention system in northeast Syria. This includes camps that have sections with ISIS affiliates who continue to pose a threat to the camp's inhabitants. However, at the same time, the camps also hold people who fled ISIS violence and terrorism. These camps and prisons are targets for ISIS sleeper cells. The non-governmental organization International Crisis Group reports that ISIS continues to carry out attacks — including on prisons — and smuggles individuals out of the camps to replenish its ranks.

The deteriorating security situation inside the detention camps and prisons shows that urgent action must be taken. The vast majority of the camp detainees are children below the age of 12. Children especially must be protected, as they are the most vulnerable and receptive to radical influence. Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, states that this indefinite mass detention without legal process violates international law and should be immediately ceased. These children are innocent victims of terrorism and the conditions in the camps pose imminent risks to their lives and well-being.

The first step: Repatriation of foreign citizens

The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria reiterates that the current situation is untenable, as they have been left with the heavy burden of detaining thousands of people with alleged ISIS affiliation from countries all over the world for an indefinite period of time. For years, they have been raising these concerns, requesting help, and have appealed for the repatriation of foreign citizens — with mixed success. If repatriations continue at the current pace, it would take decades before these camps are emptied. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urges member states to speed up repatriation efforts to prove how human rights and counter-terrorism strategies interlink: “Terrorism represents the denial and destruction of human rights. And so the fight against it will never succeed if we perpetuate the same denial and destruction.”

Firstly, there needs to be an international effort to identify all detainees, of whom the vast majority held are women and children. For the third-country nationals, safe return to their home countries, in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is the only realistic response and must be prioritized. As Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, has concluded: “The real risk is not bringing these children home, it’s leaving them in the camps where they risk death, illness, and recruitment.” Based on a long list of reasons, repatriation of all citizens — children, women, and men — is necessary and entirely feasible. Furthermore, the U.S. State Department states that repatriation is the only durable solution. The U.S. has offered multiple times to assist other nations in their repatriation efforts.

For individuals who are either undocumented or will not be able to return to their countries of origin, there must be international solutions for resettlement. This also applies to Syrian and Iraqi individuals, who comprise the vast majority of the detained population. Resettlement must be done with sensitivity, to not risk increasing further suffering and conflict. Contributing to holistic solutions to close the camps and prisons in the near future should be an international priority for long-term stability and security. In regards to the high-threat context, time is of the essence.

Reception of returnees to countries within Coalition member states

Upon their return, adult returnees suspected of crimes must be duly investigated by the respective juridical system. Repatriation of foreign citizens is an opportunity for legal redress for victims of the terrorist group. Examples from the criminal justice systems in multiple countries, including the U.S., show that fair trials have​​ delivered justice.

Returnees not suspected of crimes must be reintegrated into their societies and, if needed, rehabilitated. Children must be considered victims. Reintegration after repatriation is not only possible, it has proven to be exceedingly successful when support is made available.

In Sweden and Denmark, we follow up on the repatriated children and can see how they are recovering in exceedingly positive ways. They are in school, have made friends, and participate in social activities. Just like other children, they all have their own interests and hobbies. One child loves reading books about Pippi Longstocking. Another child loves singing and writes her own songs, which she teaches her sister to sing along with. Yet another child loves visiting museums. Many of the children are curious to learn and perform well in school. As a grandparent of returned children said: “It is almost like the children are trying to catch up with everything they have missed. Now they have gotten a new chance in life, and they are surely embracing it.”

In our work contributing to the reception of returning children and mothers, we have made observations and garnered lessons learned. While the main goal must be to shield the returning family from violent and extreme environments, solely focusing only on the risk of radicalization on the part of the receiving authorities and organizations is an inadequate approach. Assessing the vulnerabilities of children exposed to violent extremism and terrorism requires a holistic approach where interventions must aim to foster the child’s and mother’s well-being and development, including their identity and sense of belonging in a pro-social context.

The best interest of the child and do no harm as guidance principles

As the children have suffered immensely in the so-called caliphate and war, and more recently in the detention camps in northeast Syria, it is important that the process of resettlement to the children's countries of origin avoids further trauma. It is paramount that interventions from authorities and organizations provide children a stable foundation for recovery and reintegration, aiming to reduce children’s suffering rather than adding to it. When the children arrive in the country, everything is new for them; it becomes a crisis-like experience as they are thrust into a new reality. If a child is separated from their caregiver and source of safety, there is an increased risk of reinforcing the child’s trauma and creating more anxiety and insecurity. We have seen first hand how returning mothers show that they want to start over in life, put their children first, and offer them a safe upbringing far from violent environments. Many of them have been wanting and trying to leave ISIS and Syria for many years.

In this context, the receiving authorities should create conditions to be able to observe the interaction between the child and the mother, to oversee the child’s well-being and development together with the mother’s and how each mother responds to the child’s needs.

Lessons from Swedish and Danish cases demonstrate that reintegration and rehabilitation have a higher likelihood of success when the repatriated individuals and their extended families are included in the planning process. Such involvement keeps families together, avoids new separations, and promotes favorable psychological recovery. One approach that has proven successful is when the child’s and mother’s needs, risk factors, and protective factors are assessed by competent authorities together with relevant civil society organizations and extended family members with an appropriate understanding of the family’s situation and background.

If joint placement of the child and mother is not possible, it has been shown to be beneficial for the child’s well-being that regular contact with the mother and any siblings should be facilitated as soon as possible. In such cases, it has also been shown to be beneficial for children to regularly visit their mother in a predictable way, so that the child may know what to expect in these encounters. If appropriate, the child's extended family members should be the first priority of choice for foster care, with support and guidance from relevant support functions from social services.

A multi-agency collaboration with relevant authorities and civil society actors — including faith communities — with contextual knowledge and understanding is a key component to successfully plan and implement a reception strategy to prevent radicalization. The former would contribute to the families’ access to support aimed at empowering their emotional, psychological, social, and theological resilience.

Beyond repatriation

Aside from repatriating third-country nationals, the Global Humanitarian Coalition to Defeat ISIS would step up the multifaceted plan in war-torn Syria and Iraq to increase their focus on addressing the underlying conditions that lead to radicalization. This should include the negative effects from warfare from the Coalition itself.

Nicolas Hénin, a French former war reporter held hostage by ISIS in 2013-14, has concluded how the Coalition airstrikes were fueling the misery and disaster for the local people and “pushing people into the hands of ISIS.”

Providing security and stable living conditions for local people in Syria, engaging and including them to be part of the solution, and bringing hope would be devastating for ISIS. As long as there remains fertile ground for militant groups to groom and recruit, military efforts will continue to be undermined by the lack of investment in humanitarian development, justice, and durable solutions for stabilization. As U.N. Secretary-General Guterres has concluded: “Poverty, inequalities and social exclusion give terrorism fuel. Prejudice and discrimination targeting specific groups, cultures, religions and ethnicities give it flame.”

Already, there are stabilization lines within the Coalition, but with the urgency of the matter, we call on stakeholders of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS to take further steps to align and coordinate for international justice mechanisms for survivors under the rule of law and due process; to address the prolonged humanitarian crisis; and to engage in strategic planning for long-term development, including stabilization and peacebuilding efforts for sustainable local institutions and livelihoods. Addressing issues related to legal justice, food security, livelihoods, infrastructure development, and education is preventing violent extremism. These stabilization efforts would require new commitments from the Coalition member states.

The international community can contribute to preventing more children from becoming victims of armed conflict in Syria, Iraq, or elsewhere. A Global Humanitarian Coalition to Defeat ISIS, based on humanitarian principles, perspectives of due process, and global security, unifies in a holistic approach to undermine ISIS. There is an urgent need for a Global Humanitarian Coalition to Defeat ISIS to conduct civilian-centered action and build upon the hard-fought military gains.


Brian Feldman Clough is the Co-founder of Repatriate the Children (RTC) – USA. Natascha Rée Mikkelsen is the Co-founder of RTC – Denmark. Beatrice Eriksson is the Co-founder of RTC – Sweden. RTC is a children’s rights organization that aims to raise awareness about the children detained in northeast Syria, and to contribute to knowledge-based decision making that brings together humanitarian principles, rule of law, and global security.

Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

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