May 23, 2024

IntelBrief: As Thousands Remain in Detention Camps in Syria, Repatriation Must Be Prioritized

AP Photo/Baderkhan Ahmad

Bottom Line Up Front

  • In Northeastern Syria, 45,000 people remain in detention camps, including some 570 Southeast Asians.
  • Conditions at the detention camps in Northeastern Syria are dire, and malnutrition, disease outbreaks, and Islamic State indoctrination are endemic.
  • Increasingly, countries are acknowledging the imperative of repatriating their female and minor citizens; however, all countries are especially reluctant to repatriate men who have joined the Islamic State.
  • Part of successful repatriation from detention camps will involve medium and long-term investments in reintegration and rehabilitation, including trauma counseling, professional development, and deradicalization.

Governments are increasingly acknowledging the imperative of repatriating their female and minor citizens from detention camps in Syria. To date, approximately 45,000 persons are detained in camps in Northeastern Syria, an estimated 9,000 of whom are foreigners. At Syria’s largest detention camp, al-Hol, it is estimated that 93 percent of the detainees are women and children. The Red Cross has referred to conditions at al-Hol, as “apocalyptic,” with children routinely dying of malnutrition and hypothermia.

At the Roj camp, ten French women detained there went on hunger strike to draw international attention to the intolerable conditions under which they were living. There are few, if any, options for education, health care, or trauma counseling at either camp. Moreover, Islamic State (ISIS) sleeper cells are targeting the youth in the camps for recruitment. As ISIS sees the opportunity to groom the next generation of fighters and sympathizers, indoctrination is rampant. Moreover, this is not only a problem among men and boys; some of the female detainees at al-Hol and Roj remain quite radicalized and function as vectors for spreading ISIS propaganda both to their own children and to those with whom they interact.

Countries have varied in their approach to repatriation. As the conditions at al-Hol and Roj and the threat posed by ISIS indoctrination of children in these camps became more widely known, many countries that had initially expressed resistance to repatriation began to consider it. Most countries that took a proactive approach centered their repatriation efforts on children, especially unaccompanied minors, as well as women, whom they see as less likely to have blood on their hands. According to the Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Iraq, Barbados, North Macedonia, Kyrgyzstan, Albania, and Sudan have made significant strides in repatriation. Some Western governments have also taken a more proactive approach. For example, in 2022, France repatriated some 16 women associated with ISIS, as well as 35 children, and the Netherlands repatriated 12 women and 28 children. By mid-2024, the United States had repatriated some 51 of its citizens,12 of whom were brought home this year alone.

Southeast Asia is also seeing progress on the issue of repatriation, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia. It is estimated that 122 Malaysians traveled to Syria to join ISIS. Of those, according to the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism, 48 have been killed in Syria. Eight returned on their own accord. Another 16 have been repatriated following an application and vetting process, most of whom were either women or children. At least 50 Malaysians remain in Syria; estimates from 2022 state that 27 are detained at al-Hol camp; another nine are at Roj. According to Malaysian police data, another 26 are unaccounted for.

Malaysia is taking a holistic approach to reintegration that balances security with a public health treatment. Upon return, each person is detained and evaluated to assess their ideological perspective, psychological needs, and the threat they pose to national security. If they are found to have committed criminal acts, they will be prosecuted accordingly. If not, they are sent to a month-long course that combines counseling and vocational training with deradicalization. After release, the Malaysian Special Branch continues to monitor them.

Since 2020, Indonesia has approached repatriation with some reluctance due, in large part, to fears that ISIS returnees would launch terrorist attacks at home. Over the past two decades, Indonesian authorities and citizenry have had to cope with iterated terrorist attacks, first from Jemaah Islamiyah and its affiliates and, more recently, from ISIS cells. Thus, authorities gauged the risk of repatriating their nationals to be higher compared to their Malaysian counterparts. They also had an exponentially larger population to repatriate.

More Indonesians went to Syria to join the Islamic State than all other Southeast Asian nations combined. An estimated 1,250 Indonesians traveled to Syria to join the so-called ISIS caliphate, 40 percent of whom were women and children. Of these, 576 were turned back at the Turkish border or earlier in their journeys and deported back to Indonesia. Of those who made it through, 127 died in Syria, and 182 returned from Iraq and Syria on their own volition prior to 2020. Since 2020, Indonesia has repatriated four children of imprisoned mothers from Iraq as well as two families that escaped Syria and came to the Indonesian Embassy in Turkey, but none to date from inside Syria proper. Authorities estimate that between 493 and 545 Indonesians remain in Syria.

After Indonesia declared it would only repatriate its orphans under the age of ten from Iraq and Syria in 2020, leaving all other citizens behind, Turkish, Syrian, and Iraqi authorities balked. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) approached the Indonesian government, urging them to reconsider. However, there were real challenges. Notably, many of the Indonesian ISIS members had either burned their identity documents or had them confiscated by ISIS upon arrival in Syria. Thus, it was a challenge to verify identity. In August 2023, the Indonesian authorities established an inter-ministerial task force to verify the identities of those still in Syria, evaluate the extent to which they posed a threat, and assess chances for rehabilitation back into society. The evaluations are being conducted now, and reintegration efforts will likely start in early 2025. However, much depends on the decisions of the incoming government of Prabowo Subianto as to whether the program continues and whether it is staffed and funded appropriately to ensure its success.

Research by David Malet and Rachel Hayes has found that the risk of returning foreign fighters carrying out terrorist attacks on their home soil is greatest in the first five months after arriving home. This is when reintegration programs and monitoring are the most necessary and can have the most notable impact. This may indicate that one-month reintegration programs may prove insufficient, and medium-term holistic efforts that combine trauma counseling, professional development, and deradicalization efforts may be necessary. Programs should be designed with flexibility in mind so that the program's structure can be tailored to the individual returnees' specific emotional and psychological needs.

Practical components are also necessary, such as professional development programs for women with needs assessments and skills assessments at the outset. Deradicalization should be a part of such a program, but it is far more likely to be successful once practitioners and returnees have developed a rapport based on trust. Aftercare and ongoing monitoring will be imperative.

Julie Chernov Hwang is a Senior Research Fellow at the Soufan Center; a Harry Frank Guggenheim Distinguished Scholar; and an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Goucher College.