Global condemnation of family separation practices has been forceful and continuous. However, public officials have been nearly silent on addressing the abuse of children whose parents joined a global terrorist group. Why should it be any different for the innocent children of ISIS fighters?
Recently, the United Nations (UN) reported that children of some Islamic State (ISIS) fighters are likely being held in “secret detention facilities” and are not allowed contact with family members, even those who are not part of ISIS. While this is yet another example of family separation, it also reflects how deplorably children are treated during and after conflict – particularly when they are stigmatized by terrorism.
Children of ISIS fighters or those associated with the group, numbering around 3,000, have already long-suffered because of their parents’ choices, including from horrific living conditions inside camps as the so-called caliphate falls apart. For example, the infant of Shamima Begum, an ISIS supporter who left the UK at age 15 to travel to Syria, recently died of pneumonia, a highly preventable and curable disease, because of a severe lack of health care resources in the detainment camp in which Begum had been living. But governments – both those who currently house detainment camps for foreign fighters and their families and those whose citizens went abroad to fight with ISIS – need not further punish these children for the sins of their parents.
While some governments, including Australia and Chechnya (a semi-autonomous federal republic of Russia) have already begun repatriating foreign fighters and their children, others, including the United Kingdom, have wavered and debated while children waste away in detention camps. Western governments in particular are concerned about foreign fighters returning and eventually perpetrating attacks at home or abroad, but children need swift and humane treatment while governments debate the fates of their parents. As the recent U.S.-Mexico border crisis has shown, trauma and dire health and living conditions can have lasting mental health impacts on children.
While Western governments sort out what they will do with their citizens, it is unlikely that the Iraqi government, with its history of sectarian partisanship (already accused of overly harsh treatment of ISIS fighters) or the fetid and crumbling Assad regime in Syria can be much help for the children of foreign fighters in their territories.
So who will help these children? It is likely that the answer will lie in supranational bodies such as the United Nations, who, through its UNICEF and UNHCR programs, should carve out explicit efforts to address issues of health, trauma, and schooling. In addition, international nongovernmental organizations specializing in the care of children including Save the Children can be brought in as partners in this work. UNHCR and Save the Children have already expressed the urgency of working on this issue, but they would do well to dedicate special resources and staffing towards helping these children get access to services and to either return to their countries of citizenship or to a welcoming third country. Lingering in detention camps indefinitely cannot be a viable option.
If governments such as the UK will not act on helping their own citizens who have had the unfortunate fate of being born into ISIS-associated families, then they should consider bolstering the efforts of the UN and international NGOs to provide direct services and lead to a path of resettlement or repatriation and potential reunification with non-radicalized family members. Full separation from even close relatives who have not chosen an extremist path is cruel and unnecessary, and the international community should, wherever possible, keep children with family members who are positive role models.
Beyond providing resources, assisting the children of ISIS fighters requires removing the terrorism stigma from children and treating them as victims, not as collaborators. This will be difficult, particularly when Muslim children already bear the brunt of incorrect and dangerous associations between Islam and terrorism. But reinforcing harmful stereotypes toward innocent children will only increase alienation. While governments including the U.S. have quietly dealt with this issue in order to protect national security, they also need to reinforce narratives that Muslim children (and citizens) are welcome and that it is extremism, not religion, which should be dealt with.
From repatriation, to direct services, to assurances from their home countries that they will be treated with dignity, the children of ISIS fighters can be one step closer to not only escaping their parents’ horrible choices, but to embarking on bright futures of their own. If individual countries cannot act, then the international community must step in now to protect these children.