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France sets up controversial registry to monitor children of jihadists repatriated from Syria and Iraq

Lawyers and relatives of over 200 minors complain of stigmatization from the official personal database

Siria refugiados
Two women at the al-Hol refugee camp accommodating Islamic State families and sympathizers in the Hasakeh province, Syria, in 2021.Baderkhan Ahmad (AP)

The French government has given the green light for the establishment of a registry to monitor the more than 200 minors who have returned from Syria or Iraq in recent years, according to a government decree approved on April 7. The purpose of the data list, the text specifies, is to “guarantee their protection and prevent their participation in a process of delinquency or radicalization.”

The database will include, in addition to the children’s names, details such as their parents’ location, the conditions of their arrival in France, whether they were born in areas where terrorist groups operate, and which public services are responsible for their tracking. Lawyers and relatives of the minors have expressed concern that the registry will further stigmatize them, and they are planning to appeal against the measure.

The inter-ministerial decree gives the go-ahead for the Ministry of the Interior to automate personal data “relating to the care of minors returning from areas of activity of terrorist groups.” The purpose of the registry, argues the ministry, is to better coordinate the diverse services in charge of the administrative, judicial, medical and socio-educational support for these children. According to the ministry in an email, the database excludes “any security dimension” and is “purely preventive.” One of the intentions is also to avert the disruption of assistance programs.

Meanwhile, the relatives reject these arguments. “We have been slapped in the face,” a spokesman for the Collectif des Familles Unies (United Families Collective), a French organization that advocates for the repatriation of minors and their mothers, said in a telephone interview. “We’re talking about kids who are about seven or eight years old, and they want to chart them until they come of age. It’s nonsense,” he bemoans.

In excess of 200 children of French jihadists have returned to France since the fall of the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2019. Approximately one hundred of these minors have been repatriated, according to data from the Ministry of Justice. Originally, the official approach of the French government was to study the potential return of minors from Syria or Iraq “on a case-by-case basis,” without authorizing the return of adults. However, in July 2022, the government reversed course and announced the repatriation of 35 minors and 16 women from camps in northeastern Syria, where they were being housed.

Since then, two other mass repatriations have taken place (in October and January), but nearly 100 French minors are still in the Syrian camps under surveillance of Kurdish forces. Upon arrival, the children are entrusted to the social services for minors and undergo a medical examination, as well as other processes. Many of them enter in poor physical and psychological condition and have never received any schooling.

The registry will include personal and family identification details (languages spoken, siblings, persons exercising parental authority, whether or not parents are incarcerated) and other details regarding the accompaniment of minors (date of arrival in France, type of schooling, whether or not they are incarcerated, date of last medical check-up). The State may hold this data until the child reaches the age of majority, according to the decree published in the Official Gazette.

The document also specifies who can be granted access to this data. The list includes state representatives, prosecutors, assistants specialized in radicalization, deans, academic heads and officials in the healthcare sector. In the view of Vincent Brengarth, a lawyer for a French jihadist who is still in Syria with her three children, the information the register may contain “is extraordinarily wide-ranging, as is the list of people who potentially have access to it.”

The lawyer continues: “I believe that the creation of this file is highly problematic, in light of the suspicion it casts on minors who are accused of mirroring the actions of their parents.”

The department in charge of the prevention of delinquency and radicalization, within the Ministry of the Interior, has justified the compilation of the database on the grounds of “the difficulties encountered by the departmental councils, which are responsible for the care of these minors.” Nevertheless, the authority does not specify what type of difficulties it is referring to. It believes that the data will help reduce issues of coordination or avoid any interruption in the monitoring of a child in the event that a change of residence occurs.

“These children are mere victims”

Meanwhile, lawyer Patrick Baudouin, president of the Human Rights League, is critical that minors “are being labeled as potential criminals and terrorists from the outset. It is absolutely appalling.” Baudouin admits that monitoring is imperative, but warns that stigmatizing them can be counterproductive.

“These are children who have endured years of mistreatment, victims whose childhood years have been wasted in camps and dreadful detention conditions, in an environment of violence,” he insists over the phone. “And when they return, they continue to be stigmatized and blamed,” he says.

For attorney Marie Dosé, who supports women and children held in camps in northeastern Syria, the registry is also a “form of stigmatization.” In an interview with broadcaster France Info, the lawyer indicated that she is studying the possibility of appealing the decree with other lawyers in an attempt to have it revoked.

According to Dosé, France has been condemned on three occasions for abandoning these children. “Now it is actually going to humiliate them more by registering them after four years of hell in Syria. No child registry can ever fulfill the need for protection,” she concluded. The attorney insists that more educators are needed and that children should be able to get to see their detained mothers on a more frequent basis.

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