FIFDH: the 'Children of the Enemy' that nobody wants to see

(Credit: Children of the Enemy/FIFDH)

Despite repeated calls from international bodies and NGOs, many states still refuse to repatriate thousands of children trapped in camps in northern Syria. The documentary Children of the Enemy, to be screened as part of the International Human Rights Film Festival from 4 to 13 March in Geneva, tells the story of Patricio Galvez, a Swedish musician, who went in search of his seven grandchildren, orphaned in the Al-Hol camp.

Patricio Galvez spends his evenings alone scanning thousands of photos from the vast Al-Hol and Al-Roj camps in northern Syria trying to locate seven blond grandchildren aged between eight years and one month of his late daughter Amanda, and her husband, one of the fiercest Swedish recruiters of ISIS.

“Amanda and her mother converted at the same time. Unfortunately, they helped each other to become radicalized. Sadly, a marriage was arranged for her with some guy she never met before,” says Patricio, as the documentary unfolds. He still blames himself.

Amanda's husband, Michael Skrämo, left Gothenburg in 2014 to join Islamic State (IS) in Syria, “the most high profile and active Swede in [terms of] recruitments with his own media channel calling for terrorist attacks”.

Their stories came to a brutal end in 2019 after Amanda was killed in a grenade attack in north-western Syria; months later Skrämo was reported dead. Their seven children did not choose to lose both their parents nor to become undernourished orphans lacking basic education in a refugee camp north of Syria.

Looking for them is a daunting task for Patricio: the camps of Al-Hol and Al-Roj are home to over 60,000 people among which half are children under the age of 12. The majority are Syrians and Iraqis but there are also women and children from 60 least-developed countries. A vulnerable foreign population that most states don’t want back despite their responsibility to either protect or prosecute them.

The failure of Western states. After knocking tirelessly on the doors of the Swedish foreign ministry without success, Patricio goes to Erbil to meet the Kurdish authorities, the Autonomous Administration of north-east Syria (AANES), aid agencies, and social services who all understand his plea but fail to help. And for good reason “Daech’s children” are a pending issue in Western countries. The decisions vested in civil servants rather than politicians to repatriate individuals are taken on a case-by-case basis. Only 1,163 children from 22 countries have been repatriated according to the latest figures published in Save The Children's report, When Am I starting to live?, in September 2021 and Covid only exacerbated the situation.

In the meantime, Patricio’s grandchildren, who have lived so long in a war, seen their father shot in Baghouz when the Islamic State made its last stance, their mother pierced by shrapnel suffering two days long before dying, almost starved to death – victims of a lack of political will.

“They will become worse than their parents because of the suffering, the hatred they feel,” pleads Patricio who is blamed as he raises awareness on social media for having raised a terrorist, some even arguing for the loss of their nationality.

Do not repatriate a problem. The thorn in the side of Western countries, traumatised by terrorist attacks on their soil, is to assess which of two options will do the least long-term damage: leaving these children and their parents to rot in camps far from their borders – or taking the risk of repatriating at-risk nationals in the  “fear that returnees will commit acts of terrorism once home”.

For children's rights advocates like Veronique Aubert, lead on children and armed conflict for Save the Children, and special adviser to the International Criminal Court prosecutor on crimes against and affecting children, the answer is clear:

“These are extremely complicated situations and reintegration is not easy, but leaving these young people to rot in these camps carries a risk of fomenting and contributing to more fundamental radicalisation. Without even talking about forced recruitment, manipulation, enlistment, the lack of education; thse are real risks to feed a desire for revenge and to tip over into radicalisation. Turning a blind eye to the problem will not solve it,” she told Geneva Solutions.

These children should be recognised as victims of serious violations of human rights and international law and not suffer the effects of being born to individuals allegedly associated with terrorist groups, human rights organisations argue.

"Since September 11 and the war on terror, there has been a deterioration and acceleration of child abuse. They are no longer seen primarily as victims, as were child soldiers, for whose benefit coalitions, additional protocols and more or less economic support for their reintegration were successfully mobilised. Twenty years later, demobilisation work is seen as collaboration with terrorists. We are going backwards completely,” said Aubert.

And while the debate rages on in states that are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights, or more generally to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is a legally binding agreement, some grow up exposed to severe levels of violence, displacement, deprivation and uncertainty about what their future holds exacerbating trauma and depression.

In Al-Hol, only 40 per cent of children between the age of three and 17 are receiving education and in Roj 55 per cent of households reported that they were aware of child labour among children under the age of 11. Not to mention the fact that these children are in harm’s way, vulnerable to the predations of IS enforcers and at risk of radicalization within the camp.

The Swiss case. Olivier Peter, a Swiss lawyer at the Geneva firm Peter & Moreau specialising in assisting human rights defenders, who will take part in a debate followed a screening of Children of the Enemy on 9 March in Lausanne, said it took three years to get the Federal Council to authorise the return of two Swiss women aged 10 and 15 last December.

“The children finally returned, but after long battles, two public denunciations by UN special rapporteurs, in particular the rapporteur on human rights in the fight against terrorism and the ICRC, who called on Switzerland to fulfil its international obligations. This escalation of criticism of Switzerland's inaction led the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs to finally take action,” he told Geneva Solutions.

The Peter & Moreau study commissioned by the two fathers used an international arrest warrant for kidnapping to request the return of the children without their jihadist mother but this was a special case.

"The defence could have been mounted on the mother's return strategy too, but that was not the objective. From the moment they have jurisdiction and the capacity to intervene in a situation that concerns their nationals – and Switzerland has shown that it has both contacts with the authorities on the ground and the capacity - states have a duty to intervene to ensure respect for their fundamental rights, particularly in the face of such risks of inhuman and degrading treatment, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable people such as minors.”

Patricio also finally got his seven grandchildren back from foster care in Sweden. But like Olivier Peter, he regrets that they had to spend years in camps that were far more compromising for their safety and that of Western societies than if they had been taken into care earlier. A few more Swiss children are still stuck in northern Syria.

For Véronique Aubert, we must stop analysing children's rights as a homogeneous group from 0 to 18 years old. “We need an analysis of their relationship to trauma, physical and psychological violence and education differentiated by age group,” she says.

“There may be potential candidates for terrorism, but not in the 0-12 age group. There is hope for rehabilitation when we talk about 50 per cent of children under 12 like it’s the case in these camps. That is why it is time to repatriate them.”

Children of the Enemy will be screening at 7 pm on Wednesday 9 March at Maison de quartier sous-gare (Lausanne) and at 4.30 pm on Saturday 12 March at the Grütli cinema in Geneva. It is also available to watch online from 12 to 20 March 2022.