In Policy Shift, France Repatriates Dozens of ISIS-Linked Women and Children From Syrian Camps

Paris ( – The French government’s decision this week to repatriate dozens of citizens from Syrian camps where ISIS jihadists and families are being held by Kurdish forces has been attributed to concerns about an upcoming court ruling – and a changed political environment as President Emmanuel Macron begins his last term.

Among the 16 women and 35 children repatriated is Émilie König, a 37-year-old jihadist blacklisted by the U.S. in 2015 as a foreign terrorist fighter.

On arrival König was immediately indicted and along with the other women was placed in custody of the anti-terrorist police in Paris. Her lawyer, Emmanuel Daoud, told AFP she was ready to “cooperate fully with French justice.”

The office of France’s anti-terrorist prosecution division said it intends to investigate each case thoroughly.

König, a convert to Islam, traveled to Syria in 2012 joining first al-Qaeda and then ISIS. She was captured by Kurdish forces in 2017.


König is the mother of five children, three of whom were born in Syria. They were repatriated to France in early 2021. She told AFP in April last year that she wanted to return to her home country, and claimed to have no blood on her hands.

Until now, French policy regarding female jihadists detained in Syria was to allow them to return on a case-by-case basis, an approach criticized by relatives and human rights advocates.

“It’s a change of course that should be welcomed,” League for Human Rights president Patrick Baudoin told reporters. “It comes late but it’s a good start.”

The children among the returnees have been taken into the care of child support services. Families will be able to visit them, and they will eventually be allowed to return to their families, after undergoing psychological evaluation.

The children were either taken to ISIS-controlled areas in Syria or Iraq, or were born there. Of the returned group, seven are without parents, thought to be dead or on the run. Others returned with their mothers.

Since the defeat of ISIS’ so-called “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq in 2019, family members including grandparents have been urging French authorities to bring the children back.

But the case-by-case policy implemented by authorities up to now saw France repatriate only orphans among the children, or those whose mothers had agreed to renounce parental rights.

The shift comes as Paris awaits the verdict of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), in a case brought by two families last fall. The families want to repatriate their daughters, spouses of jihadists, and their grandchildren held in camps in northeastern Syria by Syrian Kurdish forces who were instrumental in the fight to defeat ISIS.

“France is aware of a risk of condemnation and rather than exposing itself to this risk, Paris preferred to act before the verdict of the ECHR,” said Vincent Brengarth, a lawyer representing families of repatriated women.

Brengarth said the recent elections in France could also help explain the government’s shift. Since Macron can’t now stand for re-election he is less constrained by those who oppose repatriations, he said.

Marc Bailly, a lawyer for families of French citizens who went to Syria to join ISIS in 2012, told reporters that all of the children, who have been living in harrowing conditions for years, must now be repatriated.

French authorities believe around 1,700 French citizens joined the ranks of ISIS in and after 2014.

Before this week’s repatriation, human rights organizations and the French intelligence services estimated that around 80 wives and 200 children, all French citizens, were still being held in the Syrian camps.

Citizens of many countries traveled to the region in 2014 and subsequent years to join the Sunni terrorist group which at one point controlled vast swathes of territory across civil war-torn Syria and Iraq.

Human Rights Watch in a report in March last year said that nearly 43,000 men, women and children of foreign origin linked to ISIS remained in the camps in Syria, including citizens of at least 58 countries.

Finland, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and Germany have all decided to repatriate the children and spouses of their citizens who traveled to the Middle East to fight with ISIS. Ninety-seven women and children returned to various Eureopean countries in 2021, and more have returned this year.

Since the fall of the “caliphate,” French political parties have been split on the issue. Right wing and far-right wing parties opposed to repatriation the female jihadists and their children.

They warned of the security risks and spread of jihadist doctrine to other Muslim women in France, and argued that the women should face trial in the courts of Syria or Iraq.

Lawmakers on the left called for repatriation, and for the women to be prosecuted in France and held accountable for their actions.


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