The children of foreign fighters, specifically those in Syria, are among the most vulnerable groups in the world. Estimates state that there are close to 29,000 foreign children in Syria, most of them under the age of 12. Around 20,000 are from Iraq and more than 9,000 are from 60 other countries. According to UNICEF, these children live in appalling conditions and have little family support; most of them live stranded with their mothers or other caregivers and many live entirely alone.
Unfortunately, many countries have refused to repatriate their citizens, including those born in the conflict zones. Repatriation includes accompanying children back to their legal countries and reintegrating them into their extended families. So far, countries have repatriated only a fraction of them. Non-receiving countries usually give reasons that involve security concerns and often pass judgment on young children who have suffered from blatant manipulation or the decisions of their caretakers.
Most children of foreign fighters started their lives in or traveled to Islamic State-controlled conflict areas, but many are also young boys who armed groups manipulated into support. UNICEF’s call to action urges that countries maintain the international standards for a fair trial, especially with children over the age of criminal responsibility. Receiving countries should work to prevent the harsh scrutinization of foreign fighters’ children who have not committed serious crimes.
Working to Protect Stateless Children
There are also a number of Syrian refugees and children of foreign fighters who are stateless, meaning that they possess no civil documentation to prove their nationality. Without documentation, it is difficult for refugees to build their lives beyond reintegration. When it comes to stateless children, most of them are born abroad after their parents have fled conflict and estimates determine that parents do not register 70 percent of them at birth. According to the U.N., a stateless child is born every 10 minutes.
Many large organizations are working to counter statelessness. UNICEF has pressed outlying nations to prevent the children of foreign fighters from becoming stateless and to provide all citizens with civil documentation. In 2014, the U.N. launched the 10-year I Belong global campaign to rid the world of statelessness. Currently, there are over 96,000 signatures on the U.N.’s petition to end statelessness.
Importance of Mental Health Care
Successful reintegration requires more than placing the children of foreign fighters into schools and providing housing and jobs. Nearly half of all Syrian children display symptoms of PTSD and a quarter face intellectual and developmental challenges. By living in conflict zones, children are at high risk for depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness. This includes making them vulnerable to radicalization due to post-conflict distress and anger.
Furthermore, the unfamiliar surroundings, foreign languages and a lack of familial support during repatriation can worsen symptoms. One study on reintegrated children in Sierra Leone showed that children abducted at younger ages were less likely to return to school. The study also found immense psychological challenges when trying to reintegrate children into schools; children would often have heightened symptoms resembling traumatic stress in reaction to war and grief.
There are a number of health care NGOs working to help those the war affected. The International Psychosocial Organization is training counselors in Syria’s conflict zones. In Palestine, the Médicins San Frontières partnered with Al-Najah University to establish a graduate psychology program, with its main purpose to bolster the mental health workforce in Syria.
Right now, the world has received an opportunity to counter violent extremism by helping women and the children of foreign fighters reintegrate into their original communities. The damage done to the three million children born since the beginning of the Syrian War will be present for many years, requiring a multilayered and multinational response. In this complicated and brutal war, it is incredibly important to help protect these children and return them to their intended families and communities.
– Isadora Savage