Twelve orphaned children of French jihadists were flown home Monday from Syria, along with two Dutch orphans who will be handed over to the Netherlands, the French foreign ministry said.
The latest wave of repatriations of foreigners from crowded camps in northeast Syria targeted a group of children that were ‘isolated and particularly vulnerable’, the French ministry said, adding some were sick and/or malnourished.
They were handed over to French and Dutch officials by Syrian Kurdish authorities, according to Abdelkarim Omar, a senior Kurdish official.
The transfer marks the latest small step in efforts to resolve the problem posed by the huge numbers of stranded foreign jihadists and their families in Syrian camps.
The children, the oldest of whom is aged 10 according to Omar, had been held together with tens of thousands of people who fled recent fighting against the Islamic State group.
Omar said the transfer took place in the town of Ain Issa on Sunday, near Syria's border with Turkey.
France has one of the largest contingents of jihadists who were captured or turned themselves in, together with their families, in the final stages of the US-backed Kurdish assault on the last fragment of the IS ‘caliphate’.
Like many Western countries however it has been torn over what to do with the jihadists, insisting that they must face local justice.
- 'Inhumane treatment' -
Larger than expected numbers of families emerged from the ruins of the last IS enclave and the fate of tens of thousands of them remains unclear.
France had already repatriated five orphans from Syria in mid-March, as well as a three-year-old girl whose mother was sentenced to life imprisonment in Iraq.
But so far it has refused to let mothers, some of whom were accused of acting as IS propagandists, return with their children.
France's Human Rights Defender Jacques Toubon last month called on the government to stop the ‘inhumane and degrading treatment’ of French mothers and children living in Syria.
Paris has said it was studying the files of all of its citizens held in northeastern Syria on a case-by-case basis.
Last week, two American women and six children from suspected jihadist families were also repatriated.
The Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria is not officially recognised and the legal framework for any repatriations and transfers is unclear at best.
The biggest returns so far were to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kosovo, while countries such as Russia, Sudan and Norway have also started repatriating some of their nationals.
Returns have remained limited however and Al-Hol, the main camp in the Kurdish region, is still bursting with more than 70,000 people from at least 40 different countries.
The majority of people stranded in such camps are from neighbouring Iraq and from Syria itself.
A first batch of 800 Syrian women and children were sent home earlier this month, most of them to their hometowns of Raqa and Tabqa.
The fate of suspected IS fighters held in Kurdish prisons is even less clear, with few European countries willing to bring them back and the Kurds unable to give them trials.
The Kurds are pushing foreign nations to take responsibility for the crisis and have warned that they could not guarantee how long they could keep such large numbers of dangerous jihadists locked up.
France has transferred some of its nationals to Iraq, where courts have churned out death sentences in lightning trials which rights groups say make a mockery of international justice standards.
Eleven French nationals have been sentenced to death in Iraq. Paris has called on Iraqi authorities to commute the sentences.
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