“There are camps in which we have no presence. But we are doing everything within our power to repatriate the children, in particular, those who have been identified as orphans,” M Le Drian said in a joint interview with Europe 1 radio, CNews television and Les Echos newspaper. The children whose parents are being held in detention are also being returned to France, “but only in exceptional circumstances, when their mothers allow them to be sent home,” he continued. President Emmanuel Macron’s government has categorically refused to bring back ISIS jihadists, repeatedly branding them as “enemies” of the state who should face justice either in Syria or Iraq.
It has also ruled out allowing mothers, some of whom stand accused of acting as ISIS propagandists, to return with their children.
A handful of jihadi children have been sent back to France in recent months, where they have been handed over to relatives or social services.
M Le Drian’s pledge is the latest small step in efforts to resolve the thorny problem posed by the huge numbers of foreign fighters and their families stranded in Syrian camps, as well as those facing trial in neighbouring Iraq.
But returns have remained limited. Like many western countries, France – which has one of the largest contingents of fighters who were captured in the final stages of the US-led assault on ISIS earlier this year – has been torn over what to do with the jihadists, insisting they should face local justice.
The issue has sparked a heated debate in France, where there is little sympathy for the families of Isis militants, widely perceived as a potential security risk.
France has transferred some of its nationals to Iraq, where courts have handed out scores of death sentences in speedy trials which rights groups say make a mockery of international justice standards.
Iraqi courts have also been accused by rights defenders of inconsistencies in the judicial process and flawed trials, leading to unfair convictions.
The controversy over the sentences has forced France – which is fiercely opposed to the death penalty – to adapt its Isis fighter policy, with M Le Drian confirming plans to set up an international court in Iraq to try suspected militants.
“Myself and some of my European colleagues are currently working on a judicial mechanism that would allow us to try jihadist terrorists,” M Le Drian said.
“We’re already thinking about the implementation of such a mechanism, which is the only good solution, not only for ISIS fighters but also for their children,” he continued.
Several EU states have backed the idea of a special tribunal to prosecute Isis fighters, which would make it easier for western governments to hold them accountable for their crimes.
In 2014, Isis declared an ultra-hardline Sunni Islamic caliphate spanning swathes of Iraq and Syria and established a brutal rule known for mass and summary killings, sexual enslavement and punishments like crucifixion.
According to the European police agency Europol, some 5,000 Europeans fled their homes to join the ranks of Isis, of whom some 1,500 have returned.
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