Detention camps in Syria: the repatriation of children and their families, in the aftermath of the IS crisis

Detention camps in Syria: the repatriation of children and their families, in the aftermath of the IS crisis


 Interview with Prof. Gerrit Loots by Jan Cornelis, former Vice-Rector for Research & Development, and for International Policy, at Vrije Universiteit Brussel-VUB (February 11, 2020)


“The Council of Europe is calling for the repatriation of IS-mothers together with their children. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children may not be separated from their parents, unless it is in their own interest. The Kurds are refusing to repatriate IS-children without their mothers. Belgium is in trouble with repatriation of IS-children. Four children of IS-widows brought back to Belgium – their mothers stay in Turkey.” These are but a few titles found in the local press. Many more are dealing with political opportunism and diplomatic failures due to the prevailing formalities in international relations.


VUB Professor Gerrit Loots received the Human Rights award from the Belgian state, together with the non-profit organization Jihad of the Mothers, for their sustained action to repatriate children and their parents. Going beyond populist slogans, defensive attitudes inspired by fear, and political powerlessness, Gerrit Loots tries to bring some rationality to the debate. “What would be dangerous, is not bringing back children of IS-fighters and their parents”.


By interviewing a university professor with a profound theoretical and practical knowledge of the research on mother-child relations, psychotherapy and the behaviour of children at risk, I have tried to delve somewhat deeper and to substantiate the debate on the repatriation of families in the aftermath of the Islamic State (IS) crisis situation.


Gerrit, we are colleagues at the same university. I came to know you thanks to our collaboration in the VUB’s Research Council. You represented the Alpha Faculties, while continuing your own research agenda. We shared the global responsibility for the R&D policy and management with the other Research Council members. At VUB, one of the pillars of R&D policy is “making the most of research”.  It’s therefore a natural question for me to ask, how does your research support your action of repatriating children and their families who are residing in the detention camps back to Belgium?


Three consecutive research lines support my community service activities. Firstly, I studied early mother-child interactions; not the development of the child itself, but rather the relationship between mothers and their babies, that is, their children aged between zero and three.


Normal children?

Yes, normal children, but also blind and deaf children – deaf children from hearing parents and deaf children from deaf parents. We compared their interactions in order to study the differences in the relationships and the development of the children within these relationships. Our focus has always been on early development and the first years of life. There is an immediate link between this research and the children in the detention camps because most of them are babies, toddlers, or very young children. Today, 95% of the Belgian children in the camps is aged between zero and six. The study of the impact of radicalization and indoctrination on these children  is directly related to what we have been studying for many years:  how they behave within relationships, how they are changed by the social parenting relationships in which they are growing up. All our experimental research expertise is challenging the commonly held ideas of indoctrination for life, radicalisation for life and psychological trauma for life. There is an impact for sure, but it is reversible, and it changes through the social parenting relationships in which children grow up. We are made by the relationships in which we live, and we are made by the people who are very important to us and live with us. This is a fundamental point in this whole discussion.


The other two research lines?

The second research line is psychotherapy.  I did research on family therapy which means that we were working with children and not just talking about them or analysing them.  Specifically, we work with children in a parenting context. The process of research in therapy is an extension of the first research line. What works, what makes the relationship between the therapist and the patient work, and what kind of relationships are healing?

The third research line, the most important one, is children at social risk. This could be in the context of extreme poverty, war and violence – including child soldiers and children living on the street. This research started in 2007 and is still ongoing. It started in Uganda, with Els De Temmerman, a former Belgian journalist, who was reporting on the war in Northern Uganda. Els created an organisation that works for the rehabilitation of child soldiers in Africa.

Yes, about 30,000 children had been abducted in Uganda, and Els De Temmerman created social centres where many of these children were rehabilitated when they left the armed groups after being freed by the army. They came to these centres to recover physically and psychologically. A programme for their reintegration into the community was launched. We were asked to provide support and to study their files, 4,000 files of children. This was our first project in Northern Uganda. We then studied good practices in the processes of rehabilitation and integration of child soldiers in Colombia, Eastern Congo, Nepal, all over the world really. PhD students were involved, and several doctoral dissertations focused on this topic. We expanded the scope to children in extreme poverty, living on the streets in situations of violence. We got funding for projects in Bolivia, Mexico, Palestine and after some time these projects became 10-year programmes.


How did you become so deeply involved in the problems of the repatriation of families residing in the detention camps in North-East Syria?

Fifteen years of research experience, and then – in March 2016 – the terrorist attacks and bombings in Brussels. Young people left Belgium to fight in Syria for IS, when they were minors. We were working all over the world with child soldiers and the Belgian government agencies invested a lot in the child soldier research. I wanted “to pay them back”, first by writing articles for the general public and later by participating in television programmes, but also through concrete action. When the young children were detected in the IS detention camps a lot of questions were being asked. What needs to happen? What do we have to do with these children in these camps? Are they dangerous? When they grow up, will they be future terrorists? Are they radicalized? I then decided that a voice from science should be heard. We left for Syria as scientists. Who are these children? Nobody knew, but everybody talked about them and had his or her own opinion. Go and see them, meet them and get to know them, learn who they are and then talk about them seriously. We made a report on their medical and psychological conditions, together with our conclusions and recommendations. These “ghosts” received an identity as human beings! The problem was then taken more seriously by the courts, lawyers, politicians, citizens and the media.


But still the debate goes on and even today there is no satisfactory action for repatriation. But let us come back to that later. You studied children at risk to find solutions. Are there certain commonalities that you can apply to all these rather different risk situations?

Yes, there are. The main thing is showing respect. Not being respected or recognized, living in the margins, forgotten, neglected by society. It has a tremendous psychological effect on human lives, from birth onwards. There is a test that illustrates this point. A mother is playing with her child, for three minutes. The interaction is complex, the child is communicating in sophisticated ways to make the mother look at him/her, moving when the mother looks, smiling.  In the second part of the test, the mother is asked not to do anything at all for two minutes and the child strives to get attention, trying everything, trying to vocalize. When this isn’t working, you can see the child becoming distressed, s/he starts crying, even starts to ruminate and becomes very distressed. When the mother starts playing again, she has to calm down the child, and only after a while will the child start trying to communicate again. It is amazing how strongly the child is impacted at such an early age when neglected. The desire to be desired is very strong, so that when attention is missing, psychological wellbeing is at stake and many phenomena like psychological stress and other psychological problems are caused by that neglect.


That’s probably where your motivation comes from to promote the return of the children AND the mothers?

Of course.  I just described a short laboratory test, but in real life, when this lack of identity recognition lasts longer and in extreme situations such as the ones I studied, this is really the dominating factor which needs to be remedied. The damage is reversible even at a later age. The feeling of “I belong to this group” is important. Let us make sure the group is a humane one and not a ruthless group of IS- fighters.


And what about the fathers?

We could not meet them during our two visits and so I cannot give an opinion from a psychological point of view. There were, of course, also women involved in operational IS activities but for the Belgian group this was really limited.


Concerning the repatriation, fear is playing an important role in the decision-making. What do we have to be afraid of as citizens? Is this fear justified? What is the safest solution?

I think the most dangerous course of action is to leave them there. Not bringing them back is the ultimate rejection. We give them the message: you can die there, you don’t exist for us. By ignoring their growing recognition that ISIS is not what it seemed, we are giving them the message: you have two options, die or escape from the camp. Escape is happening more and more. Their primary objective will be to go back to a group where they are respected for their identity.  Often this will be IS and extreme Muslim groups, because this is the only place where they will be accepted. This option is the most dangerous one. It will create more frustration, more conviction that our society is the enemy and more motivation to come back for revenge. Moreover, we do not know when they will come back. This is out of our control. For our intelligence services, having these people here in prison is a much more secure solution than knowing they are somewhere in the field and probably trying to come back. Today we create the most dangerous situation by staying inactive.


So, your point of view is “bringing the whole family back is the safest solution, and from a psychological point of view also the most advisable”?

Yes, but the approach must be on a case-by-case basis. How did they support IS? In what way were they involved? How are they looking at it now? How do they see their future? What are their dreams and aspirations for the future? What do they want to do? We spoke with several women, mothers. The answers to these questions were very diverse, ranging from a justification as to why they joined IS, to rejection of very cruel IS actions and their aspirations for a normal life.  They will be brought to trial and most probably most of them will be sent to prison, and this will in turn lead to a second danger. By widening the gap between them and society, a lot of them will become frustrated, vulnerable and easily convinced to join radicalized groups again. This is what is already happening in several countries. The case-by-case approach should include personalized reintegration programmes for each of them.


You volunteered to offer psychological assistance?

Yes, that is true. You probably read that in the newspaper.


Compared to Belgium, how is the situation in other European countries and on a global level?

There is a difference between Europe and other countries. In all Western European countries, the situation is blocked. The big problem is that our own European countries agree to only bring back the children. When I started working on this issue, public opinion was against bringing these children back because of the fear of bringing back terrorism into our society. When we first visited the camps, public opinion was strongly against us. I have to say this has changed now. I think this is partly caused by some of the media and us showing the children in the camps without enough food and without medical care. This made the urgency and crisis visible. They are just children and they depend on us, on our decisions.


If more or less the same situation exists in other Western European countries, what about an EU-wide system and guidelines? Is something happening at this moment?

Yes. It is ongoing but takes a lot of time despite the urgency of the repatriation of the children.


You work together with the Jihad of the Mothers. I think that is a Belgian organisation. How, do you interact with them? Are they participating in a kind of citizen science[1] research approach?

No, this is participatory action research[2]. We are partners in the fight for human and children’s rights. We combine “community research” and “change” in situations of social injustice by participating in the actions. I am involved in the activities and I reflect on what is happening. By doing that, I become an activist and the (grand)mothers become core researchers. To give you an example, at the moment we are following the few children who came back. How are we doing this? We are observing the children, we are playing with them, we are sitting together with the grandmothers who are providing foster care, and these grandmothers are also writing down in diaries what they see. We come in, let’s say once a month at least, and we look at their diaries. We analyse and write down the lessons learned.


Do you plan to publish these narratives? It would probably be very interesting to read the originals.

Yes, we are going to publish them together with the grandmothers. They are their stories and the results are based on reflection about what they are doing. Several of them have told us how much they like this approach because it helps them in dealing with the children and with their problems.


Let us now turn to another aspect, namely the size of the problem. Are we speaking about tens, hundreds, thousands, or 10,000 cases? This is not clear from the newspapers.

We are speaking about 40 to 100 children per country. And this is similar for all European countries.


For Belgium?

For Belgium, the numbers are approximately 45 children, 20 mothers and 14 men, as identified by our security services.


45 children, 20 mothers cause this much political turmoil? You have spoken to politicians and the Minister in charge, Koen Geens. What are their positions?

They all say the same thing.  There is no support base. Political and public opinion does not agree in bringing them back. In my discussions with these politicians I asked them if this is the right way to make political decisions. Counting the yes and no opinions, is that what a politician, a member of the parliament, is supposed to do?   Or should s/he stand firm on some fundamental values in society and some principles of justice? It is also clear that social media is a critical factor in the decision-making, although they are dominated by those who shout the loudest. Political decisions are all too often guided by considerations of how the nationalistic parties are going to reply, how they will start tweeting.

I was with Wouter Beker (a Christian Democratic politician) some weeks ago and he asked me what I expected them to do? I told him to act in accordance with his Christian Catholic values, to act as a human being. He started smiling.


With social media it is rather easy to create perceptions that have nothing to do with the facts.

I agree and I think it’s dangerous.


On the other hand, social media can also exert pressure for just causes.

Yes, it can work both ways, but the tendency I perceive is that facts are not important anymore. The dominant discourse and who creates it, generally prevails. What we are doing now goes against all our most fundamental human values. We have a situation where we let children die. We don’t respect their lives because they are children of people who did criminal things. The children are punished, and they get a near-death penalty.


A few more miscellaneous questions: in one of your interviews you said, classical concepts of radicalization and direct radicalization are obsolete in this problem. Can you explain?

It is a fact that worldwide, 40,000 – mostly young – people joined IS in Iraq and Syria. We cannot understand this phenomenon solely by reducing it to individual cognitive disorders. There is a broader societal problem, caused by sectarian and polarizing we-them thinking, which dominates our society more and more. I am advocating for the return of children with their mothers, their fair prosecution and giving them a second chance to turn them into allies in the fight against this sectarian we-them thinking. They are witnesses to the cruelty caused by sectarian thinking. Besides radicalization as an individual disorder, we should also be aware of IS as a societal phenomenon. Some mothers told me they didn’t feel at home as a Muslim in Belgium.


So that again is an identity problem with respect to society

Yes. The, “I’m not accepted as a full member of society because I wasn’t born here or because I’m an immigrant in this country”-issue.  Also, immigrant middle class people who, I’d say, are making their lives in our society, may still be confronted by attitudes that give them the feeling they cannot become a full member of the group without being judged on their differences in identity. These obstacles to their peaceful, psychological wellbeing are causing growing frustration, anger and distrust. At a certain moment it becomes a ‘we against them’ and ‘them against us’ scenario, which is the origin of sectarian terrorist thinking. Let’s be honest, racism has been in our society for decades. The immigrants who came after World War II, people who came here temporarily to work, remained “the foreigners”. In Colombia, 80 percent of the young people who joined the guerrilla or paramilitary and armed groups, did this voluntarily, because they felt excluded by society and not because they were abducted. Why did they do this? Because continuing to live their daily lives had become impossible for them. They didn’t feel any dignity or sense of being valued. So they became an armed body and they got recognition for that, and they felt fully recognized as group members.  I saw the same spirit of brotherhood in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Northern Uganda, which was a very cruel group, particularly against women, who nevertheless felt taken care of.  But once they were accepted by society and reintegrated, the trauma had gone; most of them showed special motivation and well-developed survival skills to remake their lives, improve their schooling and engage in social work. Provided the communities to which they returned accepted them.  That is why I’m fighting so hard to bring IS families back and to give them the chance to rehabilitate after they’ve been through the justice system.


Let us come back once again to your two visits to the detention camps in October 2018 and June 2019. Did you see a lot of change between these two visits? What is the most striking thing you saw when visiting the camps?

During the first visit we saw children playing as children do, laughing and enjoying themselves because we had brought toys with us. I was dumbfounded by the discrepancy between how we talk about them here in Belgium and the real children over there playing as children. While I am telling you this, even now I feel emotional about it. These kids are very cute, small kids, not noticing too much what is happening around them: “Just let me play, let me live and grow up”. These children went through bombings, shootings, killings, and surprisingly the consequences of being in these traumatizing situations were not that extreme. I kept thinking, how is it possible? Because they are young kids, they perceive reality in another way.

I then talked to the mothers and heard all their stories of how they protected their children. Then I understood that these women were really giving their lives as mothers to save their children. One of the most amazing stories was from one of these mothers about her three attempts to escape from IS. The last attempt was successful.  She and her 5-month-old baby had to leave with a man. She was carrying the baby and they were trapped. IS-fighters started to shoot, so they ran, ran, ran. The man was shot and died. She continued running and although a bullet grazed her head, she continued to run and was able to escape. I asked her, “and the baby was in your arms?”, “yes, and while I was running, I was thinking about one thing: I must be calm so that I don’t distress my baby”. That really knocked me off my feet. Even being shot at, she shielded her child from the traumatic experience. I have plenty of stories like this.

(After a long silence) During the second visit in June, I saw “other” children.


You mean, the same children were now behaving differently, more distressed?

Yes, because the camp in which this was happening, went from 11,000 refugees to 73,000. A lot of the new residents were still radicalized and tried to take over the camp’s organization, terrorising the inhabitants. You could feel the psychological stress. We were not allowed to enter the first camp fully. During our first visit, we went into the tents. The second time, this was impossible because it was too dangerous. We would have been attacked by these radicalized groups. During the first visit, we taught the children how to make puzzles. They enjoyed learning how to do it. The second time we went, the pieces of the puzzles were scattered across the room. The children were throwing their toys all around the place, they were fighting and shouting, “no, this is mine”, “this is mine”. This time, they were full of stress. Yes, it is very imperative to bring these children back before they are lost. If we wait too long, it will become very hard to reintegrate them. They are not dying and although they are suffering from physical deprivation, it is the psychological stress that will destroy them.


That is a clear message. Did I forget something? Is there something else you want to highlight?

I would like to raise one more important issue, namely the viewpoint of the Kurds who are supervising and organizing the camps. Put in simple terms, the Kurdish authorities do not want the children to leave the camps without their mothers, and European countries do not want the mothers, only the children. I met the head of counterterrorism for the Kurdish authorities, a lady, who is very clever, very humane.  She said: “these children have been in the war, they have been in our camps for far too long. We don’t want to separate them from their mothers. We are living in Syria, near the Iraqi border, and we want to be the people who are recognized for our civilized and humane behaviour. Death sentences have been abolished in our region. We do not want to hand over foreign fighters for trial in Iraq, because we know they will be killed. We also know that if the children leave, Western countries will not care anymore about the women. What can we Kurds then do with the women and men in the camps? They will have no future. We want to avoid this situation. Countries like Kosovo, Chechnya, Azerbaijan, Morocco, Indonesia sent missions to the camps in Northern Syria and repatriated everybody from their countries – women, families, mothers, children in groups.”


Mostly countries outside Europe? Do you have an explanation as to why this is happening more smoothly outside Europe although Europe likes to be known for its humanity and democracy? Maybe we are blinded by the regulations and legal constraints rather than being guided by humane considerations? Even our security services advise repatriation of families as the safest solution.

Yes, we are blind. I think it also has to do with polarization. The ISIS terrorist attacks in Brussels, in March 2016, are still very much on our minds. There are no official diplomatic channels with the Kurds. Therefore, it’s not at all easy to organize a direct dialogue on equal terms with the Kurdish leaders. The head of counterterrorism of the Kurdish authorities clearly said to me: “We are not drug dealers. If someone wants to meet me, they should come to my office. I am willing to talk officially, even on a case by case basis. Our recognition is compromised by the refugee policy agreements between Turkey and Europe.”

It is a great shame because the Kurdish authorities, who are controlling the camps, are the ones who defeated IS as well. They lost 12,000 of their people in the war and have some 24,000 people with severe long-term disabilities caused by the war against IS.


Thank you, Gerrit.


I sincerely hope that Professor Loots’ experience and analysis have given you, readers of Diplomatic World, a better insight into the core problems of repatriating the families of refugees in the aftermath of the IS crisis. We have tried to give you a guided tour of all the aspects impeding the implementation of humane solutions. The scale of the problem is so small that it is really a huge shame that our European democracies are failing to solve it. Scientia Vincere Tenebras, undoubtedly …  but more importantly, what kind of society do we really want?


Extra efforts are still needed to ensure Gerrit Loots’ project is sustainable. The VUB Foundation –  is looking forward to receiving your suggestions: tapping your network for potential donations, direct financial contributions or other creative ideas. Gifts: BE51 0013 6779 3562 mentioning, “children Syria – GIFTPR12”


[1] Citizen science: the collection and analysis of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public, typically as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists.

[2] Participatory action research (PAR): an approach to research in communities that emphasizes participation and action. It seeks to understand the world by trying to change it, collaboratively and following reflection. PAR emphasizes collective inquiry and experimentation grounded in experience and social history.