Spain plans to repatriate 16 of its citizens from Kurdish-run detention camps in Syria where the family members of "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) are interned, the Spanish government said Monday (November 21).
The Spanish move to repatriate three women and 13 children comes days after a top US military official reiterated a call to the international community to accelerate the repatriation of camp residents.
One of the women is married to an ISIS fighter and the other two are widows of extremist fighters. Previously, Spain had refused to repatriate family members of ISIS combatants.
The Spanish repatriation will take place before the end of the year, a government source said, confirming a report in Spanish daily El Pais.
The return of relatives of captured or killed ISIS fighters from Syria and Iraq has been a thorny issue for many countries since the fall of the group's so-called "caliphate" in 2019.
Thousands of foreign fighters travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the extremist group, often taking their wives and children to live in ISIS-controlled territory.
The Spanish women face charges of co-operating with a terrorist organisation for allegedly aiding ISIS. If convicted, they face jail terms of up to five years.
The women have been in the detention camps since 2019. They say they were tricked by their husbands into going to Syria, and did not take part in any extremist activities, according to El Pais.
Australia, Canada, Germany, France, Tajikistan and Belgium have repatriated some or all of their citizens this year from the Syrian camps, or have announced plans to do so.
'Daily pain and suffering'
After visiting al-Hol camp on Thursday, for the third time, US Central Command Gen. Michael "Erik" Kurilla said it had reaffirmed for him "the gravity of the situation at the camp".
"The more than 25,000 children at the camp are in danger -- the recent beheading of two Egyptian girls, ages 12 and 13, inside the camp is a horrific reminder of that," he said in a Sunday statement.
"The children in the camp are prime targets for ISIS radicalisation," he said.
"It's heartbreaking to see the pain and suffering occurring daily -- that is why we are so focused on working with our interagency partners and the international community to repatriate these residents," Kurilla said.
A short-term goal for the international coalition is to make the camp safer for all residents and reduce the influence of ISIS on camp residents, he said.
To this end, the camp administration, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and camp security are doing this through increased force protection measures, he said, with support from the US military.
Improved conditions at the camp are "critical to securing a lasting defeat of ISIS" and preventing the resurgence of the group, he added.
"The long-term goal, however, must be the successful repatriation, rehabilitation and reintegration of the camp residents back into their country of origin," Kurilla stressed.
Repatriate, rehabilitate, reintegrate
Kurilla said it is clear to him that in the camp "there are thousands of women and children here who would embrace the chance to just go home, escape this squalor and misery, and live a normal life".
"But the longer we leave them here in these conditions, the greater the chance they will instead raise the next generation of extremists," he warned.
"For some, sadly, that radicalisation is already under way," he said. "That makes some cases more challenging; some residents will require more careful deradicalisation and reintegration."
"But this can be done and in fact has been done successfully for hundreds who have returned home and now contribute to their societies."
The longer countries wait to repatriate, rehabilitate and reintegrate their citizens, however, the more challenging this effort becomes, he said.