The government has decided to release the wives and widows of four Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists and their Spanish children who have been held in detention camps controlled by Kurdish militias in Syria since the liberation of Baguz in March 2019, the Islamic State’s last stronghold were the caliphate that Al Baghdadi proclaimed in Mosul, Iraq, in 2014, according to government sources. They are four wives (Yolanda Martínez, Luna Fernández, Lubna Miludi and Loubna Fares) and 16 children – the eldest 15 years old; the youngest, born in captivity, of just three surviving in precarious, unsanitary and highly unsafe conditions in north-eastern Syria.
Yolanda and Luna are in Al Roj prison camp, near the border with Turkey, and Lubna is in Al Hol camp, near the border with Iraq. These centers, where women and children are held indefinitely without judicial review, have become new Guantanamo in the middle of the Syrian desert.
These three women, all Spanish nationals, have asked to return to Spain with 13 minors in their care who have been identified and located. The eldest of them was separated from his mother 21 months ago and detained in a prison for children of IS fighters. In contrast, the fourth prisoner, Loubna Fares, a Moroccan national but widow of a Spanish national, fled Al Hol camp with her three children in February 2020 and her whereabouts have been unknown ever since.
The repatriation of women and minors is a complex diplomatic-military operation involving various ministries, including defence. Government sources say the aim is for them to be back in Spain before the end of the year. Upon arrival, they must appear before the national court, which will link them to the Al Andalus Brigade jihadist cell, which their husbands are said to have belonged to. They could be charged with settling in a foreign territory controlled by a terrorist organization to cooperate with it, an offense punishable by up to five years in prison under the Criminal Code. The four assure that they traveled to the Caliphate in 2014 deceived by their husbands and that they neither fought nor participated in jihadist actions.
The judge must decide whether they will be deprived of custody of their children, even though the grandparents living in Spain have already come forward to request custody of their children. Social services must ensure that minors receive health, educational and psychological support upon their arrival in Spain and, in the medium term, monitor their integration process to determine if they have been subjected to indoctrination.
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The Spanish government had previously refused to send back its nationals, although Martínez, Fernández and Miludi had expressed their desire to return to Spain back in April 2019. “We just want out of here. You cannot judge us for taking care of the house and our children in the Islamic State,” they explained to EL PAÍS journalist Natalia Sancha, who managed to locate them in the Al Hol field. “I didn’t do anything. If in Spain the law is really clear, why are they sending to prison a woman who has suffered so much and was at home with her children?” added the first of the three, all in one niqab draped.
About 65,000 members of jihadists were interned in this camp after the fall of the caliphate, 95% women and children: about 30,000 were Iraqis, 25,000 Syrians and 10,000 from another fifty different nationalities. Fear that they would become radicalized and bring back the seeds of jihadist ideology to their countries of origin prompted many governments to oppose their repatriation. In Spain, the Ministry of the Interior also imposed this criterion on that of the then Foreign Minister José Borrell, who advocated reintroduction in October 2019.
The Kurdish-Arab militia SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) in charge of the camps has for years demanded that Western governments take care of their citizens, warning of the impossibility of maintaining these centers indefinitely and the risk that ISIS is occupying your inside control. The United States, a Kurdish ally, has also pressured European governments to shoulder their responsibilities.
The situation has evolved in recent months. On the one hand, Spain was left alone in its refusal to return its nationals, as the vast majority of EU countries (Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Holland, Finland, Italy, Ireland and Norway) have done so less partially. Last July, an estimated 154 European women, including Spaniards, were in the fields of northeastern Syria.
On the other hand, the progressive deterioration of the living conditions in the camps has seriously threatened the health and physical integrity of the minors, without education or medical care and in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions.
On July 5, France, the country with the most domestic citizens in the camps under Kurdish control, changed its policy by repatriating 16 women and 35 minors. Until then, French authorities had refused to repatriate adult women, arguing that they should face trial in Syria or Iraq, where experts say the minimum requirements for doing so were not met, and only accepted minors who were orphaned or separated from their mothers.
This change was expected in just over two months after the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that ordered France to “immediately review” claims to repatriate the daughters and grandchildren of two French couples from Syria. Although the Supreme Court did not enshrine a general right to repatriation, it stressed the duty to deal with cases where there is a risk to physical integrity, particularly of minors. Back in February, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child accused Paris of “violating” the rights of French minors by not returning them.
The parents of three of the Spaniards being held in the fields under Kurdish control appealed to the European Parliament’s Petitions Committee last December, through lawyer José Luis Laso, to demand the repatriation of their daughters and grandchildren. Six months later, the European Commission responded that the EU Children’s Rights Strategy recognized the “particular vulnerability” of the nearly 30,000 internal minors in the camps in north-west Syria, “who suffer from the trauma of the conflict and extremely harsh living conditions”; and that ” the return of foreign terrorist fighters and their families to their respective Member States’ is a priority area for the Union supporting return programmes.
While acknowledging that “the sons and daughters of foreign terrorist fighters in Syria must be viewed first and foremost as victims” and “their needs must be met,” the European Commission passed the buck to respective governments by stating that “it is up to the person concerned Member States decide on the return of persons who have their nationality.
Back in March last year, the European Parliament passed a resolution expressing its “deep concern at the deteriorating humanitarian, health and security situation in the camps in north-eastern Syria, particularly in Al Hol and Al Roj, which remain Kindergartens for Radicalisation”. And it called on EU member states to “protect minors who are nationals of the Union” and “return all European children, taking into account their family situation and the best interests of the minor”.
A wife, three widows and 16 children
The wives and widows of jihadists and their children that Spain wants to repatriate are the following:
Yolanda Martinez Cobos. 37 years old from Madrid. Her husband is Omar El Harshi, a Moroccan from Ceuta who is a Spanish citizen and is being held in a Kurdish prison. She is in Al Roj with her four children aged 12, 7, 5 and 3 years.
Luna Fernandez Grande. 33 years old from Madrid. Widow. With five children. The eldest, 15, has been held in a correctional facility for children of ISIS fighters in Syria since February 2021. She is in Al Roj detention center with her four other children: one aged 10 and three under six. The youngest, three years old, was born in Al Hol camp, where she was initially detained. Luna takes care of three other minors who are orphans of Mohamed El Ouriachi, a citizen of Moroccan origin and Spanish nationality. They are ten, nine and seven years old.
Lubna Mohammed Miludi, Ceuti, 28 years old. Widow. She’s in Al Holl with her six-year-old son.
Lubna tariffs, 40 years old, born in Casablanca (Morocco). Widow of Navid Sanati, a Spanish citizen of Iranian origin. She ran away from Al Holl in February 2020 with her three children, ages ten, eight and six. His whereabouts are unknown.
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