Activists in Tunisia want the government to repatriate the children of ISIS fighters who are too young to be culpable in crimes.
Tunisia holds an important place within the recent regional history of the Middle East and North Africa, having been where the Arab Spring protests began and ostensibly its only success story, having avoided significant instability, conflict or a reversal of fortunes. The country, however, also holds the more dubious honour of being one of the largest points of origin of foreign ISIS militants in Libya, Syria and Iraq. The security threats posed by these militants in the event of their return remains a polarising topic in Tunisia.
One issue that is of particular importance and urgency is what to do with the children of the ISIS militants and their families of Tunisian origin. It is well known that ISIS was interested not only in recruiting fighters but whole families in order to bolster its “state”. This means that many children, often too young to understand the group’s ideology and with no choice on the matter, were taken alongside their radicalised parents. Others were born under ISIS rule, with no records or documents to verify their identities.
Although some of these children, particularly those forced to fight for the Cubs of the Caliphate, have been killed, others have survived. Military accounts from Iraq and Syria are full of instances where children as young as three were found wandering in bombed out streets with no sign of their parents. Their appearance or speech often indicated foreign origin but nothing else. They have since been placed into orphanages or foster care, but there is a lack of consensus towards a permanent solution.
Tunisian activists say that the Tunisian Government should work towards identifying such children of Tunisian origin and repatriate them. Although they unanimously agree that foreign militants who travelled to ISIS territories willingly do not deserve to return, they believe that the children who ended up in these places of no fault on their own deserve a second chance at life.
Through their independent efforts, activists in Tunisia already identified 38 such children in Libya. They believe there are many more in Iraq, Syria and Turkey but lack the resources to find them.
Orphanages in Iraq and Syria are often lacking in capacity and skill, raising the likelihood that these children can be exploited or do not receive the care they need. Furthermore, the stringent citizenship requirements in many Arab countries mean that without documentation, these children can end up stateless, condemned to a life of destitute. At worst, their disenfranchisement can allow other extremists to recruit them in the future.
The activists are concerned that the Tunisian Government is being slow in responding to the crisis and hope that their efforts can help bring these children to safety before too late.