It has been over 8 years since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War created sufficient chaos which enabled the creation of ISIS. The impact and effects of the war in Syria and ISIS have spilled over to Europe, and helped fuel anti-immigration politics. It is understandable then that in the wake of its fall , the question of what to do with the thousands of European citizens captured fighting for ISIS in the last years, is a contentious problem for European states.
A case study of this issue might be provided by the example of Shamima Begum. Her story of leaving Britain for Syria along with two of her friends, grabbed the international headlines in February 2015. After disappearing for 4 years she reemerged this January with a newborn and showed interest in returning to Britain. The Home Office was quick to revoke her citizenship, effectively rendering her unable to do so, bringing to light the question of what to do with these individuals who left for ISIS. Although the legal grounds for revoking her citizenship are firm, many have criticised this move as it could create a dangerous precedent for future.
However, Britain is not alone in this dilemma. According to a report published by the European Parliament in 2016, between 3,900 and 4,300 EU member state nationals have become ISIS fighters. Most of them came from the UK, France, Germany and Belgium. Nevertheless, this only shows part of the problem as the number of women and children in Syria is not covered by the report. Individual states had approached the problem in different ways and although so far it is not clear which approach is the best, there are some general problems that all of these countries must tackle.
First of all, any citizen of an EU state cannot legally be stopped from coming back to their home country. Naturally, whenever suspected fighters enter their countries, the legal steps taken against them are entirely up to the given member state. Germany, for example, has already activated police and judicial inquiries towards 110 subjects who took an “active part” in the war. They are however only the tip of the iceberg, as the German security services estimate that since 2013 more than 1,050 Islamists left the country for Iraq and Syria, a third of which have already returned.
Second of all, there is a fundamental challenge in these inquiries. Proving specific actions on a Syrian battlefield in a European court is extremely challenging due to the lack of witnesses, testimonies and other evidence. To meet this challenge, the UK has already taken steps to create new laws that would make it a criminal offence to travel to any “designated area”, such as the war zone in Syria, unless the person is engaging in an exempt activity such as humanitarian work or journalism. Whatever solutions will be applied to these cases, it is visible that the real question is not only how to deal with those who will come back in the coming years, but what to do with those who already have come back.
In dealing with those who went to Syria but did not take an active part in the fighting, Denmark might show the solution. Instead of prosecuting individuals coming home, Danish officials allow these people to join a reintegration programme supported by the government. By helping them reintegrate, Denmark not only provides them with a second chance, but also the example these people can tell to new generations might provide a valuable asset in the fight against extremism. The results so far are promising, but a full examination of the success of the program needs time and the programme is not without its critics.
One thing is certain for all of the European states. Leaving these citizens behind by revoking their citizenship, even if it might provide short term solution, cannot be pursued forever. Alex Younger, head of MI6 said that these individuals were “likely to have acquired skills and connections that make them potentially very dangerous.'' The future of many captured fighters is uncertain since the civil war is still raging. There are fears that those captured and held under Assad’s rule might be used by the regime in attacks against the West. Ironically, it could be safer to have potentially dangerous people in Europe under tight control, either through a reintegration process or prosecution, than to leave them in a warzone where their future and their actions are impossible to predict.