Dutch girl (11) flown home from Syria after three-year search

The child was taken to Syria in 2016 by her mother

The Dutch child was believed to have been living in the northwest of Syria, parts of which have seen intense fighting. Photograph:   Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

The Dutch child was believed to have been living in the northwest of Syria, parts of which have seen intense fighting. Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

 

An 11-year-old Dutch girl has been flown home to the Netherlands from Syria in what appears to be the first case in Europe of the repatriation of a child by volunteer agencies working without government support.

The child, who has not been named, was taken to Syria by her mother in 2016. They are believed to have been living in the northwest of the country, parts of which have seen intense fighting between Bashar al-Assad’s government forces and armed opposition groups.

It’s not clear whether the girl’s mother was recruited by one or other of these groups, which include Islamic State and the jihadist alliance, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. However, it is known they were not living in any of the camps for displaced persons run by Syrian Democratic Forces.

The girl was eight when her father, a Dutch national, reported that she had been “kidnapped” by her mother and taken abroad, where her life might be at risk.

He spent the next three years trying to trace them through the main aid agencies in the region, the Red Cross and the Turkish Red Crescent – who managed to make contact with his wife, who has dual citizenship, and convince her to let her daughter return to the Netherlands.

The Dutch ministry of foreign affairs was aware of those contacts and, in turn, alerted the Turkish authorities, who gave permission for the girl to cross the border from Syria and leave for the Netherlands through Istanbul.

“Yes, we knew about the return of the child,” said a foreign ministry spokesperson. “However, this was something arranged by the little girl’s father. To maintain the family’s privacy, we will not go into any further details.”

‘Dutch connections’

Justice minister Ferd Grapperhaus said the Dutch government’s position was that officials would not become involved in rescue missions because of concerns for the safety of all involved.

The number of “children with Dutch connections” living in Syria is variously put at 90-170, some of whom live in refugee camps.

Although the government says it doesn’t get involved, in June it repatriated two orphans, aged two and four, from northern Syria, after their mother was killed fighting on the side of anti-Assad rebels.

They were found abandoned in a camp in terrible circumstances. In their case, a court named the Dutch state as their legal guardian. They were then brought back to the Netherlands by French officials who went to retrieve some of their own underage nationals. The Dutch government says it was “an exceptional case”, and it has no plans to repatriate any of the other children.