Ireland right to face up to repatriating Lisa Smith

EU-wide prevarication on citizens who joined Islamic State will lead to long-term problems

In many ways, the prevarication by EU countries – with the notable exception of Ireland – over how to deal with home-grown jihadists who joined Islamic State in Syria and now want to be repatriated, is reminiscent of their rabbit-in-the-headlights response to the migrant crisis in 2015.

Seven months after the fall of the last Islamic State stronghold in Syria – the town of Baghouz on the banks of the Euphrates – there is still no coherent policy from Brussels for dealing with the hundreds of EU citizens held by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in camps in the north of the country.

Already this week, Turkey has begun taking matters into its own hands by deporting captured foreign fighters even if their citizenship has been revoked by their own countries. But the numbers held by the Turks are a drop in the ocean compared to the numbers subsisting in the Syrian camps.

According to the SDF, there are some 10,000 men, of whom some 2,000 are "foreign" in the sense of not from Syria or Iraq, detained in prisons and what have become known as "pop-up prisons" across northeast Syria, the largest in Dashisha and Hasakah.


Women and children are held in three large camps, Al-Hol, Al-Roj and Ain Issa. Most of the foreigners are in an annex at Al-Hol, where the UNHCR says there are about 11,000 internees, of whom 27 per cent are women and 67 per cent are children under the age of 12.

As for EU nationals specifically, a recent study by the Egmont Institute in Brussels put the figures at 400 to 500 adults, both men and women, and 700 to 750 children. The largest group is French, while other countries with significant numbers are Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden.

Inhuman conditions

According to the Red Cross, sprawling Al-Hol camp alone has 68,000 inmates living in inhuman conditions – where, in the absence of any real camp administration, hardline Islamic State followers are successfully imposing their own ideological rule and indoctrinating the children.

With no EU guidance, each country is attempting to juggle its own priorities: its legal obligations; its social obligations to its citizens, particularly children; potential security threats, and last but far from least, public opinion – on which the political parties have their eyes trained like lasers.

To keep the foreign jihadists as far from home in Europe as possible, there’s talk of transferring them to Iraq for trial in domestic courts or by an international tribunal – though nobody argues that achieving justice would be problematical, to say the very least, given the chaos in that country too.

However, in many quarters there’s little or no sympathy. The argument goes that having made themselves the enemy they have no automatic right to return home. If they do return, they are likely to represent an even greater, more battle-hardened, threat than when they left.

And as to the children, well – the same argument continues – the inevitable psychological damage may already have turned them into ticking time-bombs.

The problem about that argument is not just that it is short-term and vengeful, but that it leaves the European jihadists and their children to their fate, whatever that may be, and that that, in the end, may turn those who remain at large into greater threats than they are already.

Bringing them home, by contrast, means the adults can be interrogated and perhaps yield valuable intelligence. Then can then be tried for their crimes. And the children will get the long-term treatment they deserve and to which they are entitled.

The Government is understood to be making preparations for the repatriation of Irish Islamic State supporter Lisa Smith and her daughter from Turkey. If that is Ireland’s policy, then it’s the right one.