Global Human Rights Defence

Repatriating the European Women Affiliated with ISIS

Repatriating the European Women Affiliated with ISIS
Photo Source: Ahmed Mardnli/EPA, via Shutterstock

Author:Linda Osman

Department: Women’s Rights Team


During the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), over 42,000 foreign fighters from 120 countries travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the ISIS caliphate, at least 5,000 of which were of European nationality (RAN, 2017). After succumbing to large defeats between 2017 and 2019, ISIS was driven from its last seized territories within Syria and Iraq in March 2019 (Feral, 2019). The defeat of ISIS has left many European ISIS fighters stranded in refugee and war camps in Syria.  Approximately 1,000 European women of ISIS  are detained in the refugee camp under the authority of a non-state armed group, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK are among the major European countries of origin (Renard and Coolsaet, 2020).

The question remains over the future of those foreign women held in the camp, especially since the SDF has announced several times that they lack the resources to appropriately detain them and repeatedly requested states of nationality to repatriate them (Dworkin, 2019). The European Parliament (EP), the United Nations (UN), and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have urged European countries to end the suffering of the women who live in the camps and repatriate them. However, the European countries have been reluctant to bring European ISIS women supporters back due to the national security threat they could pose to society (Paulussen, 2019). 

This article will argue that the European states have to repatriate the women who hold their nationality from Syria to fulfil their obligation under the Security Council (SC) resolutions on the International Counter-Terrorism Law. In order to understand the necessity of repatriation and how it is the only legal action, the European states have to take action to solve this issue. It is important to first discuss the conditions in the camp where the women are held and its implication on their human rights and to discuss the legality of the current approach the European states take to handle the problem of ISIS women – namely to leave them in the camp to prosecute locally and/or revoke their nationality. 

The condition within the camp and its implications on the European women of ISIS rights

The European women of ISIS, along with other foreign women and children of ISIS are held in Al Hol camp in northeast Syria under the authorities of the SDF. It has been estimated that around 75,000 people are now held in Al Hol camp. Due to the overcrowding in the camp, the condition is appalling and sometimes deadly. Women and children of ISIS are living in plastic tents without proper sanitation facilities or any hygiene items such as soap and menstrual products. In addition, the camp lacks access to clean water, often short supply (RSI,2021).  Besides that, the food in the camp is inadequate. Human rights Watch (HRW) has reported that the food packages that the detainees receive are only dried and canned food ( HRW, 2019).

The situation in the camp becomes steadily worse during the summer and winter because of severe weather conditions, with a lack of any heating and infrastructure, which cause the residents’ health to deteriorate.  It has been reported that a shortage in heating infrastructure has caused seven people to die and left thirty injured last winter because women are using the cooking stove inside the tent for warmth (MSF, 2021).

This indicated that the situation in the camp is in violation of the European women’s rights to life enshrined under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR,1953), which indicates that everyone should have access to essential goods and services, such as food, water, shelter, electricity, and sanitation.

Moreover, the camps lack access to appropriate health services, especially in the annexe      where European women are held. The annexe portion of Al Hol lacks the presence of one single doctor, which results that women in the camp do not obtain direct medical service for months in some cases, and some women have been forced to give birth in the tents without a doctor or midwife (Collier and Laffin, 2019).

     HRW has reported that due to the lack of any essential health services, diseases such as typhoid, pneumonia, dehydration, dysentery, infection, and skin diseases are spreading rapidly in the camps. The situation now is even more critical as Covid-19 has been spread across the camp, and 15 detainees have died due to Covid (HRW, 2019; RSI, 2021).

This indicated that the situation in the camp is also in violation of the European women’s rights to health that are enshrined under Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR, 1966), which requires the ensures of the highest attributable stander of physical and mental health and providing medical services to everyone without discrimination.

In addition, the European women have been detained in a camp surrounded by wire fences several metres high and monitored by armed guards,  and not allowed to leave without being informed of any legal basis justifying their detention, and without any trial taking place prior to their forcible relocation to the camps. The SDF has been holding them for the third year now, only on the basis of their presumed familial associations with alleged ISIS members and not on the basis of any criminal conviction or other decision resulting from a fair adjudication process ( RSI, 2021; Paraskeva 2022).

 This indicates that the detainment of European women is arbitrary detention because it has conduct without the proper procedures is in violation of their right to liberty enshrined under Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1966), which indicates that persons shall not be deprived of their liberty without accordance with procedures established by law and requires the bringing of persons detained promptly before a judge.

The condition under which the European women live in the camp and the violation that accrue to their human rights on a daily basis emphasises the need for immediate action by their state of nationality to end their suffering by repatriating them to their country of origin.

Current solutions taken by European states to tackle the problem of the women of ISIS

As the European women of ISIS hold European nationality, they fall under the responsibility of those EU states, making them responsible for protecting their human rights (RIS, 2020). However, despite the call of the experts of the EP and international organizations like the UN and ICRC, the European states remain very reluctant to engage in the active repatriation of their women held in the camps in Syria because the European states see them as “a ticking bomb” for European Security, and their previous role in ISIS activities (Szucs, 2021). Some of the women have engaged in online and offline recruitment and propaganda, serving in the ISIS intelligence apparatus, and engaged in combat operations (Cook and Vale, 2018). Therefore, the European states have taken two approaches to avoid their repatriation which are to leave them to be prosecuted locally and/ or revoking their nationality, which are two illegal actions toward the rights of the women as will be seen in this section.

  •   Local  prosecution

Several EU states indicated that they would do nothing to the European women held in Al Hol camp and that they would leave them in the situation they are in now because they joined ISIS out of a free will and should now face the consequences, including local prosecution. EU member states such as France have asked the national authorities to prosecute their national women of ISIS locally because those women “must be tried where they have committed their crimes” according to the French foreign affairs ministry (Rigotti and Barboza 2022; Paulussen and  Mehra 2019).

However, local prosecution of these women is very problematic because of the lack of transparency in judicial proceedings, the use of the death penalty, the extensive practice of torture, as well as the collapse of a properly functioning judiciary system in Syria, all of that indicate that the European women would not receive a fair trial if they receive a trial at all, and would be a subject to touter and inhuman treatment (Rigotti and Barboza, 2022; Paulussen and  Mehra, 2019; Dworkin, 2019).

Therefore, the European states, by taking this approach instead of repatriating the women, are breaching the rights of their national women to have a fair trial under Article 14 of the ICCPR, and their right to not be subject to torture under Article 3 of the ECHR. 

  •       Revoking Nationality

Some European states have attempted to avoid the repatriation of their nationals from AL Hol camp by stripping their nationality (RSI 2020; Paulussen and Mehra, 2019). Some states do have legislation that manages such procedures of nationality stripping such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, others like Denmark are planning to pass such legislation soon (Dworkin, 2019). The advocates of this action, like the Dutch member of the House of Representatives Ard van der Steur, stated that terrorists must not stay members of or have the nationality of a certain country (NOS, 2015).

Although the procedure of removing citizenship is provided by the national law in most of the European states, it is still in violation of the European state’s obligation under International law. The European states by stripping the women of their nationality those women become stateless (Dworkin, 2019), which in turn violates the European state obligation under Article 8 of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which indicates that states have an obligation not to deprive a person of his nationality if such deprivation would render him stateless.       

Moreover, by addressing the problem of the women of ISIS by revoking their nationality, the European states make those women someone else’s responsibility. Because their aim of the action is to avoid their responsibility toward the women and force it upon another state, forgetting that cooperation is necessary to solve this problem (Dworkin, 2019; Paulussen and  Mehra, 2019).

Repatriation as an obligation of European states

In light of the previous section, one becomes aware that the solutions which the European  States have thus far undertaken toward their women of ISIS are not in line with international law and resulting in more violations of their women’s rights. Besides that, the solutions which the States of nationality have thus far undertaken are not sufficient as to fulfil their obligations Under the SC resolutions as this section will show.

Under the SC resolutions 1373 (2001), 2178 (2014), and 2396 (2017) on the International Counter-Terrorism Law, there are a number of obligations on states of nationality toward their national women of ISIS.

One such obligation is the obligation under SC resolution 1337 and resolution 2178, to bring individuals who participate in any terrorist acts, or who travel for terrorism purposes to justice. Such obligations would argue against the European states’ action of just leaving their women who have travelled to join ISIS terrorist organisation and commit a number of terrorist crimes in the camp, hoping that other entities will do something about them. In other words, the European states, by not repatriating those women for prosecution, are not fulfilling their obligation under the said resolution (Volgsten, 2021; Paulussen, 2019).

In addition, resolution 2396 poses an obligation on member states to develop rehabilitation and reintegration strategies for returning terrorist fighters. The rehabilitation process for the European women cannot be facilitated nor administered in a place that has improper conditions to do so like the overcrowding camp, this process needs a comprehensive program under expert management. While reintegration, on the other hand, demands the question about how to reintegrate European women that are foreign women on Syrian soil, who do not belong to these societies, their practical reintegration can only happen in their societies of origin. This indicates that European states’ repatriation of their women of ISIS is the first step for these states to fulfill their obligation under SC resolution 2396 ( Volgsten, 2021).


European states know about the life-threatening and torturous conditions of their national women living in the detention camp in Syria. And, despite this knowledge and the call from detention authorities and UN experts to take them back, European states are taking solutions that avoid their repatriation. That decision makes them responsible for the continuing harm, suffering, and violation of the human rights of these women.

The European states should repatriate their women not just for the human rights imperative, but in order to fulfill their obligation under SC resolutions that require the European states to prosecute these women for traveling to join ISIS and for the terrorist crimes they commit in the ranks of ISIS. And, to rehabilitate and reintegrate them. The European states have to show courage and solve this problem because at the end of the day, those women are their citizens for better or worse, and they are responsible for the mess these women create. This situation will not resolve itself and ignorance will not make this problem disappear.


Cook, J. and Vale, G. (2018), From Daesh to ‘Diaspora’: Tracing the Women and Minors of Islamic State. Retrieved on March 17 from    

Dworkin, A. (2019), Beyond Good And Evil: Why Europe Should Bring Isis Foreign Fighters Home. Retrieved on March 17 from  

Farrall, L. (2019), The fall of the ISIS ‘caliphate. Parliament of Australia. Retrieved on March 17 from 

International Crisis Group, (2020), Virus Fears Spread at Camps for ISIS Families in Syria’s Northeast. Retrieved on March 17 from  

Médecins Sans Frontières,(2021), MSF denounces unsafe environment in Al-Hol camp in wake of staff killing. Retrieved on March 17 from  

Mehra, T. and  Paulussen, C. (2019), The Repatriation of Foreign Fighters and Their Families: Options, Obligations, Morality and Long-Term Thinking. Retrieved on March 17 from 

NOS  (2015), “Opposition fiercely against VVD over statelessness In the House of Representatives there is a lot of resistance to making terrorists stateless”. Retrieved on March 17 from 

Paraskeva, K. (2022),  The Repatriation of European Women and Children. Retrieved on March 17 from

Paulussen, C . ( 2019), The Repatriation of Western Foreign Fighters and their Families. Retrieved on March 16 from 

RAN, Radicalization Awareness Network, (2017), Responses to Returnees: Foreign Terrorist Fighters and Their Families. RAN MANUAL. Retrieved on March 17 from  

Renard, T., and Coolsaet, (2020), From Bad to Worse: The Fate of European Foreign Fighters and Families Detained in Syria, One Year After the Turkish Offensive. Retrieved on March 19 from 

Rigotti, C. and Barboza, G. (2022), Unfolding the case of returnees: How the European Union and its Member States are addressing the return of foreign fighters and their families. Retrieved on March 19 from 

 RIS (2020), Europe’s Guantanamo: The indefinite detention of European women and children in Northeast Syria. Retrieved on March 17 from

RIS (2021),  Abandoned to Torture: Dehumanising rights violations against children and women in northeast Syria. Retrieved on March 17 from 

Szucs, A. (2021) ‘Camps in NE Syria mean ticking bomb for Europe’: EU counter-terrorism chief. Retrieved on March 17 from

Volgsten, A. (2021), If not us, then who? On the repatriation of Swedish women and children from the al Hol and al Roj camps in the Syrian Arab Republic. Retrieved on March 17 from

HRW, (2019), Syria: Dire Conditions for ISIS Suspects’ Families Countries Should Support Citizens’ Returns, Increase Aid. Retrieved on March 17 from

UN Security Council, (2001), Security Council resolution 1373 on threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts, S/RES/1373

UN Security Council, (2014)  Security Council resolution 2178 on threats to international peace and security caused by foreign terrorist fighters, S/RES/2178 

UN Security Council resolution,(2017)  Security Council resolution 2396 on threats to international peace and security caused by returning foreign terrorist fighters, S/RES/2396



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