Authorities in Belgium have repatriated six Belgian women linked to Islamic State from a refugee camp in Syria. Six children were also brought to Belgium in the largest operation of its kind organised by the country since the defeat of Islamic State in 2019.
The joint police, defence forces and foreign affairs operation was announced by the federal prosecutor's office on Tuesday morning, once the Belgian military plane had landed at Melsbroek airbase near Brussels and the returnees had been secured.
The Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria confirmed that it had handed over 16 children and six women, all of them linked to IS fighters, to a Belgian delegation on Sunday.
According to a source close to the case, these 22 Belgians boarded the plane in Erbil (Iraq) after crossing the Syrian-Iraqi border by road.
They all lived in the Roj camp, from which ten children and their six mothers had already been exfiltrated in July 2021 during a first large-scale operation led by the Belgian government.
The 16 repatriated minors are 12 years old or younger, Federal Prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw telling a press conference that they were born between 2010 and 2019.
On arrival, they were taken to hospital for tests before being handed over to the youth protection services.
The six mothers have already been sentenced to jail time in Belgium for up to five years, as IS combatants.
This repatriation is "a political decision (...), based on the best interests of the child", explained Mr Van Leeuw.
In March 2021, following a green light from the anti-terrorist services, the Belgian Prime Minister, Flemish Liberal Alexander De Croo, had promised to "do everything" to repatriate from these camps children under the age of 12 whose Belgian parentage had been proven by DNA analysis.
Saskia Bricmont, a Belgian Green MEP, told Euronews that she welcomes these steps and hopes other EU member states will follow suit to avoid further radicalisation of young children.
"Every day that passes, insecurity in the camps is also growing and there are still radicalised groups and radicalised women trying to get those European women and children back," Bricmont said. "So this is something that should bring more attention, also European attention, because when we talk about security of the European Union, we should also look at what's going on there and take care of it."
Terrible conditions in the refugee camp
For the mothers to return to Belgium, they not only had to prove their nationality but also express regret for their actions and renounce jihadist ideology, Belgian authorities said.
Prosecutors say that there are still between 10 and 15 Belgian men imprisoned in the region for being Islamic State fighters, and there are believed to be some women and children left in refugee camps controlled by Kurdish forces.
Along with France, Belgium is one of the European countries that saw the largest number of fighters leave after the outbreak of the war in Syria in 2011.
From 2012, more than 400 Belgians joined the ranks of jihadist organisations.
And since the fall of Islamic State in Syria, hundreds of women and children of all nationalities have been taken to these Kurdish retention camps while the men were imprisoned.
According to Save the Children, over 7,300 children from 60 countries worldwide are stuck in dangerous, dirty camps and say foreign governments should speed up repatriations and recognise children as victims of war – even those forced to join ISIS.