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France repatriates 51 women and children from camps in Syria

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By Anelise Borges
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In this March 27, 2019, file photo, Samira, a Belgian national married to a French Islamic State member, Karam El-Harchaoui, walks with their son at Camp Roj in north Syria.
In this March 27, 2019, file photo, Samira, a Belgian national married to a French Islamic State member, Karam El-Harchaoui, walks with their son at Camp Roj in north Syria.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File

France repatriated 51 nationals from Syria on Tuesday, including several orphaned children who had been in detention in the northeast of the country for the past three years since the fall of the so-called Islamic State.

The women have alleged ties with the terrorist organisation -- having travelled to the region in the years the group was still active -- and have been placed in detention. That includes two non-citizens, who have French children.

The move appears to represent a significant shift in French policy.

Over the past few years, France had been reluctant to repatriate its nationals from the region stating they should be tried where their crimes had been committed.

Authorities had focussed almost exclusively on repatriating children on a case-by-case basis, but over 200 remained before this last operation -- something families and international organisations alike have denounced.

In February, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child condemned France for having violated the International Convention on the Rights of the Child by exposing these children to inhuman and degrading treatment and by undermining their right to life.

Thousands of foreigners had been held in camps after the Kurdish forces - with the backing of an international coalition - defeated the Islamic State.

Euronews visited the camps of Al Hol, Al Roj and Ain Issa in 2019. Watch the reports here.

The men had been taken to local prisons across the region. The women and children were placed in camps for Syrians displaced by the war where annexes were build to hold suspected “ISIS members”.

Conditions for children were absolutely dire: the camps have very limited water distribution and medical services. Dozens of children died of complications from diseases such as cholera.

Last year, a French woman died of a chronic disease -- leaving behind a 6-year-old girl who is believed to be among those repatriated today.

'A first victory'

A collective of families of the French nationals held in these prisons have been calling on authorities to repatriate their children and grandchildren so that adults could face a fair trial and the children could be given a chance at being children.

In a statement released shortly after the government made the repatriation public, the group said they hope Emmanuel Macron’s words that “the next five years will be that of child protection” will be turned into action.

“This repatriation, brings hope to so many families who have suffered for years from seeing their grandchildren wasting away in sordid camps. France has shown that it has the capacity to repatriate: we must now and definitively close this shameful page in our history, without delay,” the statement reads.

A father of one woman who is still in detention in Al Roj camp - where a majority of the European nationals left in the region are held - told Euronews the family believes this is a “first victory”, especially because this is the first time women are brought back alongside their children, and that they think this marks a new strategy on the part of the French government.

Albert also said that, for him, the “nightmare” continues but that he now sees a light at the end of the tunnel.

He has hopes of finally meeting his grandchild soon.

“M” just turned three and, Albert says, and resembles his grandfather.