France is seeking to repatriate some of the 150 children of French jihadists identified as being in Syria, as Western nations grapple with how to handle citizens who left to join extremists.
A French official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said France would repatriate the children “as much as is possible, on the condition that the mother agrees.”
“We’re starting to look at how this might work,” the source added.
French authorities only have a precise location for some of the children, making these the only viable cases for potential repatriation, the source said, declining to give figures.
The cases of the 150 youngsters, some of whom are being held in Syrian Democratic Forces camps in northern Syria since Islamic State was driven from the area, were flagged up by authorities there or by their families in France.
Most are under six years old and were born in Syria.
The mothers of any repatriated children would be left in Syria, the source said.
All French citizens who have traveled to Iraq and Syria since January 2015 to participate in the fighting, or recruitment or organization of terrorist groups are deemed to be participants in criminal association, a French diplomatic source told The Defense Post earlier this year.
However, “if the individuals concerned were to be tried by the Iraqi courts, then they could not be tried for the same offenses in France,” the source said.
Like other Western nations reluctant to bring jihadists back onto their soil, France has so far ruled out repatriating men who left to fight alongside ISIS, or women who left to marry them.
“Those who committed crimes in Iraq and Syria must be brought to justice in Iraq and Syria,” the foreign ministry said.
“Minors are the exception, and their situation will be examined on a case by case basis. We have a duty to protect children’s interests.”
Yet bringing the children to France will be highly complicated, not least because the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria is not a recognized state, and Paris has cut off diplomatic ties with Damascus.
The decision to leave French adults in the war zone has infuriated lawyers representing their families at home in France, who say their clients are being held in illegal detention in unsanitary conditions.
“This is scandalous and hypocritical on the part of the French government,” said Bruno Vinay, lawyer for the best-known French woman in SDF custody, Emilie Konig.
“France is leaving these women alone faced with the inhumane choice of separating from their children,” Vinay said.
“Given that this is all they have left, it is possible that only a minority will accept to separate from them.”
In neighboring Iraq, only three French jihadist families have been flagged to authorities.
One of the mothers, Melina Boughedir, has agreed for her three of her children to be taken to France after Iraqi authorities sentenced her to life in jail for being an ISIS member.
Iraq has also urged the home countries of ISIS foreign fighters to repatriate their children. At least 833 children of 14 nationalities are currently in prison in Iraq, according to the Joint Operations Command, which coordinates the fight against ISIS.
Of some 680 French jihadists who traveled to Iraq or Syria to fight, more than 300 are believed dead while a small number of others have travelled to other countries, including Afghanistan and in North Africa.
According to Abdulkarim Omar, co-chair of DFNS Foreign Affairs, the SDF is holding nearly 900 ISIS foreign fighters from 44 countries, 400-500 of their wives and more than 1,000 children.
The authorities have asked governments to repatriate their nationals, but with a few exceptions such as Russia, Indonesia and Sudan, most have proved highly reluctant.
With reporting from AFP