As It Happens

Dutch government ordered to repatriate children of ISIS militants

Despite a government that's firmly opposed, the Netherlands has been ordered by a Dutch court to repatriate 56 children living in difficult circumstances in Kurdish-run camps in Syria.

Lawyer André Seebregts says the children 'have done nothing wrong' and are suffering in Syrian camps

Women and children connected with ISIS have been rounded up and taken to detention camps, where lawyer André Seebregts says hundreds of children have died. (Getty Images)

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As countries around the world struggle with the issue of repatriating people connected with ISIS, the Netherlands has been given its marching orders. 

On Monday, a Dutch court ordered that the country repatriate 56 children whose mothers joined ISIS in Syria. 

"What the court said is that the children have the right to come back to the Netherlands… that the government actively has to try to repatriate them," said lawyer André Seebregts in an interview with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

Seebregts, who was part of the legal team that argued the case on behalf of 23 mothers, says they are currently living with their children in desperate circumstances in Kurdish-run camps in Syria. 

"Hundreds of children have died in the last year and a half in these camps," he said, describing them as overcrowded, violent, and lacking in necessities such as medicine. 

The situation in the camps is even more dire since Turkey's assault against Syrian Kurdish militia began, he said. 

Now, the Dutch government is on a countdown, Seebregts added, with the court giving them two weeks to complete the repatriations. 

Mothers likely to return as well 

Though they don't have the same right to active repatriation, Seebregts said he believes the mothers will also be brought back to the Netherlands. 

"The court said that if it is necessary to bring back the children… then the mothers also need to be brought back," he said. 

The Kurds, Seebregt said, have repeatedly communicated that they are only willing to hand over children in detention, if their mothers go with them. 

Seebregts argues its more dangerous for the Dutch government to leave the women and children in Kurdish-run camps in Syria, telling CBC that they could end up coming back "under the radar." (Submitted by André Seebregts)

"The reason for this is the Kurds don't want these women to be left behind because ... they'll never be able to get rid of these women."

When the mothers return they will be arrested and prosecuted, he said. Once they serve time in prison and are set free, they will be "very strictly monitored." 

The children will go to Dutch child services, who will either place them with carefully vetted family members or in foster care. 

Government 'dead set' against repatriation

The Netherlands is one of many countries, including Canada, that's struggling to decide how to deal with citizens who left to join ISIS.

It's a question that's set to be tested in the coming months, with Turkey announcing plans to repatriate about 2,500 militants, the majority of whom will be sent to European Union nations. 

A Turkish and Russian patrol is seen near the town of Darbasiyah, Syria in early November. (Baderkhan Ahmad/The Associated Press)

Seebregts says there is strong opposition to the return of the mothers and children, from both the government and some Dutch citizens. 

"The Dutch government is really dead set against bringing them back, so we're not sure what's going to happen," he said, adding that the government has decided to appeal the decision. 

Despite that appeal, the two-week deadline stands. 

"The way it works with this type of case, the government has to execute the decision immediately," he said. 

He himself has received "quite a bit" of hate mail and several threats for representing the mothers, he said.

Seebregts says he understands people's fear and anger, but argues it will never be "100 per cent safe" to bring the women and children back. 

"The argument that we have [is that it's] probably safer to bring them back now in a controlled fashion," he said. "It will be more dangerous if they come back under the radar."

At the end of the day, he says, his priority is the children. 

"What I'm working for is these really young Dutch children who have done nothing wrong, and if that means that the mothers also have to be brought back, so be it."

Written by Kate McGillivray. Interview produced by Kate Swoger.