Arria-Formula Meeting on Repatriation and Reintegration of Children Affected by Armed Conflict
Tomorrow (29 January) an Arria-formula meeting will be held via videoconference on: “Children and Armed Conflict, Repatriation of Children from Conflict Zones: From Camps to Homes, Call for Action”. It appears that a key focus of the meeting will be the repatriation and reintegration of children of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs). The meeting is being co-organised by the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan and the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. The anticipated briefers are Virginia Gamba, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict; Vladimir Voronkov, Under-Secretary-General for Counter-Terrorism; Anna Kuznetsova, Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights of the Russian Federation; and Magzhan Ilyassov, Permanent Representative of Kazakhstan to the UN.
The meeting will be live-streamed via UNTV and YouTube at 11 am EST.
International law outlines obligations applicable to actions of member states in regard to children, including children with links to UN-listed terrorist groups. These include the duty to repatriate their nationals, including children, and to prevent the children of their nationals from becoming stateless. The Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates that the treatment of the child must be determined with the best interests of the child as a primary consideration. The Security Council has also addressed several obligations of member states in regard to children associated or suspected to be associated with terrorist groups. In resolution 2396 of 21 December 2017, the Security Council recognised the importance of having a “whole of government” approach to children associated with FTFs who returned from conflict zones, including through access to health care, psychosocial support and education programs. Resolution 2427 of 9 July 2018 states that children linked with armed groups should be treated primarily as victims and calls for the establishment of operating procedures for the handover of these children to relevant civilian child protection actors.
The issue of FTFs and the women and children who are associated with them has been receiving growing attention from the Council, as many of them are currently either detained or remain in displacement camps following the collapse of ISIL/Da’esh’s control of territory in Syria and Iraq. The Secretary-General, in his 11th biannual strategic-level report on the threat posed by the ISIL/ Da’esh, issued on 4 August 2020, described the conditions of people suspected of being linked to ISIL in camps in the north-east of Syria as “dire and complex”, especially for children and women in need of urgent assistance on human rights, humanitarian and security grounds. He warned that the trauma experienced by those in the camps puts them at high risk of exploitation and indoctrination, as ISIL still attempts to radicalise and recruit them.
There is currently no official UN-verified comprehensive dataset on the overall number, nationality, gender and age of children associated with FTFs who are detained or held in camps in Syria and Iraq, or on the number of children who have been repatriated to their country of nationality. Aggregated data from publicly available sources indicates that there are approximately 8,000 foreign children from around 60 nationalities in north-east Syria. It is estimated that approximately 975 children were repatriated from Syria to date, with close to 85 percent of repatriations carried out by Uzbekistan, Kosovo, Kazakhstan, and Russia, while only a fraction of repatriations has been carried out by European countries.
The situation in the Al-Hol camp in north-east Syria—where more than two-thirds of the approximately 65,000-strong population are children—is often highlighted by UN officials as particularly dire, including during Council meetings on Syria. According to OCHA, as at 4 October 2020, there were 9,462 third country nationals in the Al-Hol camp. In a 24 January statement, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore warned about a surge in violence in the Al-Hol camp, while noting that this highlights the need for “long-term solutions including the repatriation or relocation of foreign children stranded there”.
In his annual report on children and armed conflict issued on 15 June 2020, the Secretary-General called on all member states that have not done so to take steps for the voluntary repatriation of children stranded in conflict zones, in line with the principles and standards of international law. This message has been conveyed by UN officials in briefings to the Council on several occasions and is likely to be repeated by Gamba and Voronkov at tomorrow’s meeting.
How to address the repatriation of FTFs and the women and children who are associated with them is a divisive issue in the Security Council, as several Council members (and many other member states) are hesitant about repatriating their nationals who are or have been associated with terrorist groups. This dynamic most recently came into view during the negotiations on the draft resolution on the prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration (PRR) of FTFs, initiated by Indonesia in August 2020. It appears that the EU members of the Council at the time made clear that including the word “repatriation” in the draft resolution was a red line. The draft resolution failed to be adopted because of a veto cast by the US, which insisted on the need for the draft text explicitly to reference repatriation of FTFs and women and children who are associated with them. Russia, which voted for the draft resolution, nonetheless similarly expressed the view that any Council resolution on counter-terrorism should recognise the importance of repatriating FTFs and the women and children who are associated with them.
According to the concept note prepared by the co-organisers, tomorrow’s meeting aims to highlight the situation of children caught in conflict zones, including the children of FTFs captured in the context of counter-terrorism operations. Tomorrow’s meeting will serve as a platform to discuss challenges to the repatriation of children—which have been exacerbated by COVID-19—and ways to overcome them through international and regional cooperation. The concept note advocates for a principled approach to address the repatriation and reintegration of children who are either recruited and used by terrorist groups or whose parents are associated with these groups, while noting the complexity of the situation of children who are foreign nationals.
Tomorrow’s Arria-formula will be the first time Council members will hold a meeting focused on the repatriation of children from conflict zones. The decision to discuss the issue in an Arria-formula meeting—an informal format which does not require Council consensus—rather than in an official Council meeting is indicative of the continuing sensitivities around this issue. Council members also convened an Arria-formula meeting on the reintegration of children associated with armed forces and armed groups, which was co-organised by Belgium, Peru, Poland, and the UK in November 2019. That meeting, however, did not have a specific focus on the children of FTFs. The situation of FTFs and children associated with them has been discussed in Council meetings on counter-terrorism and on country situations such as Syria, where the conditions of children associated with FTFs is particularly acute. At these meetings, Russia and the US have on several occasions discussed their efforts to repatriate their nationals from conflict zones and admonished other Council members for failing to do so.
While the situation of children of FTFs in Syria and Iraq is likely to be a key focus of tomorrow’s meeting, similar situations of concern which might be brought up by participants exist in Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, and the Lake Chad Basin.
Gamba is likely to emphasise the importance of responding to violations against children and focusing on prevention of violations such as the recruitment of children. She may note that children associated or allegedly associated with armed groups should be treated as victims and that the deprivation of their liberty should only be used as a last resort and for a short period. She might also reference the importance of using, in the context of peace negotiations, the “Practical guidance for mediators to protect children in situations of armed conflict”, which includes provisions on reintegration of children.
Voronkov may provide an overview of the difficult conditions faced by children associated with FTFs in Syria and Iraq and highlight the need for their repatriation and reintegration. He may also describe the various tools developed by the UN system to support member states’ efforts with regard to the repatriation and reintegration of children associated with FTFs. In this respect, the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) coordinated the inter-agency development of “key principles for the protection, repatriation, prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration of women and children with links to UN-listed terrorist groups”, issued in April 2019, and the handbook on “Children affected by the foreign-fighter phenomenon: Ensuring a child rights-based approach”, issued in September 2019.
He may note several key principles, such as the need to give primary consideration to the best interest of the child, including in relation to maintaining family unity; the need to prevent the further stigmatisation of children associated with FTFs; and the need for the repatriation of women and children to take place without violating the principle of non-refoulement. Voronkov may also describe the Global Framework on Syria/Iraq Third Country National returnees, which is co-led by UNOCT and UNICEF and is expected to start its work in early 2021. The Global Framework will aim to provide a “whole of UN” approach to supporting member states in the return of their nationals in a way which is human rights-based and gender-sensitive.
Interventions by Security Council members in tomorrow’s meeting are expected to diverge on the issue of repatriation. Russia is likely to call on member states to repatriate their foreign nationals, while stressing the urgency posed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With regard to the US position, while the Trump administration was a vocal supporter of repatriation of FTFs and the women and children associated with them, the approach of the Biden administration is not yet known.
Some European and other members of the Council may avoid referring to the topic of repatriation altogether and choose to focus on reintegration. Their statements may emphasise the need for member states to create holistic, community-based reintegration programmes with a focus on education, psychosocial support and family-based care that eliminates stigma to support the children’s recovery. Some members may talk about the need to prevent grave violations against children in armed conflict more broadly, while calling on parties to halt violations such as the denial of humanitarian assistance and attacks against schools and hospitals in conflict areas such as Syria and Iraq.
There may also be some variance in views on repatriation among the statements of the EU members of the Council, as each country faces different circumstances in connection with their nationals who became FTFs and the women and children associated with them. These members may describe their repatriation efforts, while noting the need for a case-by-case approach and describing challenges they may have faced in repatriating their nationals, including determining the nationality of a child, gaining access to the region and limitations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.