Source: Boston University School of Law's International Human Rights Clinic
By Iqra Ishaq
Over the last decade, an estimated 40,000 persons have left their countries to join ISIS. Tunisian nationals who joined ISIS in Iraq, Libya or Syria are estimated at between 4,500–6,000, making Tunisia the country with the highest number of ISIS fighters and affiliates per its population. Tunisia owes a duty of repatriation to those of its nationals still in Libya, Iraq, and Syria, and its repatriation efforts so far have been piecemeal. This post illustrates why failure to repatriate is especially harmful for Tunisian children born on or remaining on former ISIS territories, especially as it places them at risk of statelessness.
Across the world, the return of former ISIS affiliates to their country of nationality following ISIS’s defeat has raised considerable controversy. While some states have been willing to have their nationals — especially women and minors — returned, others have opposed repatriation. More States are now “resorting to deprivation of nationality as a counterterrorism and national security measure.” Stripping the ISIS affiliates of their nationality often leads to derivative deprivation of nationality, which means that the family members, especially children, of the affiliates often lose their nationality as well and potentially become stateless. This risk is compounded by the difficulty of proving children’s nationality in ISIS territories in the first place, which threatens the “emergence of a generation of stateless people.”
By 2019, some 970–1,500 former ISIS affiliates had returned to Tunisia from Libya, most in a manner “undetected” and of their own volition. At the time, an estimated 36 Tunisian children were still in Libyan prisons with their mothers, and 160 were believed to be held in camps and prisons in Syria and Iraq. The Observatory of Rights and Freedoms, a Tunisian human rights NGO, received data on 104 of the children in Syria, revealing that 88% of them were under 13 years old, and 78% were born in Syria. The fathers of more than half of the children had died, and those of a quarter were imprisoned. In January 2020, Tunisia repatriated six orphaned children, between the ages of three and 12, from Libya. The returns were accompanied by sharp criticism and pushback from the public, which had faced two devastating terrorist attacks in 2015 by ISIS affiliates in Tunis and Sousse. Family members of the foreign fighters, such as grandparents of the children taken to, and born in, ISIS territories, have had to contend with public hostility in demanding the Tunisian government to “Bring back our grandchildren.” In early March 2021, Tunisia repatriated 24 of its nationals — 10 women held in prisons and 14 children held either in prisons or shelters in Libya. More recently, several UN Special Rapporteurs have called on the government of Tunisia to urgently repatriate four young Tunisian women — abducted by their Tunisian mother and brought to ISIS — and the two children born to the eldest daughter, who are held in camps in Syria. Their fate, as well as that of the 160 estimated to be in Syria and Iraq in 2019, is uncertain.