Event Recap: The Return of Belgians who went to Syria and Iraq
On May 4, 2023, we organized a pivotal panel discussion as part of the REGUIDE project, convening a diverse group of experts to deliberate on the repatriation of Belgian citizens currently held in prisons and detention camps in Northeast Syria and Iraq. The primary objective was to reignite attention on the return issue, which had faded from public discourse following the repatriations of children and their mothers in 2021 and 2022. What set this debate apart was our inclusive focus on the repatriation of men and childless women, who are often rendered invisible in repatriation discussions.
The imperative to repatriate all Belgian citizens transcends national security concerns; it is an essential stride aligned with the human rights and democratic principles our country upholds. Active repatriation not only aligns with our values but also facilitates the seamless reintegration and recovery of these individuals and their children into society.
We were privileged to host distinguished guests, including Mayor Hans Bonte, lawyer Abderrahim Lahlali and war journalist Rudi Vranckx, and, engaging in enlightening discussions with VUB researchers Hannan Jamaï and Jihane Sliti. A huge shoutout to Rebel film director Adil El Arbi for his exclusive message, and to the fantastic Sanae Jamaï for moderating the evening. Special thanks also go to Prof. Iman Lechkar and Prof. Gerrit Loots, for sharing their expertise. And last but certainly not least, a many thanks to the 96 incredible participants who joined us in Vilvoorde. We look forward to seeing you again at our future events!
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Before delving into the panel discussion, we launched the event with two presentations stemming from two years of dedicated research. Our goal was to inject fresh perspectives, arguments and findings into the prevailing social discourse, currently dominated by notions of retaliation rather than justice and reparation.
A recurring theme emerged – the profound impact of fathers and the loss experienced by the children. Recognizing the lack of societal support for an alternative narrative about fathers, we emphasized the importance of creating a space wherein families are assisted in navigating this complex subject. This approach aims to foster a more nuanced and balanced understanding of the fathers, detention camps, and life in the caliphate. Granting space and recognition to the children’s stories is imperative for integrating their experiences into their evolving identities without negating their former identities.
The panel discussion opens with a discussion on the portrayal of ISIS in the animation films that are made. Vranckx expresses concern about the lack of emphasis on the violent aspects of ISIS in the presented materials, particularly the violence committed against the Jezidi’s and the violence that affected the children. Jamaï counters by stating that children tend to remember their time with ISIS as not always being violent, as parents often shield them from such experiences. Also Sliti finds it regrettable that the violent aspect has to be brought up immediately. She finds it unfortunate that such a conversation always has to occur first. She seconds Jamaï and explains that they don’t deny the horror but also want to emphasize other roles and other possibilities to deal with the issue. Bonte disagrees with the panel’s perspective, emphasizing that not all individuals who joined ISIS are victims. He points out that some parents are opportunistic in their choices. The discussion also touches on the need for research into the legal status of children in these situations.
The discussion continues with concerns about repatriating men who joined ISIS, with Vranckx stressing the polarization and mutual enmity on this theme. He states that 1/3 of the people want the death penalty for the men who joined ISIS and argues that the public opinion sees this as a context of war. Bonte raises questions about radicalization and how individuals were motivated to leave their homes and families for ISIS. The panel highlights the need for a nuanced approach to this complex issue, considering the welfare of children, the actions of the parents, and the broader societal impact. They also discuss the challenges of repatriation and the need for individualized assessments. The audience’s questions address the challenges of repatriation, the status of the children, and the difficulties of diplomatic and political efforts. The discussion concludes with different opinions on repatriation, with Hannan Jamaï advocating for the return of all Belgian citizens associated with ISIS, while Lahlali suggests a more nuanced and case-by-case approach.