Looks like it’s been a long time since we fought the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS, also known as ISIS). The world has moved on to other troubles since the military defeat of this terrorist group in March 2019. Yet the challenges associated with ISIL are far from over. Along with the persistent global threat of terrorism, one of the key questions is what to do with detained ISIS soldiers, their families, and those who have joined the group at the height of its power.
For one reason or another, around 40,000 people flocked to areas controlled by the group from 81 countries. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have captured thousands of foreign fighters and their families. In January of this year, the SDF reported detaining around 2,000 foreign fighters and 13,000 foreign women and children who are relatives of fighters linked to ISIL.
The question now is what to do with these individuals. While many countries, including those in the West, have been reluctant to repatriate their citizens, Kazakhstan has taken a very different approach. Our country carried out the “Zhusan” and “Rusafa” operations, in which around 700 of our fellow citizens were repatriated, including 520 children. The rest are mostly women. Twenty-five men who were brought back have been prosecuted as ISIL fighters. Our effort is based on humanitarian grounds. Many women and children found themselves stranded without access to basic needs, including food, shelter, clean water, health and education. They have been exposed to sexual abuse, exploitation and potential recruitment by terrorist groups.
Bringing back people who were once part of ISIL can certainly pose security risks. Nonetheless, many women have been deceived by ISIS propaganda and then detained against their will. Some were just naive. Basically the kids had no choice in this matter, so it’s morally and politically right to give them another chance. It is for this reason that the first President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, made the decision to repatriate our citizens from Syria and Iraq. This policy continued under the current president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
The repatriation of our citizens was only half the battle. It was equally important to ensure their rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Our state-run rehabilitation program was designed to provide mental health care, family support, housing, education and employment opportunities. Children of ISIL fighters were given Kazakh birth certificates and Kazakh names, while women were given passports and blank documents to reduce social stigma and facilitate their integration into society. Accommodation was initially provided in specially created adaptation centers. They included round-the-clock support from social workers, psychologists, teachers, theologians and medical workers. Most of the children spoke Arabic, so we called in Arabic language specialists to establish contact. To help children integrate into society, individual learning programs were developed with the participation of teachers, who provided lessons in mathematics, languages and other subjects.
This stage of rehabilitation lasted for a month, after which the families were transferred to the place of residence of their relatives and friends. A significant part of the rehabilitation program has been devoted to restoring family links. The initial phase of rehabilitation allowed the children to start school with other pupils, while the younger ones joined pre-school education centers and kindergartens. Families also received stationery, clothing and food while they were on their feet. In total, more than 300 specialists were involved across the country. In addition to giving families and children a second chance, we believe this policy will help prevent radicalization and violent extremism in Kazakhstan, as many families have spoken publicly about the horrors they witnessed in Syria under the regime. of ISIS. We hope this will deter others from wanting to join terrorist organizations.
We have certainly faced challenges along the way. Some children have found it difficult to readjust. Some relatives and friends of people who have joined ISIL have decided to cut all ties with them, hampering reintegration efforts. Nevertheless, we believe that the decision to repatriate our citizens was justified and we are proud of the work that has been carried out, notably with the support of UNICEF, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United States and the United States. other partners. The US State Department, for example, has highly appreciated Kazakhstan’s repatriation efforts and is playing an important role in helping the Kazakh authorities ensure effective rehabilitation.
Unfortunately, many families from other countries are still stranded in Syria and Iraq. Authorities in these countries do not have sufficient resources to keep ISIL prisoners and their families in captivity indefinitely, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. Other countries should therefore study the experience of Kazakhstan and also consider repatriating their citizens.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.