ISIS Women and Children are Human Beings. Treat Them Like Ones.

It is unacceptable to favor political interests over human rights and force ISIS wives and children to suffer in war-torn refugee camps.

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The Islamic State of Syria and Iraq—shattered by its dwindling membership, numerous defeats in the Middle East, and the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—lies covered in a layer of dust. It coats the women and children left behind, their eyes wide with fear and their emaciated bodies trembling. As the debate over their future rages on in the free world, the question, “What do we do with these people?” remains unanswered.

It is indeed a difficult question to answer, with a plethora of problems and the intricate game of global politics requiring consideration. However, as we stumble over the mines of one superpower’s demands to another’s, wives and children of ISIS fighters remain trapped in Northern Syrian refugee camps.

One such camp is the Syrian Democratic Forces-controlled al-Hawl, which skirts both the Syria-Iraq border and human rights laws. There, the 74,000 detainees of the overpopulated camp must face miserable conditions. The limited, parasite-laden water supply renders dysentery commonplace, and the lack of medical clinics leaves residents as defenseless victims. Its flimsy tents are unable to bear the strength of the freezing cold, leaving listless mothers and children to grapple with hypothermia in addition to the constant lack of food, healthy outlets, and education. The only action within the camp comes in the form of violent altercations between overwhelmed guards and women clinging to their radical ideology, as well as sexual abuse by the former of the latter. While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family,” what the camp provides is far from it.

Turkey’s large-scale military operations against the Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), including an invasion of Northern Syria in early October, have only exacerbated the problem. When artillery strikes reached camps such as Ain Issa, in perfect vicinity of the very area that Turkey was eyeing, disaster struck. Soon thereafter, SDF guards streamed into al-Hol at night, forcing all boys over the age of 12 away from their terrified families and into positions as soldiers. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad then signed a deal with Kurdish authorities that authorized the transfer of ISIS family members to Syrian prisons—infamous for mass deaths and torture—in exchange for Syrian forces in the fight against Turkish assault.

One might assume that in humanitarian crises such as these, the international community would unite and demand immediate action, especially since the situation directly concerns a majority of global citizens. However, most nations have understandably taken a strong stance against ISIS and the myriad of atrocities it has committed across the globe. Accordingly, their leaders are unwilling to welcome back the group’s family members with open arms. As Peter Dutton, the Australian home affairs minister, put it, “Parents, mothers, and fathers have made a decision to take children into a theater of war […] they’ve been fighting in the name of an evil organization, and there are consequences.”

There certainly are security concerns with repatriating ISIS wives and their children; all have suffered exposure to the extremist Islamic ideology that ISIS violently promoted. It seems plausible that they would continue to carry out acts in line with said twisted ideals in their host countries, forcing states to bear the burden of preventable terrorist attacks. It follows, then, that citizens would highly contest the careless reintroduction of dangerous people who have, in their eyes, left the country to join a destructive militant organization and immediately after the apparent defeat of the caliphate, begged to be taken back. An example is Hoda Muthana, an American-born, voluntary ISIS bride whose highly publicized attempts to return to the United States have been repeatedly denied by the Trump administration.

But not all ISIS women and children have voluntarily accepted the control of ISIS as Muthana had. Consider the Yazdizi women, who have been abducted and forced to serve as sex slaves to male fighters. It would be unjust to label them, who have been unintentionally exposed to the group’s violence, as ISIS associates and blame them for their fates. The same case applies to the children of ISIS wives. They were forced into a life that they never agreed to, and to turn a blind eye as they languish in a world of suffering and hopelessness would be a crime. Generalizing the cases of every ISIS associate thus only fosters misunderstanding and further inaction.

In addition, refusing to repatriate such people only fuels the return of the very group the world has fought to eradicate. The camps are already filled with radical women clinging to their ideology, who are blinded by their misguided vision of ISIS rising once more to dominate the world and who have begun threatening and beating others for apostasy. To them, when faced with dismal conditions in prison-like camps, there seems to be nothing to turn to but ISIS ideology. It is all they have ever known and remains the only existent, productive outlet for their anger and despair. With no chance for the rehabilitation of these families into peaceful societies and no opportunities for them to embrace moderate versions of Islam, the revival of ISIS looms large.

Thus, the time for debate is over: we have already acknowledged that there is a large problem in Syria. It is now time to solve it. The international community cannot stand by and allow these atrocities to persist. It is responsible for providing aid to all citizens that inhabit the globe, a de jure practice that, if enforced, would help us exercise the human decency that we seem to forget in times of crises. We cannot simply exile security threats—refusing to deal with the matter at hand only worsens the situation as unimaginable frustration and hurt fester in the miserable bleakness of Northern Syria.

Stalling is not an option, and practical solutions are imperative. Governments must first consider the specificity of each individual case, focusing on the past history and current behavior of each woman and child. In the spirit of international cooperation, states should communicate with each other to exchange such vital information and find an appropriate host country for every woman and child. Once they are repatriated, active reintegration is crucial. It would be best for states to implement special education programs focused on peaceful values, a clear denouncement of ISIS, and the host nation’s culture.

Indeed, ISIS wives and children belong to a realm of violence and immense hatred, but by refusing to provide these vulnerable people with a chance to leave that realm and pursue a better life, we simply give the brutal caliphate another chance to rise and dominate the world by fear once more.