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Six children from Syrian refugee camp brought back to Belgium

19:40 17/06/2019

The federal government began an operation last week to repatriate six Belgian youngsters from Syria. The decision, announced by federal foreign affairs minister Didier Reynders, follows years of debate about whether the children, taken to Syria by parents loyal to the Islamic State (IS), should be allowed back into the country.

Five of the youngsters are minors, aged six to 14, and one is 18. There is a set of three siblings and a set of two siblings in the group. They were all born in Belgium and have Belgian nationality.

All of the six were taken to Syria illegally, and four of them have lost both their parents in conflicts. They have all been living in the Al-Hawl refugee camp in northern Syria on the border with Iraq.

The repatriation began on Friday, following an agreement with the Kurdish authorities, led by the head of the foreign relations commission for the region, Abdulkarim Omar. The youngsters have already arrived in Belgium and are in hospital under observation. They are said to be suffering from both physical and psychological trauma. Their names are not being released.

‘Scoring points’

Theo Francken, state secretary of migration before his party, N-VA, stepped out of the federal government coalition last December, was critical of the decision to bring the children back. He said on the weekend TV programme De zevende dag that it opened the door for other requests, including for children born to Belgian parents in Syria.

He also said that the timing of the repatriation was suspicious. “It’s three weeks after the elections,” he said. “Why didn’t they do it before then? It’s also one week before a vote takes place as to whether Mr Reynders will become the secretary general of the European Council. He just wants to score points internationally.”

The repatriation follows a visit to the children in the camp by Belgian diplomats and medical professionals, including VUB psychologist Gerrit Loots and a delegation from national organisation Child Focus. Some of the group will now supervise the children’s reintegration into Belgian society and offer both medical and psychological help.

More countries repatriating minors

The 18-year-old was reportedly taken to Syria by her father when she was already a teenager in order to marry a member of IS. She is said to be suffering severe psychological trauma.

Loots, also a guest on De zevende dag, said that the children’s future success and mental health depends on whether they feel accepted or not. “What are we going to do with these children?” he asked. “Are we going to welcome them or are we going to make them feel that they are not welcome? Are we going to chew them up and spit them out, like is happening right now on social media?”

The Kurdish region has been asking European countries for years to arrange for their citizens to be repatriated. Last week, France also brought 12 of its children home, and the Netherlands two. Sweden, Norway and Germany have also repatriated minors over the last several weeks.

According to Child Focus, there are still 45 Belgian youngsters in Syria.

Photo: Many orphaned children are living at the Al-Hawl refugee camp in Northern Syria

Written by Lisa Bradshaw