It feels like a long time ago, we fought the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). Since the terrorist organization was defeated militarily in March 2019, the world has turned to other issues. However, the challenges related to ISIL are far from over. In addition to the ongoing threat of global terrorism, one of the key issues is how to deal with the detained ISIL soldiers, their families, and those who joined the organization when their power reached its peak.
For some reason, about 40,000 people traveled from 81 countries to areas controlled by the organization. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) captured thousands of foreign fighters and their families. In January of this year, the Self-Defense Force stated that it held approximately 2,000 foreign fighters and 13,000 foreign women and children who were family members of fighters associated with ISIL.
The question now is how to deal with these people. Although many countries, including Western countries, are hesitant to repatriate their citizens, Kazakhstan has adopted a completely different approach. Our country carried out the “Zhu San” and “Russa Act” operations, in which about 700 citizens were taken home, including 520 children. Most of the others are women. The 25 men brought back were charged as ISIL fighters. Our efforts are based on humanitarian reasons. Many women and children do not have access to basic needs, including food, shelter, clean water, health and education. They are subjected to sexual abuse, exploitation and potential recruitment by terrorist groups.
Bringing back an individual who was a member of ISIL will definitely pose a security risk. However, many women were deceived by ISIL propaganda and then detained against their wishes. Some people are just naive. Crucially, the children have no choice in this matter, so it is morally and politically correct to give them another chance. It was for this reason that the first president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, decided to repatriate our citizens from Syria and Iraq. This policy was continued under the leadership of the current President Kasim-Jomart Tokayev.
Repatriating our citizens is only half the battle. It is also important to ensure that they recover and reintegrate into society. Our state-run rehabilitation program aims to provide mental health care, family support, housing, education, and job opportunities. Children of ISIL fighters received Kazakh birth certificates and Kazakh names, while women received clean passports and documents to reduce social stigma and promote their integration into society. Accommodation was initially provided in a specially created adaptation center. They include 24/7 support from social workers, psychologists, teachers, theologians and medical workers. Most children speak Arabic, so we asked Arabic experts to establish contact. In order to help children integrate into society, a personal learning plan was developed with the participation of teachers. They provide courses in mathematics, language and other subjects.
This recovery phase lasted for a month, after which the families were moved to the residences of their relatives and friends. An important part of the rehabilitation plan is dedicated to rebuilding family relationships. The initial rehabilitation phase allows the children to start school with other students, while the younger children join the preschool education center and kindergarten. These families also received stationery, clothes and food to get them to stand up again. More than 300 experts from across the country participated. 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 openly talk about the terror they witnessed in Syria under ISIL. We hope this will prevent others from joining terrorist organizations.
Along the way, we certainly faced challenges. Some children find it difficult to re-adapt. Some relatives and friends of individuals who joined ISIL decided to cut off all contact with them, hindering efforts to reintegrate into society. Nevertheless, we believe that the decision to repatriate our citizens is correct, and we are proud of the work that has been done, including with the support of UNICEF, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United States and other partners. For example, the US State Department highly appreciates Kazakhstan’s repatriation efforts and has played an important role in assisting the Kazakhstan authorities to provide 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 detain ISIL prisoners and their families indefinitely, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. Therefore, other countries should learn from Kazakhstan’s experience and consider repatriating their citizens.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.