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Rights court tells France to reconsider repatriation of Islamic State wives

Europe’s top rights court found that Paris’ decision about which of its nationals it accepted back from camps in northern Syria was arbitrary and should be reviewed by an independent body.

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — The European Court of Human Rights on Wednesday found France was in the wrong for refusing to repatriate two French women who joined the Islamic State terrorist group, ruling the process is too arbitrary. 

Paris violated a clause in the European Convention on Human Rights that protects citizens' right to return to their homeland, the Strasbourg-based court found. The 1953 treaty created the court and protects the political and civil rights of European citizens.

The case was brought by the parents of the two women, identified only as L and M in court documents for privacy reasons, who say their daughters and grandchildren are living in dangerous conditions in refugee camps in northeast Syria. 

L was 23 when she left France for Syria, much of which was controlled by the Islamic State, in 2014, and M was 26 when she left a year later. They both had children with jihadist husbands and are now being held in a Kurdish-run camp after being arrested when the terrorist group lost control of the Syrian territory it held.

They have both expressed a desire to return to France. When she last spoke with her parents, L was suffering from untreated typhoid fever while M appeared to be malnourished and expressed concern about the health of her baby, who was suffering from a heart condition. 

The parents had asked the French Foreign Ministry and the French president to repatriate the women and their children from the camps, arguing they were in poor health and their lives were in danger.

So far, the government has refused. During a hearing in the case in 2021, France argued that attempting to bring them back would be too dangerous. “It would pose extremely difficulties,” lawyer François Alabrune argued on behalf of France at the time. 

Europe's top rights court took issue with how France determined who it would repatriate.

“The examination of the requests for repatriation made by the applicants on behalf of their family members was not surrounded by appropriate safeguards against arbitrariness,” the court wrote in Wednesday's ruling.  

The government indicated that it determined on a case-by-case basis who it would remove from the camps. Between 2019 and 2021, Paris brought back 35 children, all orphans or “humanitarian cases,” via five missions to the region. In July, the government announced that 16 women and 35 children from Syrian camps had returned via chartered planes. The applicants in this case were not among them and the families were not given any explanation as to why their children and grandchildren remained while others were returned. 

Although the ruling from the Strasbourg court was unusually long, it did little to clarify what obligations countries have to their citizens in these situations.

“The lens that the court takes is very narrow,” Evelyne Schmid, a professor of international law at Université de Lausanne who was familiar with the ruling, said in an interview. 

The court said that France has to allow an independent body to review any repatriation requests that it rejects.

“There must be a mechanism for the review of decisions … through which it can be ascertained that there is no arbitrariness,” the ruling states.

The issue of repatriation has been contentious in France. Human rights groups say of the more than 40,000 foreigners in camps in Syria, around 250 are French citizens or their children. Living conditions are extremely poor. Activists have urged France and other European countries to bring back their citizens living in the camps, but many counties have argued that they pose a security risk. 

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