How to deal with Repatriated Children of Alleged Terrorists and Extremists

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Children’s involvement in violence-prone terrorist and extremist groups has become a widely-discussed global issue. Sopar Peranto, a Senior Researcher at The Habibie Center, revealed that many children are known to have committed terrorist acts, intentionally or unintentionally. The Habibie Center, supported by the USAID-Harmoni Program, has conducted research on “The Repatriation, Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Children Affiliated with Violence-Based Terrorist and Extremist Groups”.

Data collected from 2010 to 2022 reported that 22 children were detained for involvement in violence-based terrorist and extremist groups, in conflict with the law. Meanwhile, from 2017-2022, 132 children were enrolled in “social rehabilitation” services upon returning to Indonesia, after being affiliated with extremist groups in Turkey, Syria and Iraq. These children were from families associated with several groups, including Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) and Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), affiliated with ISIS, Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT) and Poso.

“We periodically held sessions with them, caring for and convincing them that they might eventually stop depending on terrorist or extremist groups,” explained Sopar, at a national seminar titled “Solutions to Handle Children Affiliated with Violence-Based Terrorist and Extremist Groups” in Jakarta, Thursday (May 11).

The study revealed how many factors induced children to become exposed to terrorist and extremist groups: family, educational institutions, peers, digital media and inter-identity conflicts.

Sopar also pointed out how Indonesia already had legal instruments that could help resolve cases of children affiliated with terrorist and extremist groups. Anti-Terrorism Law 5/2018 stipulates that the state must extensively promote public security, including provision of education to suspected terrorists.

Alternatively, “Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Ministerial Regulation 7/2019 on Guidelines for Children’s Protection from Radicalism and Terrorism Crimes” considers children as victims, for whom punishment should be seen as only the final resort in cases of terrorism. Data from the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) showed that in September 2021, around 2,110 Indonesian citizens were suspected of affiliation with ISIS in other countries; 1,251 of these, lived with their children in conflict areas. A total of some 529 lived in camps in Syria, along the Turkish border and in one of several prisons.

“We have witnessed a discourse with the Indonesian Government, proposing that they repatriate children under ten years of age. This is a good opportunity, because Indonesia has previous experience in handling the return of Indonesian citizens, and especially children, from Iraq, Turkey and Syria,” he explained.

Several challenges must be addressed in the proposed repatriation of children, such as accurate identification. Dilemmatic relations between countries must also be considered because several terrorist and extremist camps are in fact tolerated or even supported by non-state groups such as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria.

In addition, the public is often alarmed by the repatriation of Indonesian citizens previously affiliated with terrorist and extremist groups, seeing them as a threat. “Another challenge is related to parenting, because oftentimes the parents are still in the country, dead or in prison,” he explained.

One of the solutions in the effort to handle children affiliated with terrorism and extremism is by taking preventive measures involving the state, the Government and civil society to strengthen children’s resilience so they will not be easily swayed by extremism/terrorism ideology. This measure should be applied when children reveal a tendency to be exposed to extremism/terrorism and must be continued even after they have passed through rehabilitation and reintegration phases.

Based on study results, The Habibie Center offers several recommendations, such as the need for specific regulations or a legal framework related to handling children affiliated with violence-based terrorist and extremist groups, and the protocol involved in deportation and repatriation of children. Next, institutional reinforcement must be carried out by central and regional governments, to handle and conduct rehabilitation and deradicalization.

The deprogrammng of affiliated children overseas should also be improved, by fostering international cooperation to open access to countries in conflict. Lastly, further studies need to be conducted from a child’s perspective, on their affiliation with violence-based terrorist and extremist groups, and their experience in undergoing rehabilitation.

Leebarty Taskarina, Head of Analysis at the Directorate of Enforcement of the BNPT, reported that UNICEF counts around 58,000 women and children, mostly Indonesians, living in Al-Hol camps, with 2,620 in Roj camps. “The conditions in those camps have become dreadful, leading to humanitarian issues: among others, there is a shortage of clean water and often no educational facilities. Girls are forced to marry early, and radicalization recruitment proliferates inside the camps,” warned Leebarty.

Countries including Germany and the Netherlands have repatriated such citizens. More recently, Spain, France and Canada also began to bring them home. Since February 2021, UN human rights experts have urged Governments of various countries to repatriate women and children from refugee camps because of severe concerns about camp conditions.

Those countries which have (often reluctantly) conducted repatriation, no follow-up measures were imposed. For example, in 2021, Sweden repatriated a number of children, placing them in a foster family network. Unfortunately, these children were not adequately prepared during the transition phase from the conflict country to their home country. They showed dramatic behavioral changes, such as going mute for weeks.

Similar cases occur in Uzbekistan, where repatriated children were placed in children’s homes. The children vented their stress by verbally displaying their anger. Against this, Germany asked the children’s grandparents to become involved, with regular counseling. As a result, those children seemed to show more normal emotions during the transitional period.

The BNPT reported that Indonesian citizens involved in terrorism from 2016-2022 involved 87% of men and 13% of women. Children recruioted or involved in terrorism overseas, known as “Indonesian Foreign Terrorist Fighters” (FTF), numbered 145 (69 boys and 76 girls).

“We must be thoroughly prepared when repatriating children. A smooth procedural flow must be designed; we must designate who the next alternative for child care will be, and how the pattern of development will unfold. Infrastructure and appropriate settings must be available. Many institutions still lack infrastructure, such as a Special Child Development Institution (LPKA) or Temporary Child Placement Institutions (LPAS). Regrettably, for lack of suitably secure institutionalization, children had to end up in adult correctional facilities. Lastly, human resources must have the capability and competence for children’s protection and management,” explained Leebarty.