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Foreign Fighters and the Trend Towards Statelessness

20 Nov 2019
By Stuart McLintock
Iraqi Children Observe US Soldiers. Photo by Alan D. Monyelle, US Navy Photo, source:

Stripping ISIS fighters of citizenship could lead to not only them, but also their families, including women and children, being rendered stateless. Could this increase terrorist recruitment in the region?

Recent developments in Syria have highlighted a concerning trend in international relations: that of citizenship being stripped from ISIS foreign fighters, often rendering them and their families stateless. In the wake of its military operation in northern Syria, Turkey declared its intention to deport foreign fighters that it had captured to their home countries, with many coming from Western European states. It has been reported that a dozen ISIS fighters and relatives have already been deported to the UK, Denmark, Germany and the US, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promising that hundreds more are to follow. While both the US and Turkey have been widely criticised for their recent actions in Syria, on this occasion it is actually Western European states that should arguably be criticised for their resistance to repatriate their nationals detained for alleged involvement in terrorist activities.

Several of these states have taken the step of stripping their nationals of citizenship, even if this results in them or their families becoming stateless. This is particularly troubling given that around two-thirds of Europeans held by Turkey, some 700 are reported to be children, many of whom have had at least one if not both parents killed. One of the most publicised examples of this policy is British teenager Shamima Begum who was stripped of her citizenship in February. Her three-week-old son died shortly after in squalid conditions in a Syrian refugee camp. Both the US and Turkey, as well as various human rights groups, have repeatedly urged European states to take responsibility for their citizens to little or no avail. However, it is not just Europeans that have adopted this approach, with Australia also refusing to repatriate its nationals.

It is believed that eight Australian ISIS fighters are currently detained in Syria, as well as 20 women and more than 40 children who are trapped in the al-Hawl camp in the country’s north. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton suggested that he had been advised that some of the women were as “hardcore” as the male fighters, although further details were not forthcoming. He went on to claim that Australia would be at risk of a mass casualty event if these women and children were brought home. It was confirmed by the Home Affairs Department that 17 dual-nationals had been stripped of Australian citizenship having fled Australia to join ISIS, but their identities have not all been revealed. To complicate matters further, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has indicated that even if any of the women in the camp have lost their citizenship, this will not affect the status of their children. Yet still, the government refuses to bring them back to Australia.

Dutton has perhaps most concisely summed up the position of the federal government towards these women and children, declaring that “in the majority of cases… most people realise if you go into a warzone and take kids into a warzone… you’ve made a decision to destroy the lives of your children and that’s something you’ll have to live with.” The policy of revoking the citizenship of dual-nationals that has been adopted by Australia and many other states, can and should be viewed as a race to the bottom, especially given that Australia has ratified both the 1954 UN Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. The 1961 Convention is intended to prevent people from becoming stateless and requires that a nationality can only be lost if that person has access to another nationality. Essentially, the government has decided that if it can strip the citizenship of dual-nationals before the other state of potential nationality, then it is in the clear. Obvious moral debates aside, this does not change the situation for the children that are either already holding Australian passports or are eligible under international law to obtain one. For them the answer is simple – they should be rescued from these camps and brought to Australia.

The government has repeatedly cited two main reasons why it would not repatriate these women and children – the potential risk to Australian personnel that might be involved in any rescue operation, and the risk that may be posed to Australians at home upon their return. As of last Saturday, that first concern was addressed by the US, which offered to assist Australia and other Coalition partners by “facilitating” the return of foreign fighters and their families to their countries of origin. Speaking to the ABC, US counter-terrorism official Nathan Sales claimed that it was a matter of urgency – while the ceasefire appears to be holding – to remove people from northern Syria and for all home countries to then enact their responsibility to take back their citizens. This is not just rhetoric from the US which has already repatriated six adults who have been charged, and 14 children that have commenced rehabilitation.

Sales revealed that “military assets” that remained in Syria could be involved in any repatriation operation. He also pointed out that to leave these people in camps or makeshift prisons is not a solution, but simply passing the responsibility to another party. The Australian Government however was quick to reject the offer. In acknowledging the offer, a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesman repeated the Prime Minister’s message that the government will not put Australian lives at risk in order to extract people from dangerous situations, despite that issue apparently being dealt with by the US offer. This point was not missed by Save the Children’s Mat Tinkler, who suggested that the government has now run out of excuses. In terms of the government’s second justification for its refusal to repatriate, Tinkler also offered a response, noting that the women had all willingly agreed to sign up to very strict terrorism control orders.

If these women and children are not extracted from al-Hawl and taken to Australia, it is likely that they will fall into the vacuum of statelessness and be left to roam one of the most volatile regions in the world. Knowing that Australia has turned its back on them despite being Australian citizens, they are exactly the type of disaffected people that ISIS targeted for recruitment when the organisation first rose to prominence. The only difference is that this time, they will not have as far to travel.

Stuart McLintock achieved first class honours at the University of Western Australia where he completed his dissertation on Palestine and the International Criminal Court (ICC). He commenced a PhD at Murdoch University where he is exploring the influence of non-member states on the ICC.

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