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Central Asia brings foreign fighters’ families home, but what next?

How do you take back families coming from IS territory? Thousands of men and their families traveled from Central Asia to IS territory to fight, and the authorities are now having to deal with them.

Edward Lemon
26 June 2019
Returnees to Kazakhstan from Syria, May 2019
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Source: YouTube / National Security Committee, Kazakhstan

Born to Orthodox Christian parents in Kazakhstan, Zarina converted to Islam aged 17. One year later, in 2013, she met a man online who was 21 years her senior. Zarina quickly moved to Turkey to marry him. The couple then crossed the border into Syria, where he joined so-called Islamic State. After six years, Zarina, tired of conflict, fled to the Al-Hol camp in northern Syria, where some 12,000 women and children from 40 countries are stranded awaiting transfer home or to a third country. On 9 May 2019, Zarina was repatriated to Kazakhstan on a special flight arranged by the government as part of a series of efforts called Operation Zhusan. Zarina is now in a rehabilitation centre in Aktau, western Kazakhstan.

Zarina’s story is not unusual. Between 2,000 and 5,000 Central Asian citizens travelled to Syria and Iraq between 2011 and 2018. Some married and had children there. Others went with their families, giving birth to more children in Syria and Iraq.

But as armed groups, including the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, have lost their territory, the remaining fighters and their families have ended up in Iraq or in the custody of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of different armed groups including the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Many refugees, many of them children, lack documentation confirming their citizenship.

The existence of these refugees has sparked an intense debate over the responsibilities of home states towards those who travelled to Syria and Iraq to engage in or support violence.

Responses have varied, ranging from piecemeal efforts to repatriate citizens to revocation of citizenship. Earlier this year, the British Home Secretary stripped 19-year-old Islamic State supporter Shamima Begum of her citizenship. Denmark has also stripped its citizens of their nationality in response. France is taking a “case by case” approach to family members of foreign fighters, repatriating 12 orphans in June 2019. The Trump administration in the United States, which urged European governments to take back stranded citizens, has repatriated 13 women and children from Syria since 2018.

Yet in Central Asia, where governments have tended to use counter-extremism as a tool to remove opponents, some of the most concerted efforts to repatriate citizens are taking place.

State plans for repatriation

Tajikistan was the first to start addressing the problem, announcing an amnesty in 2015 for citizens who repented and returned voluntarily. Over 300 individuals have taken advantage of this.

The Tajik government has taken a hands-off approach, relying on family members to persuade, and pay for, their relatives to come home. After returning, not everyone stayed. An official in the northern region of Sughd stated last year that over 30 pardoned citizens had rejoined Islamic State. More recently, the government has intervened directly, facilitating the return of 84 children from Iraq.

Returnees from Syria to Kazakhstan, May 2019. Source: National Security Committee, Kazakhstan

In recent months, the government of Kazakhstan has been the most proactive, focusing on women and children in particular. In three phases of Operation Zhusan between January and May 2019, the Kazakhstani government returned 524 individuals, namely 357 children, 137 women, and 30 men. A video set to dramatic music posted to the Committee on National Security (KNB) shows the returnees arriving at an airstrip in Kazakhstan. In the two years prior, two hundred citizens had returned.

Uzbekistan has flown home over 156 citizens. The region’s arguably most open country, Kyrgyzstan, from which an estimated 850 citizens went to Syria and Iraq, is yet to formulate a policy on repatriation, although this is currently being discussed by the government.

While these efforts are laudable and display a greater propensity for forgiveness than many liberal democracies, it remains unclear what the Central Asian governments plan to do with returnees, many of whom will have been traumatised by the ravages of war and some of whom have never set foot in their home states. Some returnees from Tajikistan have given interviews to the media and toured universities in an effort to dispel myths about what life was like in the “Caliphate”. Those amnestied have returned to their homes, although they remain under the close scrutiny of the security services. No programme for rehabilitation seems to exist.

“Curing” extremism

Government approaches to extremism in Central Asia often frame it as a disease or disorder that can be cured purely through “psychological correction,” including exposure to the “true” Islam. Extremists can be identified, the thinking goes, by the way they dress and their rejection of societal norms. But if they dress and behave “normally”, so the logic goes - sending their children to school, watching television and finding a job, and not adopting an outwardly Islamic appearance, such as wearing a beard or hijab - this provides the best indicators that they have deradicalised. Governments in Central Asia are taking this misguided approach to rehabilitating returnees.

Kazakhstan claims to have a more rigorous plan in place. Government officials have stated that ten rehabilitation centres have been established across the country. At one location in Aktau, children spend two months with psychologists and religious experts from the country’s Spiritual Administration of Muslims before returning to their families. Two videos posted to the KNB website show mothers and children in the rehabilitation centres expressing their remorse, drawing and playing outside. “Children are not guilty. They should not pay for the crimes of their parents,” Lola Shakimova, psychologist at the KNB Academy, says in the video. The Uzbek government also claims to be offering a raft of social services to returnees including access to housing, healthcare and psychological support.

Experiences of state violence, rampant corruption, assertive secularism and uneven development in Central Asia all played roles in driving people to leave for the Middle East

Repatriation and rehabilitation efforts have mostly targeted women and children. This gendered aspect of the repatriation policy, whereby women and children were innocent bystanders and men were the ones making all the decisions, fits within the broader dynamics of patriarchy in the region.

In both rural and urban settings, men are usually the “breadwinner” and head of the household making key decisions. Popular acceptance that women and children played a more passive role in the conflict will make it more likely that society will accept the returnees. But many of them, like Zarina, only came to the refugee camps after the fall of Islamic State’s last stronghold of Baguz in eastern Syria in March, indicating they only abandoned the “Caliphate” when they were forced to. This undermines the idea that they are repentant and may make society less accepting of them.

Kazakhstan has some experience with trying to integrate those suspected of terrorism. In 2014, it accepted five foreign citizens who had been held in Guantanamo Bay in a programme financed by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Yet no systematic integration effort was undertaken. The individuals are still shadowed by security services and cannot leave their host city Semey, in Kazakhstan’s north-east.

Central Asia may also look to China, where over a million Muslims are being held in “re-education” camps to correct the behaviour of so-called “extremists” through a rigorous programme of Mandarin lessons, classes on religion and indoctrination in party ideology.

Misguided approaches

A psychologist at a rehabilitation centre in Aktau, Kazakhstan, concluded that “the colour of their clothing has changed. They have all removed the niqabs. Now they are remorseful and sincerely apologise to society for their actions.” While psychological support will be essential to helping returnees deal with their traumatic experiences in the Middle East, the idea that “psychological correction” alone will guarantee that returnees do not engage in violence or leave to another combat zone is misguided.

The notion that merely changing one’s appearance indicates a transformation in attitudes and behaviour is naïve at best. At worst, it underplays the complexity of the processes that motivated thousands of Central Asians to leave their homes to seek a new home in the “Caliphate”, and the difficulties these individuals will have reintegrating into the countries they rejected.

Research conducted by Noah Tucker, Anna Matveeva and Emil Nasritdinov indicates that recruitment to violent extremist groups was not just a psychological process, but one that is conditioned by a range of social, political and economic factors. Experiences of state violence, rampant corruption, assertive secularism and uneven development in Central Asia all played roles in driving people to leave for the Middle East. In many cases these factors were exacerbated by experiences in transnational spaces of migration, mostly in Russia where some five million Central Asians work as labour migrants and where ties with home communities can be weakened.

None of these problems have gone away.

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