Liberty, Equality, Fraternity…really? Why France’s forsaken “children of ISIS”* may grow up to view the French Republic’s values differently.

Philomene Franssen, MA Candidate at the University Of London and Independent Consultant
/ 8 mins read

There are currently an estimated 300 French children stranded in various displacement camps in Northeastern Syria. Deprivation of nationality of one or both of their French parents exposes these children to a significant risk of statelessness.

Photo: Drawing of a child detained in Al-Roj camp in Syria.
Photo: Drawing of a child detained in Al-Roj camp in Syria. Collectif des Familles Unies (

As the trial over the January 2015 Paris attacks opened this September in Paris, the heated topic of citizenship deprivation as a punitive counter-terrorism national security measure may very well stir up debate in France once again.

Indeed, among the several defendants being tried in absentia, is French citizen Hayat Boumeddiene, wife and alleged accomplice of Amedy Coulibaly, one of the Islamic State (ISIS) perpetrators of the Kosher supermarket attack, who was killed by the police in January 2015. The trial is therefore likely to re-ignite political controversies around the question of whether so-called French “foreign terrorist fighters”* and their spouses should be repatriated to face prosecution in France or instead, be deprived of their citizenship in absentia, so as to prevent them from legally returning to France.

However, these debates — regardless of the national context within which they occur— tend to overlook the detrimental impact of this arbitrary and counterproductive measure on family members of foreign fighters, primarily on their children. This was notably highlighted by several international law scholars and experts in the recently published Principles on Deprivation of Nationality as a National Security Measure.

There are currently an estimated 300 French children stranded in various displacement camps in Northeastern Syria, administered by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The majority of these children are below the age of six, and some are even orphans. Deprivation of nationality of one or both of their French parents exposes these children to a significant risk of statelessness.

Children of French foreign fighters in Syria

The children of French foreign fighters currently stranded in Syria were either born in ISIS-controlled territory in Syria or Iraq or taken there by their parents. When the SDF defeated the Islamic State in March 2019 in their last stronghold of Al-Baghouz in Syria, they also captured a large number of foreign fighters along with their family members, and sent them to various prisons and refugee/IDP camps under their control across Syrian Kurdistan. In May 2019, UNICEF estimated that 29,000 children of foreign fighters from 60 countries were present in Syria, with approximately 300 French children held alongside their mothers in the infamous overcrowded camps of Al-Hol and Al-Roj in Al-Hassakeh Governorate. 

Conditions there have recently been described by a group of UN experts as “reach[ing] the threshold standard for torture, inhuman and degrading treatment under international law”. NGOs and human rights organisations have also documented the appalling conditions inside these camps, where some children are reportedly dying from severe malnutrition, dehydration, cold, preventable diseases and wounds.

Yet, French authorities continue to oppose their repatriation on account of alleged national security concerns, thereby turning a deaf ear to the repeated pleas made by a Collective of French Families with relatives in the camps. Instead, the Government has adopted a case-by-case approach, that has led to the repatriation of only 28 children since March 2019, most often resulting in an enforced separation of the child from their parent(s).

This approach disregards the opinion issued by France’s Consultative Commission for Human Rights, the unequivocal Position of the UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, as well as the UN Secretary-General’s latest report on Children and armed Conflict; all of which explicitly prescribe the repatriation of these children along with their parent(s), so as to uphold the principle of the best interests of the child. It also undermines numerous UN-issued guidelines and resolutions that highlight the importance of treating these children first and foremost as victims of terrorism and conflict who have suffered egregious violations of their fundamental rights.

Why are these children at risk of statelessness?

Under French nationality law, having a French parent is a sufficient requirement to ensure that French citizenship is bestowed upon the child, regardless of whether the child was born in France. Moreover, under French law, deprivation of nationality is a matter primarily regulated by Article 25 of the Civil Code, which stipulates that the measure can only affect French naturalised dual or multiple nationals, thereby safeguarding against statelessness.

However, the circumstances in which some children are born demonstrate the limitations of such safeguards in cases of conflicting nationality laws. Children of foreign fighters born in ISIS-controlled territory commonly have a foreign father and a Syrian mother. As such, where it is the father who is deprived of his French citizenship in absentia, but where he is imprisoned, displaced, missing, or deceased, it becomes very difficult to establish the child’s legal link to him, which is nonetheless necessary to proving their entitlement to French nationality.

Where the mother is Syrian, given that Syria is one of the 25 countries worldwide to retain gender discriminatory laws that deny women the right to confer nationality on their children on an equal basis with men, the child is then at risk of statelessness. This is the case even despite safeguards against statelessness in the country’s nationality law, given that these are rarely implemented in practice.

Similarly, if a French mother were to be deprived of her French citizenship, and the country/ies of her other nationality/ies applied gender discriminatory laws, should circumstances not allow for establishing the necessary evidence of paternity for the child to acquire their father’s citizenship, the child would then be at risk of statelessness.

Furthermore, although many children born in ISIS-controlled territories likely hold a birth certificate issued by ISIS officials, France does not recognise these documents. However, in the context of the Civil War, all French consulates in Syria closed in March 2012. The lack of access to birth registration procedures has thus severely hindered the possibility of establishing the identity and parentage of children of French foreign fighters and, consequently, to demonstrating their entitlement to French citizenship.

This lack of documentation only exacerbates the stigma attached to the label “children of ISIS”, and may even impede access to humanitarian aid. Given the dire conditions in which most of these children live, statelessness renders them increasingly vulnerable to exploitation, abusetrafficking as well as recruitment and indoctrination by ISIS members. While their freedom of movement is already severely curtailed, these stateless children also face major obstacles to accessing and enjoying fundamental rights, and are deprived of protection. As stated by the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, “to inflict statelessness on children who have already suffered so much is an act of irresponsible cruelty”.

What are France’s international obligations towards these children?

Of the four key statelessness conventions, France is only party to the 1954 Convention. However, it is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which explicitly prescribe the right of every child to “be registered immediately after birth”, to “have a name”, and to “acquire a nationality”, while the CRC also upholds the overarching principle of the best interests of the child.

As emphasised in the Principles on Deprivation of Nationality as a National Security Measure, “it can never be in the best interest of a child to be made stateless or be deprived of nationality”. Consequently, in line with its national and international obligations, France must make every effort to ensure that all children of French foreign fighters who are entitled to French nationality under the law, are recognised as nationals in practice.

Finally, in line with international law and the principle of international solidarity and cooperation, the French Government must take responsibility for its own nationals, and ensure the safe and urgent repatriation of all these children along with their parents. Doing so would not only be in the long-term interest of both national and international peace and security, but would also uphold the core human rights that supposedly constitute the foundational tenet of the French Republic’s values.

Despite the evident moral, humanitarian and human rights imperative of returning these children, the French Government appears determined to continue shirking responsibility for its own citizens onto the Kurdish-led SDF in Syria. By denying these children the legal existence and protection they are lawfully entitled to, France establishes a “false dichotomy between security interests and child rights”, perhaps even sowing fertile ground for indoctrination and radicalisation that it (allegedly) tries so hard to prevent.

Indeed, by being denied the right to belong and to equality before the law, deprived of their liberty despite being victims of a violent conflict and ideology, these children are unlikely to ever know the meaning of fraternity or to embrace the values of the French Republic.

After all, and as so rightly put by UN Secretary General António Guterres, “[t]errorism is fundamentally the destruction and denial of human rights, and the fight against terrorism will never succeed in perpetuating the same destruction and denial.”  

*Author’s note: The author does not endorse the use of the label ‘children of ISIS’, which she believes carries strong stigma contributing to forging and/or supporting hostile public perceptions of the group of children it intends to designate. However, by using the term in inverted commas she hopes to draw attention to its controversial use. Furthermore, given the complexity of the foreign fighters phenomenon, notably in light of the multiplicity of profiles and trajectories of persons broadly labelled “foreign terrorist fighters”, the author supports the view that there are serious human rights implications with the use of such terminology. She therefore believes that individuals concerned should not be designated as such in the absence of a fair trial proving their actual engagement in acts of terrorism.

Photo: Drawing of a child detained in Al-Roj camp in Syria. Collectif des Familles Unies.

This blog was first published on Refugee Law Initiative Blog on Refugee Law and Forced Migration

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