Children and adults returning from Syria

Approximately 4,000 people left Europe for the conflict zones in Syria and Iraq in the early years of this decade. A number of countries are considering their options for what to do about children and women detained in camps in Syria. Finland considers it vital to respect the rights of children and to help them in every possible way.

Starting in 2012, a number of people travelled from Finland to the conflict zones in Syria and Iraq. To date, over 30 have returned. The Finnish authorities have repatriated two orphaned children from the al-Hol camp. In addition, three families have left the camp on their own initiative and have since been assisted to return to Finland under the Consular Services Act. There are still fewer than ten Finnish adults and about 20 children in the al-Hol camp.

Under the direction of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the situation of the detainees has been investigated by various authorities, including the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health and the police. Efforts by the Government and authorities to solve the situation are based on the following considerations:

  • According to a decision taken by the Chancellor of Justice on 10 October 2019, children should be helped whenever possible. International conventions ratified by Finland also oblige the authorities to assist children.
  • The competent authority for assisting Finns abroad, for the possible repatriation of Finnish citizens and for related issues is the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has appointed a special representative to resolve the plight of Finns detained in the al-Hol camp.
  • Finland cannot take charge of children residing in the territory of another state without the consent of the national authorities of that state. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs is therefore currently negotiating with the Kurdish administration, which is in charge of the camp.
  • The EU Member States are acting independently, as the EU is not expected to adopt a common policy on the detainee issue in the foreseeable future.
  • Any decisions concerning individual children will be taken by public officials charged with the task. Within the scope of its powers under the Consular Services Act, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs will endeavour, whenever possible, to repatriate at least the children on a case-by-case basis. If separating a child from their parent or guardian is not justified by fact or law, the determining factor is the best interests of the child.
  • The authority responsible for child welfare legislation is the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health.
  • The situation at the al-Hol camp is unstable. Several individuals have returned or may eventually return on their own initiative, as under Finnish law, Finnish citizens and holders of a residence permit in Finland always have the right to return to Finland and should not be prevented from doing so.

Interior Ministry charged with supporting returnees

  • The Ministry of the Interior is coordinating security measures in preparation for the potential return of the individuals concerned to Finland. The various authorities involved are working closely together across sectors. For security reasons, however, they are not releasing any detailed information on their plans.
  • Since the children have been living in extremely difficult conditions, the priority is to protect them in every possible way and to provide them with all the immediate and longer-term support they need. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Health is coordinating the work done by the social welfare and health authorities.
  • Broadly speaking, the authorities’ plans are based on the returnee policy adopted by the ministerial working group on internal security and justice in 2017. This policy requires central government and municipal authorities and CSOs to work together to ensure sufficient support for the reintegration of returnees into Finnish society.

Helping returnees disavow violent ideology

  • The returnees have seen, experienced and, in some cases, committed violent acts. Just like anyone who has grown up or lived in a violent environment, they will need help to renounce violence.
  • Islamic communities play a vital role here: they can help returnees disavow a violent interpretation of their religion, and replace it with a mainstream interpretation of Islam that eschews violence.
  • The situation of every child returning to Finland from the camp will be assessed individually, on a case-by-case basis. The aim is to provide each child with systematic and long-term support relying on cooperation between authorities and promoting reintegration to normal living.

What about criminal liability?

  • Regardless of gender, all adults returning from a region in Syria once governed by ISIL will be criminally liable for any offences they have committed there. They moved to the region voluntarily, and may have been involved in terrorist activity or may have supported such activity in one way or another. Finnish legislation on terrorist offences has been amended recently to cover a wide range of terrorist acts and support for terrorism.
  • Finland will do everything in its power to bring to justice those who are guilty of crimes.
  • Children may be witnesses or victims of crime. The social services will be responsible for dealing with children under 15 years of age.