Open letter: Call for a managed return of ISIS foreign fighters

A number of ECFR Council Members urge European governments to immediately begin a programme of managed repatriation of ISIS foreign fighters in Syria.

Also available in

European countries have delayed too long in dealing with the hundreds of their citizens who joined the Islamic State group (ISIS) and are now being detained in north-eastern Syria by Kurdish forces. These include not only men and women, but large numbers of young children. Leaving them in the improvised prisons and overcrowded refugee camps in which they are being held is irresponsible and, in the case of children, inhumane. With no better options available, European countries should immediately begin a programme of managed repatriation of their citizens.

Turkey’s recent moves to deport ISIS members under Turkish control should not distract from the larger question of Europe’s responsibility for its citizens still in Syria. In an unstable area, the future of the prisons and camps where they are being held is uncertain. Repatriation would ensure European control of ISIS members who might otherwise escape and become involved in new attacks. There is also a risk that the camps will be taken over by the Syrian regime, allowing President Bashar al-Assad to use European citizens as bargaining chips to secure recognition from European governments. Meanwhile, children in the camps are at risk of becoming radicalised if they remain in a lawless environment without treatment for their trauma or hope for the future.

It is understandable that European countries are concerned about their security in relation to people who, in many cases, may remain committed to the jihadist cause. But European governments have the resources to handle these people through prosecution, surveillance, or reintegration, as appropriate. In recent years, European countries have developed effective strategies for mitigating the threat from returned foreign fighters. They could interrogate citizens they repatriate from Syria to learn more about ISIS operations. The repatriation of children would, in most cases, also involve the repatriation of their parents, to avoid the problems of forcible separation.

For months, European countries have tried to avoid repatriation by looking to have their citizens prosecuted in the region. But only repatriation seems feasible and without serious drawbacks. The option of transferring ISIS members to Iraq for trial raises concerns about the death penalty and other human rights abuses – and would also be very expensive. Moreover, it unclear whether Iraq would agree to take charge of these people. The Syrian Kurds do not have the capacity to look after thousands of foreign ISIS supporters in a lawful and sustainable way.

With most prisons and camps still under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces, there remains a window of opportunity for European countries to repatriate their citizens. It is not a viable long-term option to leave these citizens where they are. By acting together, European countries could reduce the public backlash and logistical problems of repatriation. Failure to act now would be irresponsible, only increasing the risks and humanitarian neglect of current European policy.


  1. Douglas Alexander – Chair, Unicef UK; former Secretary of State for International Development
  2. Carl Bildt – former Prime Minister; former Foreign Minister
  3. Umit Boyner – Vice Chair, Boynergrup
  4. Lolita Cigane – Member of Latvian Parliament
  5. Ian Clarkson – Founder, Celerant Consulting
  6. Robert Cooper – Diplomat; former Counsellor of the European External Action Service
  7. Ilinca von Derenthall – Head of Audit and Risk Committee, Chimcomplex Borzesti S.A.
  8. Anthony Giddens – Life Fellow, University of Cambridge
  9. Beatrice de Graaf – Professor of the History of International Relations and Global Governance, Utrecht University
  10. Jean-Marie Guéhenno – Senior Adviser, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue; former President and CEO, International Crisis Group; former Under-Secretary-General, Peacekeeping Operations, UN Geneva
  11. Teresa Gouveia – former Portuguese Foreign Minister
  12. Mary Kaldor – Professor, London School of Economics
  13. Gerald Knaus – Chair, European Stability Initiative; Carr Center Fellow
  14. Bassma Kodmani – former Executive Director, Arab Reform Initiative
  15. Remzi Lani – Director, Albanian Media Institute, Tirana
  16. Sonja Licht – President, Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence
  17. Kirsty McNeill – Director of Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns, Save the Children
  18. Anand Menon – Director, UK in a Changing Europe; Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs, King’s College London
  19. Enrique Mora – Political Director, Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs
  20. Andrzej Olechowski – former Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs
  21. George Papandreou – former prime minister
  22. Janet Royall – Principal, Somerville College, University of Oxford; former leader of the opposition in the House of Lords
  23. Patrycja Sasnal – Head of Research, Polish Institute of International Affairs
  24. Pierre Schori – Chair of Olof Palme Memorial Fund; former Director General, FRIDE; former Special Representative of the Secretary-General to Cote d´Ivoire
  25. Giuseppe Scognamiglio – Chair, EastWest Institute; Editor, EastWest
  26. Michael Stürmer – Chefkorrespondent Die WELT
  27. Hannes Swoboda – former President, Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, European Parliament
  28. Nathalie Tocci – Director, Istituto Affari Internazionali
  29. Erkki Tuomioja – Vice-Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee; Member of Parliament; former Minister of Foreign Affairs

Signatories are all Council Members of the European Council on Foreign Relations. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.