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.

We have to try reintegration of people abused by ISIS

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.

Fighters have to be judged, but also helped

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.