A chartered plane flew into Kyrgyzstan from Syria last week carrying 59 Kyrgyz nationals in the latest phase on an ongoing mission to repatriate the families of militant fighters who enlisted in the ranks of the Islamic State group.
Most of the returnees – fully 41 – were children, while the rest were women.
The State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, estimates that around 850 Kyrgyz citizens left for Syria and Iraq between 2013 and 2015. Hundreds of men died in battle, leaving dependents stranded in the Al-Hol and Roj refugee camps in northeast Syria.
Prior to this latest wave of repatriations, the number of Kyrgyz citizens left behind stood at 380, of which 109 were women and 271 were children.
The Labor, Social Protection and Migration Ministry says the repatriated “children will be placed in a rehabilitation center to receive appropriate services to help them adapt to life in a peaceful and safe environment.” Earlier exercises of this type have taken place at an orphanage in Dmitriyevka, a village outside Bishkek. It is expected that the same activities will take place this time at the Altyn Balalyk children’s health and rehabilitation center located in the town of Cholpon-Ata.
UNICEF, a key international partner in rehabilitation and reintegration efforts, has welcomed the latest repatriation operation. Its representative in Kyrgyzstan, Christine Jaulmes, pledged that the organization “will continue supporting the full reintegration of these children into their families and communities.”
The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek tweeted that “U.S. support included providing the aircraft for the returning women and children and providing humanitarian donations of winter clothing, toys, and blankets.”
Kyrgyzstan’s government has over a couple of years accumulated much useful knowledge and experience in reintegrating children from war zones into normal life. An earlier repatriation operation, dubbed Meerim (Mercy), took place in March 2021 and saw the return of 79 children from Iraq.
The predicament of the 18 repatriated women is entirely different, however. This is the first time that Kyrgyzstan has consented to return adult females to their home country and it is not yet clear what awaits them.
Officials in Bishkek may look to the precedent of neighboring countries for inspiration.
Kazakhstan has repatriated 607 citizens – 37 men, 157 women and 413 children – between 2019 and 2021. Uzbekistan has repatriated 530 citizens: 380 children and 120 women. Tajikistan has repatriated 24 women and 105 children. And the Tajik Foreign Ministry has recently shared plans to repatriate 400 more women and children from Syria and Iraq.
Countries have adopted varying strategies in dealing with these returnees. In Uzbekistan, the authorities have favored prosecution, followed by immediate presidential pardons. In Kazakhstan, returnees have faced custodial sentences of anywhere between three and seven years.
Where it comes to rehabilitation and reintegration, however, approaches have been broadly similar. Women have been provided with economic and social support, including in the form of education and grants to support the opening of businesses or for housing. This even instigated something of a backlash in Uzbekistan, where the government has got criticism for creating a so-called dependency syndrome among recipients of support.
The nongovernmental sector is expected to do its bit too.
Protyani Ruku Pomoschi (Lend a Helping Hand), an NGO consisting of the relatives of the women and children stuck in Syrian camps, has said it is prepared to take on the financial burdens of returnees in exchange for the state enabling the repatriation of family members.
“We ask nothing from the state besides repatriating our daughters and grandchildren and restoring their documents. We are ready to cover all the expenses related to their rehabilitation and reintegration,” the chairwoman of the fund, Hamida Yakubova, has promised.