SCN Survey Results: What do cities need to aid the rehabilitation and reintegration of foreign fighters and their families?

Above: A veiled woman walks with her child at al-Hol camp in al-Hasakeh governorate in northeastern Syria on February 17, 2019. (Photo by BULENT KILIC / AFP via Getty Images) 

Marta Lopes
Manager, Strong Cities Network

Since the Strong Cities Network (SCN) launched its member survey and previous article on rehabilitation and reintegration in March 2020, there has been little progress on the status of the estimated 13,000 foreigners associated with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq currently held in dire conditions in camps in Northern Syria. France made the headlines in June after repatriating ten children, bringing the total number of French children repatriated from Syria and Iraq to 28. In addition to those who have been actively repatriated by some countries, many individuals have been able to return on their own accord over the past few years.

As the Covid-19 pandemic threatens countries around the world, experts warned about the additional humanitarian consequences that the spread of the virus would cause for these individuals. Under pre-virus conditions, 510 people died in Al Hol camp alone last year, 75% of whom were children. There are fears that conditions could deteriorate considerably as a result of the pandemic.

At the SCN, we wanted to understand what actions our members have taken to date to support the rehabilitation and reintegration of their citizens, and what support, resources and skills cities need to address this important challenge. A survey of 31 of our members conducted in March/April 2020 has provided us with a unique understanding of the gaps many cities face in preparing for, and responding to, this challenge.  Most notably, the survey found a clear disconnect in national and local cooperation: while over 60% of members surveyed were aware of local cases of returnees, more than a third of total respondents have had no contact with national authorities on this matter. Below is a short summary of our findings and our suggestions on what support cities need to strengthen their efforts.

Figure 1: Respondents’ countries of residency

Key finding 1: rehabilitation and reintegration of returnees is a pressing issue for cities

61.3% of respondents are aware that foreign fighters or families of foreign fighters have returned to their city, and 54.8% expect more will return. Coupled with the 29% that did not know whether to expect returnees in the near future, these numbers show that the majority of cities are already dealing with this challenge. More importantly, in particular in developing countries, most cities do not have a plan, policies, structures or capacities to support the rehabilitation and reintegration of these individuals (see graphs 1 and 2).

Key finding 2: cities need better data and cooperation with national security agencies

68.8% of cities in developed countries said they need greater access to data and information from security services and law enforcement. Moreover, 38.7% of all respondents were not aware or did not know whether there were returnees in their city, and 45.2% were unsure whether there would be any/more in the near future. This result makes a case for the need for better data and cooperation with national security agencies who possess this information. This is a recurring challenge in the field of preventing and countering violent extremism, and one that is largely linked to the absence of information systems needed to share intelligence and restricted information between national and local authorities. In this case, 35.5% of respondents reported not having been contacted by national authorities on this topic, with this number increasing considerably in developing countries (46.7%).  Local authorities and their respective national governments need to create spaces for dialogue and cooperation, ensuring that information-sharing protocols and the responsibilities of different agencies are clearly understood by all actors, and improving these systems where needed.

“Local authorities need to gain a thorough understanding of local perceptions of returnees if they are to ensure not only that these individuals can contribute positively to their communities upon reintegration, but more importantly that communities can contribute positively to reintegration efforts.”

Key finding 3: cities believe they would receive support from the community in their R&R efforts

48.4% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that they would receive support from their community in their rehabilitation and reintegration efforts. This is a very positive finding that would require further research to contextualise, since stigmatisation and social isolation have been major barriers to successful reintegration in other cases. This would indicate that community support would be a major asset for cities to draw on. However, 35.5% neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement, which may indicate that are unsure or ambivalent about the role of communities.

Media reporting tends to portray this issue negatively, for example stating that the public typically shows ‘strong opposition to repatriating Islamic State fighters or their families’. While international opinion data around these issues is weak, such perceptions appears to stem from highly localised polling, including results from one survey conducted in France which focused on public views around the repatriation of children from Syria and Iraq. Despite this general lack of evidence, such perceptions have heavily influenced repatriation policies across Europe for example. Local authorities need to gain a thorough understanding of local perceptions of returnees if they are to ensure not only that these individuals can contribute positively to their communities upon reintegration, but more importantly that communities can contribute positively to reintegration efforts.

Key finding 4: cities want to build their capacity in managing individual cases, including through peer to peer learning with experienced cities

Based on the responses, the top two types of support cities need are specialist intervention and case management tools, as well as peer learning opportunities from experienced cities (both of which 61.3% of respondents said would be a priority). While some cities are starting to develop considerable expertise in this area, avenues to share experiences and lessons learned remain very limited. Some platforms are starting to offer such opportunities, including the Global Counterterrorism Forum, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Radicalisation Awareness Network, and academic bodies are beginning to take notice, but there is a need for more consistent engagement and documenting of local experiences with returning foreign fighters and their families along with specialist intervention support.

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