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Rehabilitation and Reintegration: City-Level Responses

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— 3 minutes reading time

Above: Refugees in Al-Hawl Camp, Syria. (Credit: European Eye on Radicalization)

Author: Marta Lopes,
Manager, Strong Cities Network

Last July we wrote an article putting forward the case for the repatriation of foreign fighters and their families from Syria and Iraq. Seven months later, Central Asian and Balkans governments who have taken the step to actively repatriate their citizens stand in contrast to the predominant global trend. In addition to the practical challenges of repatriation, this issue is dividing governments across the world, most recently having led to a split in the ruling coalition in Norway. Regardless of the political deadlock, we need to be thinking proactively about how we deal with the challenge of returnees at a local level. At the Strong Cities Network (SCN), we want to try and capture the views of city governments and understand what has happened so far in your authority and what support you need. This will help us to forge strategic city level responses to these challenges.

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What’s the current status?

According to estimates, at least 1,129 adults (men and women) and children from 11 European Union countries are still detained in Syria and Iraq, the majority from France and Germany (35% and 23% respectively). Despite a few isolated repatriation cases under very particular circumstances, the majority of countries continue to take a hard-line approach, some refusing to repatriate and/or stripping citizenship from those who travelled (willingly or forcibly) to ISIS-held territories.

Nonetheless, there are signs that some countries might start taking a more active repatriation policy, such as Belgium, who announced last month that it would bring back 42 children. Bearing in mind the looming possibility of sizeable numbers of returnees coming back to Europe, affected cities will need to prepare to support national governments in rehabilitation and reintegration efforts.

What can cities do?

Cities have a central role in rehabilitating and reintegrating foreign fighters and their families, and many of them are stepping up and demonstrating the value of localised approaches to such challenges. Over the past few months, the Strong Cities Network (SCN) has been supporting cities across Central Asia and the Western Balkans in their rehabilitation and reintegration efforts. The two regions are now regarded as leaders in the reintegration fields, with Kazakhstan leading the way after having repatriated 609 citizens last year. Three key topics seem to be particularly relevant in this endeavour.

At an SCN workshop organised in Almaty, Kazakhstan in December 2019, Kazakh cities highlighted their ‘whole-of-city’ approach to reintegration through which they engage various local actors such as psychologists, theologians and service-providers from a range of sectors (education, healthcare, social services and sports) in cooperation with the national government.

In the Western Balkans, governments and cities are adopting a similar approach to this challenge. Kosovo, through its Division for Prevention and Reintegration, is working with various stakeholders including cities to strengthen their capacities in reintegration efforts. Nonetheless, challenges persist as families and community members are sceptical of returnees. To mitigate this, there is a central role for local civil society as demonstrated by organisations from across the Western Balkans and Central Asia, in particular in providing a safe space to address the widespread trauma found in returnees and help confront fearful attitudes many communities hold about their return.

However, no good reintegration strategy can exist without continued national-local coordination. For example, the UK central government works with local authorities through the National Health Service to ensure consistent mental health and emotional wellbeing assessments can be conducted at the local level. It is crucial to ensure that central governments are fully briefed on local needs, can help invest in vital training of frontline sectors, as well as to establish cooperation between security and local actors in an effort to deploy a comprehensive rehabilitation and reintegration approach.

Various actors are stepping up to support these efforts. For example, the OSCE has recently published a guidebook for policymakers and practitioners in South-Eastern Europe ‘to develop rehabilitation and reintegration programs outside the prison setting’, which includes guidance for local authorities and non-government actors.

Western European cities will need support to cope with this challenge, and learning from their counterparts in the Western Balkans and Central Asia should be a priority. The SCN will continue to support its member cities as much as possible on this front.

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The OSCE has recently published a guidebook for policymakers and practitioners in South-Eastern Europe ‘to develop rehabilitation and reintegration programs outside the prison setting’.