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Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Returnees from Syria and Iraq: Ten Lessons from the Berlin Experience for Local Governments  

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— 21 minutes reading time

This article draws on the experience of Samira Benz, who worked as Returnee Coordinator for the City of Berlin from 2019-2023. Samira is currently working with the Strong Cities Network, supporting engagement with European cities and sharing her expertise on the rehabilitation and reintegration of returnees from Syria and Iraq.


Many countries are currently dealing with the return of citizens who had travelled to conflict-stricken regions of Syria and Iraq to join the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). Governmental officials and practitioners are grappling with this complex issue and exploring an array of different methods and approaches to address this concerning phenomenon. Germany stands as an example among these nations. It is one of the few countries that took proactive steps towards repatriating its citizens from the conflict zones as early as 2019. To date, about 40 percent of the approximately 1150 individuals that had left Germany to join ISIS have returned. This includes 108 women and children who were actively repatriated by the German government

Germany has developed a comprehensive approach to address this challenge and one that includes investigative, prosecutorial and deradicalisation measures. With respect to disengagement, Germany employs a multidimensional approach which includes comprehensive social work, targeted psychological support and surveillance by security services. A crucial component of this approach is balancing between promoting rehabilitation and reintegration and ensuring national security. Additionally, Germany has developed a diversity of deradicalisation programmes, which are implemented both inside and outside of the prison system. These programmes provide guidance and other support to individuals, encouraging them to abandon their violent extremist ideologies and reintegrate into society. Measuring the effectiveness of such programmes can be a challenging endeavour due to the complex and personal nature of ideological beliefs. However, these programmes are deemed a crucial element of Germany’s strategy in managing the rehabilitation and reintegration of returning citizens. 

The Returnee Coordination Model 

In addition to these measures, Germany has implemented a comprehensive and coordinated approach to managing the return of its citizens from Iraq and Syria. This approach – elaborated by the Federal Ministry of Interior and the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees – is implemented by Returnee Coordinators who are strategically stationed across various German federal states. They are entrusted with the responsibility of overseeing the entire process from the return to reintegration of returning citizens in their communities. They act as the nexus between federal, state and local stakeholders, including entities such as law enforcement, local government, local community, civil society organisations, counselling organisations and mental health institutions. The German approach acknowledges the complexity and diversity of returnee scenarios. It also recognises that each returnee’s situation demands a unique set of actions and collaborations with different institutions. Therefore, the coordinator’s responsibility is also to consider each returnee’s unique circumstances. While the coordinators in all federal states share similar coordination responsibilities, their approaches vary due to their location within different departments. 

The primary aim of these Returnee Coordinators is to execute a multidisciplinary and holistic approach to case management. Their core responsibilities include: 

By adopting this detailed and coordinated approach, the Returnee Coordinators aim to create a robust support structure that aids the reintegration and rehabilitation of returnees back into German society, balancing their individual needs with the broader requirements of national security. 

Based on the author’s experience serving as a Returnee Coordinator, there are a number of lessons for other local governments which might be seeking to contribute to a whole-of-society approach to managing the return of their nationals from conflict zones such as Syria and Iraq.  These are listed below and elaborated upon in the next section. 

  1. Appoint a local coordinator  
  1. Develop an individualised reintegration plan 
  1. Enhance awareness 
  1. Understand the role of key stakeholders 
  1. Implement a chain of communication 
  1. Organise roundtable meetings 
  1. Facilitate and manage information sharing 
  1. Engage families 
  1. Secure financial and human resources 
  1. Evaluate and Seek Continuous Improvement  
North American participants, taking part in the Strong Cities Network Transatlantic Initiative Dialogue in Berlin, visited the Berlin City Hall to gain insights into Berlin’s strategies for combating hate and extremism, as well as their approach to rehabilitating and reintegrating foreign fighters and their families.

Operationalising a ‘Whole-of-Society’ Approach to Effective Rehabilitation and Reintegration.

Rehabilitation and reintegration of returnees is a complex process that requires careful planning, a multidimensional approach and active involvement of various stakeholders. While approaches to reintegration may vary across countries, the successful strategies and good practices that the author has employed during her tenure as a Returnee Coordinator for Berlin are relevant for local governments and other stakeholders outside of the German context. These practices, therefore, could inform the approaches of local governments and their national counterparts in other countries, contributing to ‘whole-of-society’ efforts to facilitate the successful reintegration and rehabilitation of their citizens. 

  1. Appoint a Local Coordinator  

The rehabilitation and reintegration of returnees requires coordinated efforts of various stakeholders from a variety of sectors, particularly at a local level. In this context, appointing an individual – whether at a city or regional level – to coordinate the stakeholders and oversee the reintegration process in their jurisdiction should be considered.

Coordinators can act as a central contact point for stakeholders, particularly those with limited experience in this domain. They can play a pivotal role in ensuring all stakeholders are well-informed to effectively perform their duties, while managing the sharing of sensitive data to protect both the stakeholders and the returnees. They can mediate conflicts between government and civil society actors, particularly in areas concerning data sensitivity and security.  

Coordinators can also help build trust among stakeholders. They can facilitate round-table meetings to create platforms for open dialogue and consensus-building. This helps clarify roles, manage expectations and prevent misunderstandings that can lead to mistrust. This is equally relevant among professionals from different fields and between the government and community members to avoid disruptions in the reintegration process. 

The added value of a well-positioned coordinator is that they can draw on a pool of different expertise and resources. At the same time, they have knowledge of the structures of the authorities and their various needs and can help clarify work processes and ensure the transfer of information by collecting, bundling and managing the exchange of information. 

In order to maintain a neutral function, the coordinator should be part of a local government unit that is not affiliated with security agencies, especially if they are in direct contact with returnees and receiving communities.  

  1.  Develop an Individualised Rehabilitation and Reintegration Plan 

The first step towards effective rehabilitation and reintegration involves the development of a reintegration plan for each individual. The plan should be tailored to cater to the unique needs, vulnerabilities, protective factors and circumstances of the returnee, recognising that one-size-fits-all strategies are not effective in such complex scenarios. As such, the plan should encompass assessments of the returnee’s needs across multiple dimensions, including psychological well-being, educational status and vocational skills. The crafting of the plan should ideally involve a multidisciplinary team of professionals, including social workers, psychologists, educators and vocational trainers. Each member of this team contributes their expertise to develop a comprehensive, targeted, and effective plan that is designed to empower the individual and enhance their prospects and wellbeing.  

Furthermore, the plan should incorporate social integration activities designed to forge a sense of belonging and acceptance within their new communities. This focus on social integration not only helps returnees to forge connections and build social networks, but also aids in the development of social skills that are crucial for their long-term reintegration. This can be facilitated through participation in community service, attendance at social events and/or involvement in sports and cultural activities. A crucial aspect of this step is to actively engage the returnee in the process, nurturing their motivation to disengage from their past and reintegrate into mainstream society.  

Given that, as in Germany, most of the available support (e.g., counselling, therapy, family support) is provided on a voluntary (i.e., not obligatory) basis, local practitioners should help returnees understand the benefits of the reintegration programme so that they accept the offers of support and become active contributors to their rehabilitation and reintegration journey. 

It is imperative to ensure that legal security measures do not inadvertently impede rehabilitation and reintegration efforts. For instance, measures such as prohibiting returnees from having a bank account can hamper their attempts at reintegrating into society and gaining economic independence. A successful plan, therefore, needs to balance the necessities of security with the fundamental goals of reintegration. 

Also, given the long-term nature of the rehabilitation and reintegration process, the local government should ensure that sustained support and follow-ups are vital components of it. This helps ensure the plan remains relevant and effective over time and can be adjusted to respond to changes in an individual’s personal circumstances or progress.  

  1.  Enhance Awareness  

Effective management of returnees requires all stakeholders to be well informed of and sensitive to the complexities and nuances of the situation. This includes providing comprehensive and pertinent information to the stakeholders involved in the management of the returnee. This can mitigate the risk that certain practitioners or other stakeholders are either slow or unwilling to act. For instance, social services may not see the urgency in facilitating a spot in a daycare centre for a returning child, given they are managing other cases that also appear urgent. This lack of urgency might reflect an inadequate understanding of the returning child’s background and the potential traumas they may have endured in conflict zones. It underscores the need for increased awareness – particularly among those stakeholders with limited experience dealing with traumatised individuals – about the unique needs of returnees and the importance of swift and appropriate action.  

Overall, stakeholders need to understand that the success of the reintegration process hinges on their ability to comprehend the returnee’s situation thoroughly and respond with empathy and urgency. This also includes a realistic understanding of the potential (evidence-based) threat that some returnees may pose to national security, without inducing unnecessary fear or overwhelming them.  

As part of the awareness-building process, consistent and targeted training should be provided to all involved stakeholders. This training should establish a common understanding and working basis among stakeholders. It should also encompass an array of topics, such as the process of radicalisation, cultural backgrounds of the individuals, potential traumas they might have experienced, and the on-ground situation in the relevant conflict region. 

Returnees often harbour a deep distrust towards certain authorities. This distrust often impedes cooperation and creates a barrier to effective reintegration. Misconceptions about the role of these authorities, their transparency and the use of collected information need to be addressed through clarification and dialogue facilitated by network partners. Also, the sense of injustice created by certain security agency actions, such as travel restrictions or house searches of relatives, can be destabilising, but non-law enforcement professionals can help by explaining procedures, such as travel restrictions or the rationale behind house searches involving relatives. 

In the interest of minimising potential stigmatisation and unwarranted media attention during the reintegration phase, careful measures should be adopted when disseminating information about the returnees’ status. It is recommended that only those in leadership positions, such as school authorities or employers who have a direct role in the reintegration process, should be informed about the returnee’s status if necessary. The introduction of comprehensive guidelines for stakeholders can prove instrumental in this context. They can provide a clear roadmap, outlining good practices, responsibilities and procedures to be followed and ensure that all stakeholders have a shared understanding of their roles and the broader objectives. 

  1.  Understand the Roles and Perspectives of Key Stakeholders  

Understanding one’s position, responsibility and the confines of their role in relation to other practitioners involved is a critical factor in case management. It is crucial for each stakeholder to acknowledge the importance of their role, act within their authority and refrain from overstepping into others’ domains. This role comprehension significantly mitigates the potential for stigmatisation and speeds up the reintegration process. The German approach of coordinating returnees aptly exemplifies this. The Returnee Coordinators, while facilitating the overall reintegration process, do not impose actions on the participating actors. Instead, they ensure that every actor works within their own authority, respecting the unique capabilities and limitations inherent to each stakeholder’s role.  

Furthermore, it is fundamental to acknowledge and appreciate the different perspectives and interests involved in the process. For instance, the police might prioritise security aspects, while political entities, non-law enforcement professionals, the returnee’s family or the community could have varying viewpoints. The coordinator’s role, in this case, is to provide a platform that fosters an understanding of these divergent perspectives and interests, ensuring a comprehensive approach to returnee management. 

Raising awareness of the challenges and promoting nuanced understanding are integral to effectively handling returnee cases. For instance, there could be discrepancies in the measures implemented during a returnee’s imprisonment and post-release phase, leading to potential gaps in their rehabilitation. To address this, coordinators can help stakeholders better understand each other’s work processes. Long-term and consistent networking among all involved stakeholders is also pivotal for fostering a comprehensive understanding of the roles and cultivating trust among the actors. 

  1.  Implement a Chain of Communication  

For a secure and reliable flow of information, it is recommended to implement a nuanced communication strategy that aims to uphold a balance between ensuring transparency, safeguarding the privacy of returnees and protecting the government’s security interests. This strategy necessitates the appointment of a dedicated point of contact within each institution involved in the process who then serves as a link within the information exchange mechanism.

This information exchange system should be constructed with three primary objectives in mind: 

1. Confidentiality Management: The first objective is to effectively thwart any unauthorised access to classified information. It is important to control the dissemination of sensitive data to ensure that it does not fall into the wrong hands, which could jeopardise the personal safety of returnees or compromise state security. 

2. Swift Information Transfer: The second objective focuses on enabling rapid information transfer to accommodate quick action, which is especially important given the unpredictable nature of the repatriation process. In some cases, this process may occur overnight or during weekends, necessitating the ability to mobilise resources swiftly and respond to developments in real-time. 

3. Prevention of Stigmatisation: The third and equally significant objective is to preclude any potential stigmatisation of returnees, particularly children who are especially vulnerable. Ensuring a controlled flow of information and careful management of returnee narratives can help to prevent harmful stereotypes and stigma that could adversely impact the reintegration process. 

  1.  Organise Roundtable Meetings 

The organisation and facilitation of roundtable meetings are an essential step for effective reintegration and rehabilitation efforts. These gatherings serve as platforms for structured dialogues both before and after the return of individuals. They facilitate the planning and implementation of short-term efforts, like logistics upon arrival at the airport and long-term measures, such as the disengagement and reintegration process. The composition of these meetings is not one-size-fits-all; it is contingent upon a multitude of variables, such as whether the returnee is repatriating alone or accompanied by family, the presence of an outstanding arrest warrant for a family member, or the repatriation of unaccompanied minors. Even though the first stages of reintegration tend to be security-oriented, it is crucial to involve or inform civil society organisations and relevant stakeholders in the communities into which individuals are reintegrating as early as possible in these roundtable meetings, given their pivotal role in the long-term reintegration process.  

Roundtable meetings offer the opportunity to bring new stakeholders into the conversation and provide an opportunity for all stakeholders to exchange crucial information and enables stakeholders to clarify their roles and responsibilities, fostering the development of stronger working relationships. Trust building and the establishment of a collaborative environment is a core benefit of these meetings, which underpins the overall efficacy of the reintegration initiative. The experience of the author indicates that the cornerstone of effective cooperation lies in trust and a shared willingness to work together. When these elements are present, the process tends to move forward smoothly.  

Post-release support is an integral topic for these discussions. Once an individual has been reintegrated into the community, follow-up measures are critical to prevent potential relapses into extremist behaviour. These can involve regular check-ins, ongoing counselling or therapy, mentorship and community support, all of which can be coordinated and discussed during these roundtable meetings. 

  1.  Facilitate and Manage Information Sharing  

The management of information sharing is a critical yet complex aspect of the reintegration process. It necessitates a balance; involved stakeholders need access to pertinent information, including potential security threats, without being overwhelmed or rendered overly cautious in carrying out their responsibilities. 

Conflicts can arise when security authorities request more information than can be shared responsibly by civil society organisations or are unwilling to disclose key information procedures. Such government-civil society conflicts, which are not unique to the returnee context, can lead to a reticence to cooperate. It is therefore essential to facilitate thorough discussions on data sensitivity among all stakeholders. 

Media attention poses another challenge. Coverage of returnee cases often surges upon their return and ebbs over time. However, renewed relevance of the topic can cause media interest to spike, potentially jeopardising trust-based cooperation if confidential information is leaked. Increased media attention can lead practitioners, particularly the police, to exercise additional caution in sharing information. There is also a risk of community polarisation and stigmatisation as extremist groups may exploit such situations. In response to this, it may be beneficial to provide communications training to stakeholders, such as schools, employers and counsellors. This can equip them with the necessary tools to navigate situations where anonymity is compromised or when media request statements. The creation of a communications plan, outlining diverse scenarios and responses, could be a practical strategy for managing the challenges of media attention and information sensitivity.  

Practical Considerations for Local Authorities in Setting Up Information Sharing Systems

1. Train stakeholders not only in how to use the information sharing system but also in understanding the ethical considerations, data protection regulations, and the wider context. For instance, ensure that their information sharing systems comply with local, national, and international data protection regulations.

2. Establish a clear purpose for the information sharing system, e.g. outline the objectives, the type of information to be shared and the primary users.

3. Direct pertinent information to the engaged civil society stakeholders (depending on whether they are authorised to receive such information). This is because they play an important role in assessing the needs of returnees. For instance, without information on the repatriation, youth welfare services cannot take necessary actions, e.g. determine whether the relative can take in their children. They would need this information to assess the living conditions and suitability of the relative.

4. Create standardised formats. Different authorities may use different terminology or data structures, which can hinder effective communication. For example, law enforcement agencies may use different definitions of who categorizes as a returnee than civil society organisations, which can lead to different understandings of numbers.

5. Regularly review and update information sharing systems to ensure they remain effective, as this is a dynamic process. For example, the information chain of the return process may be different from that of the reintegration process.

  1.  Engage Families 

One critical aspect of the reintegration process is the engagement of the individual’s family or social environment, where applicable and beneficial. The immediate family or friends can provide invaluable support and a deep sense of belonging that can substantially enhance the reintegration process. It is, however, essential to assess the dynamics within each family, as family counselling may be necessary to address potential tensions or issues that could impede successful reintegration. 

The family’s role in this process can be multifaceted and powerful. Their involvement can strengthen the resilience of the returnee and reinforce the multidimensional support system the returnee needs during their transition. Therefore, the stakeholders involved in the reintegration process should evaluate whether close collaboration with the family will be beneficial. Nonetheless, the inclusion of the family should be strategically managed and must be deemed appropriate on a case-by-case basis. Not all families may exert a positive influence on the returnee, and it is essential to recognise and account for these variations in family dynamics. 

Families, when involved, should be included in all stages of the process. They should not only feel included but also be active contributors in this process. However, the sharing of private information with family members should be handled delicately. It should be clearly communicated with the returnee if they wish to have their family involved and to what extent they consent to sharing of their information with them. In cases where counselling or other services are involved, their preferences and comfort should be the guiding factor in involving the family. The underlying principle must always respect the returnee’s privacy. 

  1.  Secure Financial and Human Resources  

Securing financial and human resources is an integral part of ensuring long-term support to returnees, a process that should span at least five, but ideally up to ten, years. This long-term assistance is not simply a matter of providing resources but should be seen as an ongoing process that adapts and responds to evolving needs of returnees. For instance, securing employment for a returnee does not signal the end of reintegration. It is rather a milestone of the whole process.  

Drawing from experiences in recent years, it is recognised that children may start exhibiting signs of trauma several years after their return. Given this delay in manifestations of trauma, an extended period of financial support is critical. This allows for consistent and comprehensive monitoring over time, ensuring that any emerging issues are promptly identified and appropriately addressed. 

Equally important in this process is to contain sustainable networks that foster cooperation among stakeholders. However, the development of these networks and the negotiation of operational boundaries often become more challenging due to temporary project funding. Such issues highlight the need for a shift in funding opportunities and an extension of project durations, allowing especially civil society organisations to operate under more stable conditions. However, financial stability is not just about ensuring a steady flow of funds, but also about reinforcing the capacity of organisations and programs to effectively support returnees in the long run.  

An essential component of effective cooperation among actors in the returnee reintegration process is trust. However, trust typically develops over a period of steady and ongoing collaboration. The common high rate of employee turnover, often a result of fixed-term contracts, creates a barrier to this continuity. For trust to be adequately established and maintained, it is crucial to support the formation of long-term professional relationships. 

  1. Evaluate and Seek Continuous Improvement 

The role and impact of the support system for returnees need to be assessed to also understand their potential broad applicability. These evaluations could help gauge if such networks could be expanded to address wider target groups and meet the challenges encountered in the work with individuals who have already radicalised to violence. Also, evaluations can offer practitioners a lens for introspection and provide policymakers a clear understanding of the network’s structure, influencing their decisions about its effectiveness and eventually the need for funding. 

An essential factor to consider in this process is the lack of consensus on the criteria for measuring the success of rehabilitation and reintegration measures. Since there are multiple potential indicators of success, continual reassessment becomes necessary. This reassessment should also account for the evolving nature of extremist threats and adjust the success criteria accordingly. 

The nature of evaluations can be either internal or external, depending on factors like the type of data in question and the prime focus of the evaluation. For instance, sensitive or classified data might need an internal evaluation. It is important that all stakeholders reach a mutual understanding regarding the goals, framework, and methodology of the evaluation. This can guarantee stakeholders’ commitment to the evaluation process, leading to more reliable results. 

Evaluating the rehabilitation and reintegration program from its start can substantially increase its chances of success. Evaluations can, for instance, be done periodically, ensuring that every new evaluation builds on the insights and findings of the last. Such approach implies that projects should be given time to implement recommendations from the previous evaluation. 

Once validated, strategies could then also be applied in various contexts, potentially benefiting authorities and civil society institutions dealing with wider societal issues. For instance, the methodologies used for returnees could be adapted for use with other radicalised groups or individuals at risk of radicalisation. Likewise, good practices identified in the management of returnees could inform policies and practices related to social reintegration in other contexts, such as prison rehabilitation or community re-entry programs for ex-offenders. 

While celebrating the successes, it is equally important to discuss the challenges, extract lessons from setbacks and understand the limitations of different strategies. Making these evaluations publicly accessible can be a strategic move, granting others the chance to gain insights and learn from the shared experiences.