Kyrgyzstan was the last Central Asian country to conduct a repatriation mission only in 2021. Should Kyrgyzstan follow its neighbours and upscale its repatriation efforts from conflict areas?
In March 2021 Kyrgyzstan repatriated 79 children from a displacement camp in Iraq. Considering that Kyrgyzstan organised a humanitarian mission to repatriate its citizens way over a year after its neighbouring countries and that, unlike them, it only repatriated children and only from Iraq, raises a number of questions regarding their long- term security strategy and its complementarity with the wider Central Asian region, which is still plagued by terrorist organizations and is in the shadow of the now Taliban- ruled Afghanistan. This analysis will aim to pose some viable and pertinent questions regarding the absence of further repatriation efforts by Kyrgyzstan and track how this could compromise its national security.
Kyrgyzstan in the wider Central Asian regional context
According to a study by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College in London- approximately 41 490 affiliates joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq from across the world and at least 6 000 of them came from Central Asia. The reasons behind people from different Central Asian countries joining the ranks of ISIS are varied, but can be defined as applicable to Central Asians across the region, regardless of which country they come from. For instance- people from all Central Asian countries go to work or study in Russia, Turkey or Egypt and experience similar socio- economic hurdles and discrimination. All Central Asian states have a predominantly Muslim population, but live in secular states, which could be viewed by some as limiting the free expression of their confession and lead to disillusionment and more susceptibility to online recruitment. As a result, some got radicalized by the sophisticated recruitment campaigns by ISIS and their online propaganda available also in local languages like Kazakh, Tajik, Uzbek and Russian. Overall estimates show that thousands of Central Asian citizens went to fight in Syria and Iraq for ISIS and the issue of what to do with the women and children that remained in prison in Iraq or special camps in northeast Syria largely remains unresolved. In January 2019, Kazakhstan was the first country in Central Asia to repatriate women and children from Syria and Iraq, followed by Tajikistan in April 2019, and Uzbekistan in October 2019. Turkmenistan does not acknowledge its citizens ever having joined the conflicts in Syria and Iraq so the official line is that there are no Turkmen citizens that need to be evacuated even despite reports of Turkmenistanis having been caught fighting for IS. Lastly, in March 2021- Kyrgyzstan followed the trend set by its neighbours and also conducted its first repatriation operation.
Ample accumulated regional experience?
Overall, more than 800 Kyrgyzstanis, including an estimated 150 women, went to Syria and Iraq in order to join extremist groups like the Islamic State during the conflicts in those countries. According to relatives of Kyrgyzstani women and children still in Syria- there are still several hundred women and children from Kyrgyzstan left in camps in Syria with no clarity whether Kyrgyzstan would repatriate them. Already in 2019 volunteers in Kyrgyzstan offered to pay for the return of 150 women and children from Syria and Iraq. According to Hamida Yakubova, the chairwoman of the NGO Protyani Ruku Pomoschi (Lend a Helping Hand), which is formed by the relatives of the women and children that are still in the Syrian camps: “Ninety percent of the women are victims of lies and manipulation by their husbands and fathers. They are not terrorists and do not pose any threat to society”. So far, on 16 March 2021 the Kyrgyzstani government only repatriated 79 children from a displacement camp in Iraq as part of a humanitarian mission dubbed «Meerim» (Grace). According to official data, out of 79 returned children 50 were of school age, 17 – of kindergarten age, and 12 – at the age of 2-3. All children had to undergo a two-month rehabilitation process with specialists before being handed over to their relatives in Kara-Balta, the Aravan and Karasu districts of Osh region, as well as Osh city.
Drawing a parallel with its neighbours, the Kyrgyzstani government did learn from its neighbour Uzbekistan to refrain from providing material support to the families in order to avoid public backlashes. In the case of Uzbekistan, the general public sentiments were against the state providing material support to repatrees, since it failed to provide adequate such support to other financially disadvantaged groups. Another lesson Kyrgyzstan probably learned from Tajikistan is to ask families for their prior agreement to host the repatriated children. In the case of Tajikistan the children ended up being placed in orphanages and boarding schools. The Foreign Ministry of Kyrgyzstan confirmed that the imprisoned mothers in Iraq gave their consent to the repatriation and their relatives in Kyrgyzstan have committed to taking care of the children. However, unlike the other Central Asian countries that also repatriated women, not only children and that also conducted repatriation operations from Syria, not just Iraq- there is still no clarity whether Kyrgyzstan plans to follow suit on both those issues.
A strikingly common denominator between the repatriation missions of all Central Asian countries is the heavy emphasis on repatriation being an act of mercy, which makes society view repatriation in a considerably more favourable light. Moreover, the international image of those countries also benefited from positive coverage and statements from the international community. For instance, Kazakhstan conducted five operations Zhusan and one operation Rusafa from Syria and Iraq respectively and has established a track record of executing such missions that proved tenable afterwards when Kazakhstan had to conduct humanitarian missions in relation to COVID-19. Another example is Uzbekistan and the international acclaim that it gained for conducting reintegration and rehabilitation by means of incorporating the distinct societal mahalla culture of the country. Tajikistan also followed up with a second repatriation mission, where women as well as children were brought back to Tajikistan even despite the 3 years that had passed between both missions. The Kyrgyzstani operation “Meerim” was conducted with the support of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) as well as the Red Crescent and Kyrgyzstan was also praised by the international community for also having completed a repatriation mission. In a statement following the operation, UNICEF Representative, Christine Jaulmes commended the commitment of the Kyrgyzstani government to fulfil its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child- treating them primarily as victims in need of protection and facilitating their reintegration with families. However- in comparison to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan still leaves a number of questions open. It is still not clear what stance the government will take regarding the repatriation of women from the conflict areas and whether the Kyrgyzstani government will give an answer to the relatives of the women and children that are still in the Syrian camps. Perhaps Kyrgyzstan aims to follow the model of Tajikistan and another mission would follow within the next few years, but there are no clear signs about that yet. This all feeds into the wider question whether Kyrgyzstan did the repatriation simply so as not to stand out as the only country in the region that acknowledges that its citizens joined ISIS, but did not conduct any repatriation operation.
The issue of repatriating women in particular
From an academic point of view, while most scholars focus on the issue of repatriating and successfully integrating children into society by providing them medical, social and mental health support, less attention is given to the women who went to Syria and Iraq. Although admittedly a new subject, the way repatriation has been depicted by researchers can be summarised by a call to prioritise the humanitarian efforts aimed at helping children, who are seen as victims and how their health and well- being could be ensured by specialists during the rehabilitation stage in order to achieve successful reintegration into society. In addition to that, the underlying reason why states like Kyrgyzstan prioritise children is also the security aspect- if the children are left in the camps they will further radicalize and seek revenge. Therefore, the international as well as domestic image together with the acute security concerns are sufficient to explain why Kyrgyzstan went ahead to repatriate children.
In regards to women, interestingly, a pervasive perception in Central Asia in particular is that women generally followed their husbands in line with Muslim traditions and had supportive roles while being in Syria and Iraq. This perception, together with demonstrations in Kyrgyzstan by relatives of women held in Syrian camps illustrates the public pressure society puts on the government to act. Some scholars claim that Kyrgyzstan did not repatriate women, because adults who left to fight for ISIS were stripped of their citizenship. The act of stripping these women of their citizenship de facto transfers responsibility to the state where they are held or relocated- Iraq or Syria. However, in an interview for CABAR Asia, Kuttubek Abdullaev, head of Osh City Office for Social Development, explained that the fathers of many returned children were killed in combat areas, the mothers either died or are still in prisons of Iraq, because Bagdad refused to allow repatriation for them and children above 18. Therefore, it appears that it is not citizenship, but political will that is the issue at hand. Moreover, it’s important to note that when ISIS was retreating from its occupied territories- women preferred to hand themselves over to the Kurds in Syria, because for those who were caught in Iraq and were found to have collaborated with ISIS- either a 25 year prison sentence or the death penalty were the only options. Hence- without any legal agreement in place between Iraq and Kyrgyzstan on the exchange of convicted prisoners- there is little that could be done for the women there without active diplomatic efforts. Nonetheless- the experience from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan shows that this is not the case regarding women being held in Syria. In April 2019 Tajikistan repatriated only children from Iraqi prisons, but three years later- on July 25 2022, it repatriated 146 of its citizens from Syria, including 42 women and 104 children, who were stranded in the al-Hol and Roj refugee camps. This leaves hope that perhaps Kyrgyzstan would continue to follow the example of its neighbours in conducting multiple operations and repatriating women, not only children.
Unaddressed risks of incubating the next Islamic State generation
Already in the autumn of 2019, Turkish media reported to have captured 959 foreign fighters from ISIS who tried to escape and placed them in special centres. Among those captured there were 82 citizens of Uzbekistan, 23 of Kyrgyzstan, 21 of Tajikistan, 6 of Turkmenistan and 10 of Kazakhstan. All those who tried to escape were aiming to hide themselves in third countries, which then also allowed them the option to try to return to their home countries in Central Asia later on. Since the ISIS spokesman Abu Omar al-Muhajir made an audio statement threatening attacks on al-Hol on 17 April 2022, ISIS has reportedly conducted at least 20 attacks in eastern Syria. With the war in Ukraine getting most of the international community’s attention, ISIS is likely to further exploit the geopolitical vacuum to their advantage.
Central Asians did not get involved and radicalized at such a scale in previous conflicts in the Caucasus and Afghanistan compared to their joining ISIS in Syria. Many women chose to join the ranks of ISIS on their own accord and actively recruited other women too. In fact, female suicide terrorism is no longer an isolated occurrence and is being instrumentalized by terrorist organizations. Research shows that even conservative organizations like Al- Qaeda are adapting their propaganda efforts and trying to incorporate women as active combatants under the pretence of “women empowerment”. However, regardless of whether those women are still radical in their views or not, repatriating them would bring first- hand knowledge of how the recruitment and radicalization takes place as well as what awaits those who are left behind in the camps. Therefore, repatriating these women and bringing them to Kyrgyzstan could serve to dissuade others from following that path, which would inevitably have a positive impact on the volatile political backdrop in the country and its national security.
It is yet to be studied how much Central Asians who joined the ranks of ISIS kept following the socio- political situation in their home countries in Central Asia and whether they had any aspirations to one day have an impact on the civil state structure of their country. However, the women as well as the children in the camps in Syria have been exposed to violence and inhumane conditions in the camps, making them an easy prey for radicalization and if not before, perhaps this time voluntarily seeking to be recruited to seek vengeance from their home countries for abandoning them. The same applies to the children- some could have had previous combatant training and are currently growing up in the camps in harsh conditions and no access to health care or education only paves the way for their easier radicalization.
Not repatriating women and more children from Kyrgyzstan poses the risk of those people radicalizing in the camps. Syria has a volatine politico- military situation, which could change at any point and the women and children could be “saved” from the camps and fall prey to other radical groups or terrorist organizations. It should be acknowledged that the risk of them joining the ranks of another terrorist organization is a threat not isolated only to Syria and Iraq, but also to Kyrgyzstan, where they may seek revenge for having been left in the camps. On the contrary- if the state would indeed repatriate them, this could decrease their potential aspirations to change the secular status of the state as well as their propensity to radicalize or seek revenge from the state.
Although seemingly a humanitarian effort, repatriation of women as well as children from Syria and Iraq has a longer- term role in ensuring national security. For a full mitigation of the risk those women and children may pose on their home states in the future, repatriation has to be followed by reintegration and rehabilitation efforts. Nonetheless, given the dire state of the camps, the volatile politico- military situation in Syria and the organised attacks on the camps by ISIS- the first step of repatriation is indeed crucial to prevent the next generation of ISIS from emerging out of camps like al-Hol. With all Central Asian states apart from Turkmenistan having conducted repatriation missions and having dealt with the subsequent rehabilitation and reintegration processes- there is ample accumulated knowledge and experience for Kyrgyzstan to tap into in order to make better informed decisions and a comprehensive plan to follow so as to further tackle the issue of its citizens that still remain in Syria and Iraq. Whether Kyrgyzstan will follow the example of its neighbours and address the underlying security challenges that stranded children as well as women in the camps in Iraq, but also Syria pose remains to be seen.
on photo «Women look after children at Al-Hol camp. (Photo credit: AFP)»
 Operation “Zhusan”- Who and why was returned from Syria? by Erlan Karin, Print House Gerona, Almaty 2020
 Operation “Zhusan”- Who and why was returned from Syria? by Erlan Karin, Print House Gerona, Almaty 2020