U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York, New York
January 29, 2021
Thank you, Mr. Chair. Thank you so much. And thank you to SRSG Gamba, as well, and Under-Secretary-General Voronkov, for your remarks today. This is such an important issue, and we’re really glad to be focusing on it today.
Ambassador Ilyassov, thank you in particular for sharing your country’s experiences with us during your briefing: we applaud the efforts made by Kazakhstan to repatriate, rehabilitate, and reintegrate more than 600 foreign terrorist fighters and their associated family members from Syria and Iraq. We especially commend your focus on meeting the needs of returned children, including psychosocial recovery, and efforts to prevent their stigmatization.
The current situation we face – with more than 8,000 children of foreign terrorist fighters residing in camps in Syria and Iraq – is not tenable. The international community can and we must do more. We cannot continue to let these children languish in overcrowded environments where they suffer from inadequate shelter, food, sanitation, educational opportunities, and health care.
We acknowledge that this is a complex humanitarian and security issue made even more urgent by the COVID-19 pandemic; we also understand that repatriation efforts must be handled with sensitivity and with each child’s best interest as the paramount consideration.
To address these challenges, states must first take responsibility for their citizens who engage in and support terrorism, including by repatriating, prosecuting, rehabilitating, and reintegrating their nationals who have traveled to conflict zones, as is appropriate.
States must also repatriate their most vulnerable citizens – children – from these conflict zones. The United States, for our part, has repatriated 28 Americans, including 16 children, from Syria and Iraq. Repatriation is not only the best security solution to prevent these fighters from returning to the battlefield – it’s also the right thing to do morally to prevent an already dire humanitarian condition from deteriorating further.
I’d like to take a quick moment just to stress a few key principles that must shape any efforts to repatriate children from conflict zones. First, we remind states that we must treat children formerly associated with ISIS primarily as victims.
Second, it is of the utmost importance that any effort to repatriate foreign terrorist fighters and their family members are undertaken in compliance with states’ obligations under international law – including international humanitarian law – as applicable, and that states respect the principle of non-refoulement.
Third, every child has the right to acquire a nationality, and states should seek to prevent their nationals and the children of their nationals from being deemed as stateless. Children moved to or born in conflict zones should be provided immediate adjudication of their citizenship status and provided all of the appropriate civil documentation necessary for their travel and access to healthcare, education, and other basic services.
Without this needed documentation, as we all know, children can become invisible to responders and be excluded from receiving family tracing and reunification services, child protection assistance, or the ability to participate in civil registration and vital statistics systems.
Along these lines, Mr. Chair, the Biden-Harris Administration believes that children should not be separated from their parents or caregivers whenever possible. If family preservation or reunification cannot support the safety and well-being of a child, other family care options that are in the best interest of the child should be made available. And finally, we must recognize that children are not a monolithic group, and that our rehabilitation and reintegration programs must account for different needs and capacities based on gender, age, and other factors.
As today’s briefers have mentioned, the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters has not ended with the territorial defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. We see foreign terrorist fighters travelling with their families to join ISIS affiliates around the world, including in the Sahel and in the Horn of Africa. But there is hope, as demonstrated by the decisions of Kazakhstan, North Macedonia, the Maldives, Kosovo, Italy, Bosnia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, France, Finland, Germany, Ukraine, and others who have repatriated their citizens. Where there is the political will, we can overcome even the most difficult challenges together.
To conclude, Mr. Chair, the United States will continue to invest in preventive and responsive programming to protect children who have not yet been repatriated from conflict zones from violence and abuse. The United States sees the work of SRSG Gamba’s office, the UN monitoring and reporting mechanism on children and armed conflict, and UNICEF as critical in this regard, and we welcome the SRSG’s ongoing engagement in Syria. As UNICEF’s largest donor, the United States calls on other states to join our partnership with UNICEF and other multilateral organizations by increasing your contributions so we can better leverage their expertise and capabilities in responding to the needs of children in conflict.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.