PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad--ISIS, the al-Qaeda offshoot that used to control large parts of Iraq and Syria using brutal, oppressive and violent tactics, lost control of these territories in January 2019. Since then, the families of many foreign ISIS militants have been left stateless.
Approximately 130 citizens from Trinidad and Tobago joined ISIS abroad — the highest per capita source for recruits for the militant group in the Western hemisphere, catapulting the twin-island state into a debate over the repatriation of the dependents of ISIS recruits.
The exodus of fighters from the country has declined since Syrian and American forces declared defeat over ISIS. Many of the militants, mostly men, have been arrested or killed, leaving behind wives and children. Their abandoned families now seek shelter and food in detention camps in Syria, most notably the al-Hol refugee camp in northeast Syria.
When Trinidad and Tobago’s parliament met earlier this month, Senator Wade Mark asked whether or not the government plans to facilitate the return of the families of foreign nationals who joined ISIS. National Security Minister Stuart Young replied that he had not yet received confirmation as to whether or not there were Trinidad and Tobago nationals at the camp.
The group Concerned Muslims of Trinidad & Tobago (CMTT), which maintains there are at least 40 children and 16 women at the al-Hol camp with ties to Trinidad and Tobago, has asked the government to assist in the return of these nationals. However, Minister Young has made it clear that the country must go through security protocols before making any decisions on their return:
This al-Hol refugee camp houses persons who fled from ISIS war zones, and the first thing the government has to do is a verification exercise. The government has policies and procedures which have been implemented including the use of Team Nightingale, which is a multi-agency task force comprising the Children’s Authority, Counter Trafficking Unit, counter-terrorism units, TTPS, TT Defence Force, Immigration, persons from Ministry of National Security and other agencies [and] our intelligence services.
Young could not say how long the process would take, but some members of the local Muslim community have voiced their concerns about the women and children, who are reportedly living in uninhabitable conditions at the camp. Describing the situation as a humanitarian crisis, Trinidadian Imam Sheraz Ali recently made a TV appearance in which he said that many of the women and children who went to Syria did so against their will.
Only a few official reports indicate Trinidadian women and children in the camp — actual numbers are not known. Some members of the local Muslim community have kept up their appeals. Until official numbers can be determined and strategies put into place, the futures of any Trinbagonian women and children will remain in limbo.