European politicians, practitioners and civil society organisations continue to struggle with developing an adequate response to concern over young returnees from Islamic State. Since the start of the conflict, at least 5,000 individuals from Europe have travelled to Syria and Iraq, with significant proportions returning or looking to return following the collapse of Islamic State. According to a 2019 study by the Egmont Institute, between 400 and 500 European nationals remain in the area, along with around 700 children who either travelled with parents or were born in the region. The issue of a significant number of European minors, as well the fact that many individuals travelled to Islamic State under the age of 18, has led to questions over how to respond which veer between the language of security and that of safeguarding and child protection.
The language of child protection and safeguarding has become an established part of counterterrorism and counter-extremism policymaking and practice in recent years. Indeed, engagement with extremist online content and recruitment is increasingly framed by practitioners as akin to child abuse, gender-based violence or sexual grooming. In the UK, the counterterror ‘Prevent’ programme utilises safeguarding language to legitimise its controversial role in public sector bodies such as educational, judicial and health and social care institutions. Governments of several European states have increasingly come to frame extremism as the similar result of a series of ‘risk factors’ and ‘vulnerabilities’, and the European Commission is currently engaged in developing online responses to extremist content which draw directly from existing child sexual abuse safeguards.
Whilst the language of safeguarding has been used as a means of desecuritising discussions over extremism, it is both inconsistent in its application and inappropriate in its impact. This safeguarding lens acts to depoliticise engagement with groups such as Islamic State, casting extremism as a technical problem – with a technical solution – that obscures agency and complex processes of diengagement and disengagement with violence. The language of safeguarding has also been strategically ignored by European politicians in high profile instances. Governments have often avoided the repatriation of children and individuals who travelled to Syria and Iraq when under the age of 18, with 130 adults and 270-320 children of French nationality currently indefinitely detained in Syria, Iraq and Turkey, for instance.
The case of Shamima Begum is a notable instance of the problematic use of ‘safeguarding’. Her case sits well within the UK’s own legal and practical conceptualisation of counterterror safeguarding – an individual who has endured child grooming, forced marriage, sexual abuse and trafficking. Yet despite Home Office guidance recommendations that young returnees receive repatriation and community reintegration, the UK Government has deployed discourses of security to justify the use of stripping of Begum’s British citizenship. These contradictions, and the problematic blanket application of safeguarding approaches to counterterrorism policies, require urgent attention.
Initial funding for the CASIS project was provided by the European Union's Erasmus+ programme and managed by the Migration Policy Centre, European University Institute
The CIVICA Research Partnership supports CASIS as part of its 2022 call, with funding provided from EU Horizon 2020. It is managed by CIVICA partners European University Institute and London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).