Prime Minister Erna Solberg faces yet another thorny political dilemma involving Norwegian women who joined the brutal Islamic State (IS) terror group, had children with IS terrorists and now languish in squalid refugee camps in Syria and Iraq. Solberg’s own government is split over whether Norwegian taxpayers should bring both the women and their children home, and a new public opinion poll shows Norwegians split on the issue as well.
The poll, conduted by research firm Norstat for Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) shows that 39 percent of Norwegians questioned want to bring both the children and their mothers home to Norway. Another 30 percent only want to bring the children home, and leave their mothers in the camps, while 17 percent think it’s best to “let both the mothers and their children remain in Syria.” Fully 14 percent answered that they simply didn’t know what’s the right thing to do.
It boils down to nearly 70 percent believing that the children should be freed from the camps and flown to Norway at public expense. They’re not responsible for the deeds of their parents, it’s argued, and many Norwegians don’t want to repeat the poor treatment accorded to the children of women who had romantic relationships with occupying Nazi German soldiers during World War II. Both those children and their mothers were widely scorned and harassed after the war, and Solberg felt compelled to offer an official apology to them last year.
Now there are fears the IS children already have been indoctrinated into the terror organization’s extremist ideology. Many have witness beheadings, torture and other atrocities, and are likely traumatized by war and now being on the run. Some of their mothers who’ve been interviewed by Norwegian media recently claim they have no regrets and still adhere to IS extremism, raising fears they may pose a threat to national security. Others want to come home, serve their likely prison terms (all would be subject to arrest upon re-entry to Norway because of their support for a terrorist organization) and resume life in Norway.
Jens Frølich Holte, a state secretary in the Foreign Ministry, repeated claims this week that the government is “working intensely” to find “a solution” for the IS women and children. Their numbers remain unclear, but police intelligence service PST estimates there are around 40 children who had either a Norwegian IS father or mother in Syria. Around 18 have been accounted for through media reports, and most if not all are believed to currently be held in the al-Hol refugee camp in northwest Syria.
Solberg, leader of Norway’s Conservative Party, said last month that she’d be willing to bring the children back to Norway, with the orphans to be freed from the camps first. Her government colleagues in the Progress Party have also gone along with rescuing the children without parents, while their other colleagues in the Christian Democrats party are actively advocating bringing the children to their extended families in the country.
Solberg is not keen on bringing back their mothers, however, and Progress is firmly opposed, meaning the children would thus be separated from their mothers. That’s drawn strong objections from the Christian Democrats, whose decision to join Solberg’s government in January finally gave Solberg the majority she’s long needed in Parliament. It’s thus important for her to listen and come to terms with the small but still powerful party.
“Children have never chosen their parents,” argues the Christian Democrats’ deputy leader Olaug Bollestad, who also serves as agriculture minister in Solberg’s cabinet. “Sometimes their parents make very stupid choices, but that shouldn’t hurt the children.” Her party thus wants to bring both the children and their parents home.
Norway’s ombud for children also claims it would violate international conventions if the Norwegian state separated children from their parents. There was outcry in Norway when US President Donald Trump did that at the border to Mexico, and the practice was eventually halted.
‘Hugely difficult situation’
All of Norway’s political parties have taken up the issue during their recent annual national meetings, and the Christian Democrats could once again give the opposition a majority. Meanwhile, Solberg’s Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide is grappling with the issue as well, in cooperation with other European countries facing the same problem and on a far greater scale.
“This is a hugely difficult situation,” Solberg has said, and Søreide says the same. In a recent address to Parliament, she described the issue as “challenging and complex” along with difficult to grasp in terms of the extent of Norwegians involved. The children’s identities must be confirmed, along with whether they actually are orphans.
“We can’t risk bringing out children who are not Norwegian citizens,” Søreide said, “nor can we risk situations where we take out children who still have parents somewhere. We have no legal right to do that.” All Norwegians involved have a right to consular assistance abroad, but the practicalities of providing it are risky as well. Lengthy DNA testing would be involved and birth certificates must be provided for all the children, and they may not even exist.
Norwegian officials must also negotiate with officials in Syria and Iraq, who have indicated willingness but also are likely to make various demands. It remains unclear how children would be located, tested and approved for repatriation to Norway.
Trauma and division
Some have claimed that the issue of IS children and their mothers has received attention out of proportion to the actual number of people involved. Humanitarian organizations strongly disagree, as do politicians like the Christian Democrats’ Bollestad. Others stress that bringing the children home will be just the beginning of years of special needs and therapy given the trauma they’ve faced. Some children as young as four were used by IS to detonate car bombs, and decapitate IS prisoners.
Solberg has so far acknowledged a moral responsibility to care for IS children. As she struggles to find a way how to do so, the Progress Party voted at its annual meeting last weekend to only help orphaned children in cases where their DNA can document that they’re Norwegian. Under no circumstances, the party voted, shall Norwegian authorities help IS warriors or IS women home to Norway, and no one with IS connections can be allowed to bring other family members to Norway.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Monday that the government’s fourth coalition member, the Liberals, agrees with all that, also that IS warriors or women will be prosecuted if they make it back to Norway on their own. Even the Christian Democrats agree with those measures, with the important exception that IS children must not be separated from their mothers.
“We can’t hide the fact we disagree here,” confirmed Hans Fredrik Grøvan, who leads the Christian Democrats’ delegation in Parliament, to Aftenposten. Therein lies Solberg’s biggest challenge.