New lives loom for evacuated orphans

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Prime Minister Erna Solberg has finally been able to counter months of criticism that her government wasn’t doing enough to rescue Norwegian children from a squalid IS refugee camp in Syria. Five orphans whose Norwegian mother is missing and presumed dead were flown to Oslo, after weeks of secret and highly risky preparations that culminated in their safe evacuation.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg could announce Monday night that five orphaned Norwegian children in a refugee camp for women attached to IS had been flown home to Norway. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

“These are especially vulnerable children because they’re alone, and therefore we have made them a priority,” Solberg said at a hastily arranged press conference that included her Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide. It wasn’t long after newspaper Aftenposten had reported their evacuation that Solberg could confirm the children were “safely on their way home to Norway.”

Three of the children, aged one to five, were born in Norway before being taken by their Norwegian mother to the Middle East, where their father was reportedly fighting for the IS terrorist organization. The two other children were born in Syria, reported Aftenposten, which also wrote Tuesday that their father was killed earlier this year. Their father was reportedly killed and their mother disappeared from the Al Hol refugee camp and is presumed dead.

Conflicts remain over IS women with children
The children were discovered by Aftenposten during a reporting trip in April, when the newspaper also found other Norwegian women in the camp where tens of thousands of IS widows and children are being held. Among them are two Somalian-Norwegian sisters who left their home in Bærum six years ago and traveled to Syria, allegedly to perform what they claim was “humanitarian work” during the civil war. They later had children with IS members who were killed and now want the Norwegian government to evacuate them as well.

Solberg’s government has not gone along with their demands for help, since they voluntarily became involved with IS and now face criminal charges for supporting a terrorist organization. Solberg is willing to evacuate their children, on the grounds they’re innocent victims of their parents’ actions, but the women don’t want to be separated from them. The children thus have become pawns of sorts in the adults’ political conflict.

Secret, risky negotiations
Norway’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, worked secretly for many weeks to arrange the five Norwegian orphans’ evacuation. After DNA testing confirmed the children’s identity as offspring of a Norwegian citizen, they were taken to the Kurdish-controlled portion of Northern Iraq on Monday. A government-chartered SAS flight was waiting to fly them and the Norwegian officials who arranged their release to Oslo, where they landed around 11pm Monday.

Their evacuation was arranged in cooperation with local authorities in war-torn northeastern Syria. Even though the foreign ministry had said the area was too dangerous for diplomats. a team of several clearly took on the risk and negotiated the children’s release. Terms of the negotiations were not released.

The five orphans who have now become the first “IS children” to be evacuated to Norway were undergoing medical examinations on Tuesday and will then be placed in the care of Norway’s child welfare agency Barnevernet. Solberg said that guardians had already been appointed for the children, and that they would receive “all the necessary support they need.”

“We don’t know all the ordeals they been subjected to, but they’ve been in extremely dangerous situations, also without their parents, with too little food and without medicine,” Solberg said. “They have experienced things children shouldn’t have to experience.”

Not responsible for their parents’ choices
She stressed that “the most important thing now is that these children receive care and are followed up in safe and secure surroundings.” The identities and whereabouts of the children were being kept confidential, with Solberg also stressing that the children “have a right to be protected, and I ask that be respected.” The children, the prime minister said, “must be allowed to form their own lives, without being judged for their parents’ choices.”

Foreign Minister Søreide and her colleagues led the operation to evacuate the children. “This has been demanding and complex work,” Søreide said, with “the security of the children” steering all their efforts. “That’s why it was necessary that the work on getting the children to safety couldn’t be made public,” she said.

Søreide added that she was “very glad” the children, who have all been issued Norwegian passports, were sent back to Norway.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund