France shifts stance on returning extremists as US withdraws from Syria

French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner attends a ceremony at the Police Prefecture in Paris, France, December 20, 2018. (Reuters)
Updated 29 January 2019
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France shifts stance on returning extremists as US withdraws from Syria

  • Government policy until now has been to categorically refuse to take back fighters and their wives
  • Washington’s decision to withdraw from Syria quickly has left Paris fearing that French extremists will either disperse or fall into the hands of the Syrian government

PARIS: France is preparing for the return of dozens of French extremists held by Kurdish authorities in Syria after the United States announced the withdrawal of its forces, its interior minister said on Tuesday, marking a shift in Paris’ policy on the issue.
France, like other European nations, has been wrestling with how to handle suspected militants and their families seeking to return from combat zones in Iraq and Syria, as well as those in detention, after Daesh lost huge swathes of territory.
Government policy until now has been to categorically refuse to take back fighters and their wives. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has categorized them as “enemies” of the nation who should face justice either in Syria or Iraq.
“The Americans are disengaging from Syria and there are people who are in prison and held because the Americans are there and they will be released. They will want to come back to France,” Christophe Castaner told BFM TV.
“I want all those who return to France to be put immediately into the hands of justice,” he added, responding to an unsourced report by BFM that 130 French extremists wil be released in the coming weeks.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which have been backed by 2,000 US troops and air support from nations including France, are holding about 150 French citizens in north-eastern Syria, including 50 adults, according to military and diplomatic sources.
Excluding families, officials estimate 250 French extremists are still fighting in Syria, including 150 in the Hajjin area, one of the final bits of territory held by Daesh in eastern Syria, and 100 in Idlib province.
French officials in private say that they will have no choice but to change policy on citizens who went as jihadists to fight in the Middle East. Paris is already trying to repatriate minors on a case-by-case basis.
Washington’s decision to withdraw from Syria quickly has left Paris fearing that French extremists will either disperse or fall into the hands of the Syrian government if the Kurdish-led forces strike a peace deal with the government in Damascus.
“Given the evolution of the military situation in north-east Syria, American decisions, and to ensure the safety of the French people, we are examining all options to avoid the escape and dispersion of these potentially dangerous people,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll told a daily briefing on Tuesday.
As well as the headache of how to deal with returning extremists, France is grappling with the threat of homegrown militancy after suffering a series of deadly militant attacks over the past three years.


‘Results’ needed from Myanmar over Rohingya return: UNHCR head

Updated 24 May 2019
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‘Results’ needed from Myanmar over Rohingya return: UNHCR head

  • A UN fact-finding mission called for Myanmar’s top generals to be prosecuted for “genocide”
  • Myanmar pejoratively labels the Rohingya as “Bengali,” implying they are illegal interlopers

YANGON: Myanmar must “show results” to convince Rohingya refugees to return, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said Friday at the end of his first visit to Myanmar since the crackdown against Rohingya Muslims in 2017.
A brutal military campaign in western Rakhine state forced some 740,000 Rohingya over the border into Bangladesh.
Around one million Rohingya now languish in sprawling refugee camps from various waves of persecution.
A UN fact-finding mission called for Myanmar’s top generals to be prosecuted for “genocide” and the International Criminal Court (ICC) has started preliminary investigations.
During his visit Grandi spoke with both Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine Buddhist communities in Maungdaw and Buthidaung in northern Rakhine, the epicenter of the violence.
He also held discussions with officials in capital Naypyidaw, including civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, describing all talks as “constructive.”
“My message is: ‘please accelerate’, because it has been very slow in the implementation in this first year. We need to show results,” he told AFP in an interview in Yangon.
“This is not enough to convince people to come back,” he said.
Grandi visited the camps in Bangladesh in April.
The two countries have signed a repatriation agreement but so far virtually no refugees have returned, fearing for their safety and unconvinced they will be granted citizenship.
Myanmar pejoratively labels the Rohingya as “Bengali,” implying they are illegal interlopers and the community has had its rights eroded over decades.
Gaining independent access to northern Rakhine is difficult with most journalists, observers and diplomats only allowed on brief chaperoned visits.
Grandi defended the UNHCR’s involvement in a plan by the Bangladeshi government to move some 100,000 refugees onto low-lying island Bhashan Char.
The area in the Bay of Bengal is prone to flooding and cyclones.
Rights groups oppose the scheme that has also so far been universally rejected by the Rohingya themselves.
The refugee agency must be “involved” to have the necessary information in order to take a stance on the issue, Grandi said.
“We’re still at that stage, no more than that.”
He also visited camps near Rakhine’s capital Sittwe, where nearly 130,000 Rohingya have been confined since a previous bout of violence in 2012.
Myanmar has announced it will close the camps but many are skeptical the displaced will enjoy more freedoms.
Grandi said the UNHCR would reconsider its role in providing services if conditions did not substantially improve.
“To simply transform the camps, upgrade the camps, upgrade the houses, for example, but leave them in the same situation will not be a solution,” he said.