On the 11th of May, the first PREPARE workshop took place in The Hague, gathering insights from professionals from across Europe with expertise related to interactions with children who grow up in violent extremist families. Both unique and prominent risk and protective factors for the well-being of children returning from Syria or Iraq were a central topic of conversation. Amongst others, the importance of education, family and socialisation into new environments were highlighted.
Experts from Kosovo – one of the most active countries in Europe with regard to repatriating women and minors affiliated with ISIS – discussed how an inclusive, attentive educational system is an essential protective factor, as many children who had travelled to Iraq and Syria were limited from accessing education. According to the Kosovan experts, education should ensure:
- Engagement between social workers and teachers (who are in direct contact with child returnees).
- Increased hours of mandatory attendance in school and monitoring in case of absence.
- A high number of supervised extracurricular activities.
When it comes to protective factors, it is also important to recognise the importance of family. Child psychologists at the workshop pointed out that children are very dependent on their parents. They addressed Bowlby’s attachment theory – a psychological theory that investigates relationships between humans. This theory highlights the importance of a healthy relationship with at least one primary caregiver for the development of a secure attachment style. In child returnees, three types of attachment can be identified: secure, ambivalent, or insecure. A secure attachment is key to developing effective “working models”, inner guidance systems for future adult behaviour. These influence how children think about themselves and about other people once they become adults. An effective “working model” cannot be developed when maltreatment of any kind is present, and adverse early experiences with parents can contribute to an insecure attachment style. This can lead to low self-esteem and self-worth, feelings which may contribute to exclusion from society. For this reason, removing children from a damaging home and placing them in a nurturing environment will most likely benefit them. This is especially the case when the child is still at a young age. Indeed, age was highlighted as a protective factor, as children below seven are particularly resilient and can still develop effective “working models” if placed in a loving family.
On the other hand, separation can also cause trauma, and states need to be cautious with separating children from their family members. Current legal frameworks in many countries tend to stipulate the imprisonment of returnees upon repatriation. In cases of return, children may already be traumatised, and while repatriation should be protective, potential separation can form an additional trauma. A legal expert present at the workshop gave the example of a court decision to remove a child from their family and was sent to a foster care placement on the other side of the country. The case had to be reopened because the child was suffering from mental health issues due to loneliness. The importance of a loving (albeit potentially equally dysfunctional) family environment and the benefits to the child raise important considerations around support for these children and families. For this reason, in Kosovo, women with suspended prison sentences, are monitored while at the same time kept with their children.
Socialisation into new environments
Experts emphasised the need of treating returning children individually rather than collectively and focusing on the unique factors relevant to each case. It was also highlighted that returning children staying together with other returnee children may fuel closed-minded attitudes and make them more vulnerable to negative influences from their peers. As a result, it is preferable to socialise them into different environments and engage returnee children with other communities. As one expert quoted: “This will make the children more open-minded and help them build new environments.”
In discussing these protective and risk factors, all practitioners agreed that efforts should always be directed towards the best interest of the child – to enhance resilience and to eradicate risk factors. As one of PREPARE’s aims is to identify unique vulnerabilities as well as protective factors children may develop in VE families, the unique insights on risk and protective factors that were shared are very valuable to the project. All information gathered will be addressed in the articles PREPARE is working on and will be taken into account in the development of PREPARE’s trainings and advice to inform frontline practitioners working directly with these children and their families.
Authors: Lia Venini & Sarah van de Meent (Leiden University)