PARIS — In a desperate appeal to France’s government, some 10 Frenchwomen who joined the Islamic State and are now being held in detention camps in Syria began a hunger strike on Saturday, protesting the government’s refusal to bring them home for trial.
The women are among dozens of French mothers and their 200 or so children who have been detained by Kurdish forces for at least two years in squalid camps, and are in a state of legal limbo.
“We decided to stop feeding ourselves, regardless of the risks, until we meet the right people to get answers about our future,” one of the women said in a voice message obtained by The New York Times.
Two French lawyers representing the women confirmed the hunger strike in a statement released on Sunday evening.
Since at least 2019, when the Islamic State lost its final foothold in Syria, some 60,000 relatives of Islamic fighters, mostly women and children, have been stuck in fetid, disease-ridden detainment camps run by Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria, with no clear future in sight.
France, along with other Western nations that also have citizens detained there, has resisted calls from families and rights groups to repatriate its people, and it has brought back only a handful of children.
Repatriating citizens who had left to wage jihad has long been a sensitive issue in France, a country that is still reeling from years of Islamist terrorist attacks. But the hunger strike, along with recent initiatives from French lawmakers and citizens, may add pressure on the government to take action in the face of a situation that is worsening by the day.
United Nations human rights experts last week urged 57 states, including France, to repatriate women and children whose “continued detention, on unclear grounds” in the camps “is a matter of grave concern and undermines the progression of accountability, truth and justice.”
France has long argued that adults who joined the Islamic State, including women, should be tried where they committed their crimes: in Syria and Iraq. Several men have already been tried and sentenced in Iraqi courts.
But trying women has so far proved impossible since their potential crimes are unclear and because the Kurdish administration that is detaining them is not internationally recognized. Kurdish forces who run the camps have called for the repatriation of all foreigners, saying they cannot keep them indefinitely in an unstable region.
The women holding the hunger strike say they want to be tried in France.
“We are there, waiting, in tents, in the cold, in the winter,” one hunger striker said in a voice message.
She said: “We want to pay our debt to society for the choice we made to come here. But it’s time for this nightmare to end and for us to go home.”
The New York Times obtained several voice messages from the women but is not publishing their names because they have received death threats from Islamic State supporters who oppose their desire to return to France.
Countries like Russia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have each repatriated more than 100 of their citizens, many more than Western nations where public opinion is firmly against bringing home those who left to fight with Islamic State.
Rights groups have pressed the governments to at least bring home their citizens’ children, arguing that the minors did not choose to go to Syria and that having them raised in camps that have become cauldrons of Islamist radicalization would only aggravate the situation.
But France has agreed to repatriate children only on a case-by-case basis, giving priority to orphans and fragile children whose mothers agree to let them go. To date, 35 children have been brought back, including a 7-year-old girl suffering from a heart defect who was flown to France for urgent medical care in April.
In the current French political climate, repatriations might prove even more fraught. In the fall, the country was hit by several Islamist terrorist attacks that reopened old wounds. A draft law aimed at combating Islamism is expected to get final approval in the French Senate next month.
Families of relatives stranded in Syrian camps and rights groups have long denounced this piecemeal repatriation process. In northern France, the mother of a Frenchwoman detained in Syria has been on hunger strike since Feb. 1 to protest France’s policy.
In a public letter, a French lawmaker recently condemned the conditions of the camps and the government’s reluctance to act, which he called “deeply inhuman and irresponsible political cowardice.”
“If, because of our inertia, we continue to condone the guilty silence of the government,” the letter read, “then we will have been the lawmakers who let innocent children die.”
A spokeswoman for the French Foreign Ministry, which oversees the repatriation process, could not be immediately reached for comment.
Marie Dosé and Ludovic Rivière, the lawyers for the women on hunger strike, said in a statement that the women should be only tried in France, and that “for more than two years,” they “have been waiting to pay for what they have done.”
In one of the voice messages, a woman said that they needed “a helping hand from our country now.”
A trial in France, she said, would be “a second chance.”