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Finnish women in Syrian refugee camp in limbo awaiting return home

Just one of six women interviewed said she would prefer life in a Sharia state rather than to return to Finland.

Al-Hol, Syyria
Occupants of the al-Hol camp include roughly 11,000 foreign women and children who previously lived in Isis-controlled territories. Image: Antti Kuronen / Yle

The Finnish government is still to decide on the fate of Finnish women and their children detained at a refugee camp in a Kurdish region in Syria.

A dozen or so Finnish women who followed their husbands as the men joined the ranks of extremist organisation Isis remain in the al-Hol camp in Syria. The women are mothers to a total of about 30 children.

Yle recently spoke with six of the adult women at the camp, some of whom were also interviewed on a previous occasion in May. One of the women, Minna, spoke out in favour of Isis, frequently referencing Allah and the Quran. All of the other women Yle contacted wanted to return to Finland. Yle spoke with the women directly as well as with some relatives.

Minna told Yle that Isis' declaration of a caliphate or Islamic state in summer 2014 was joyful news. "According to our faith we must obey the laws of our god, Sharia law. That we have a caliphate of Islamic state, that should of course be a joyful thing for all of us Muslims," she told Yle.

"I'd rather live in a Sharia state"

Yle asked Minna to comment on some of the violence committed by Isis in Syria and Iraq, including beheadings. She said the acts were consistent with Sharia law.

“It is according to Sharia law. If you have been convicted according to Sharia law, it is justified. If it is not according to Sharia law, it is not justified,” she declared.

In recent months, government officials in Finland have been pondering what should be done about the Finnish women and children at the al-Hol camp. Many have said in the national discourse that they are concerned about a possible security risk that the women would pose if they are brought to Finland. Otherwise, officials have pondered their options for getting children out of the harsh camp conditions.

Minna, who said that she has lived a long time in Isis-controlled areas, said she was aware of the ongoing discussion in Finland about the women.

"Of course the people will attack us," she remarked, adding that it is very difficult to live as a Muslim in Finland.

"I’d rather live in a Sharia state than in Finland," she continued.

Some of the women said they fear that Minna’s comments will ruin everyone's chances of returning home. Others pointed out that speaking out against Isis in the camp could be risky.

Kurdish fighters operating the al-Hol camp have interned roughly 11,000 foreign women and children who previously lived in Isis-controlled territories. The majority of them – as many as two-thirds – are minors.

Risk of radicalisation

According to Major General Alex Grynkewich of the US-led military coalition fighting against Isis, there is a risk that the women at the camp could become radicalised. He was speaking in an interview with the UK news service the Independent. Grynkewich told the paper that he sees this as the biggest long-term risk in the fight against Isis.

In addition, a report by the US defence department speculated that Isis would likely try to recruit new members at al-Hol, while the US government has called in European countries to repatriate their citizens from the camp.

Kurds in the area said they agree with these assessments.

"Al-Hol is a time bomb. We don’t have the resources to protect and de-radicalise occupants. There are many security threats in our area that we have to prepare for. Turkey is threatening to attack and Isis has begun bombing strikes," said Kino Gabriel, a spokesperson for Kurdish-led SDF forces.

Growing frustration, suspicion

The camp has modest kiosks where occupants can buy preserved food, water and snacks like biscuits. Large red water tanks hold water for drinking and washing. Outwardly, the facility had not changed much since Yle visited in May, but the atmosphere was different in August.

In May many of the women Yle met said that they believed they would be taken out of the camp. However that confidence has now faded and has been replaced with frustration and suspicion of the authorities.

Like the previous administration, the Antti Rinne government has not yet decided what to do about the Finnish citizens in the Kurd-controlled camp in Syria.

In July Rinne met with relatives of women and children at the camp and said that government "is working hard to find a solution." So far none of the women or children have been relocated to Finland.

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